It started with a single word. In the autumn of 1997, Donna Martin, lonely and forlorn after the death of her mother, stepped out behind her home in Center, in the piney woods of East Texas, with a question. "I asked the Lord, 'Why do I feel so empty?' " says Martin, 38, whose husband, W.C., is a Baptist minister. "And there was this still voice that said, 'Foster.' "
That was enough to convince Martin, already caring for her son Prince, 18, and daughter LaDonna, 13, that the family should open its home to unwanted children. Her husband, busy with his day job at an insurance company and overseeing construction of a new church, didn't pay much attention at first. "It was something you hear, then you don't hear," says Reverend Martin, 53, pastor to Bennett Chapel Missionary Baptist Church's 50 families. "I said okay, and then I just kept going."
Donna, meanwhile, along with her divorced sister Diann Sparks, 40, enrolled in state-sponsored classes to prepare prospective foster parents for the rigors of taking in children, many of whom are troubled kids who have been abused in the past. Within months, Diann had adopted a foster son, Nino, now 7, and the Martins had welcomed Tyler, 4, and his sister Mercedes, 8. "We're going to save lives," says Reverend Martin, "as well as souls."
Spurred on by their pastor, the church's congregants and their relatives and friends followed suit, opening their arms and homes in a way the people at Texas's Children's Protective Services had never seen. "They don't view themselves as a blessing for the child," social worker Susan Ramsey says of the 17 families that have taken in 43 children—20 of whom have been adopted by the foster families. "They view the child as their blessing."
That's certainly the way the Martins look at foster-parenting. "It fills my life," says Donna, who grew up in nearby Possum Trot, one of 18 children of a log cutter and his wife. Not long after Donna, who married Reverend Martin in 1978, completed the foster-parenting class, a nurse at her doctor's office told her of two foster children who might be available for adoption. Soon afterward, Donna met Mercedes and Tyler, who came to the Martins in February 1998. "I felt in my heart that I needed to bring those babies in," says Donna, adding that her friends "saw the glow, and they wanted to adopt too."
The families knew what they were getting into: Eighty-five percent of children needing foster care have been sexually abused, according to Susan Ramsey, 49. "Most people want to adopt a perfect newborn," says Judy Bowman, 47, a supervisor of Texas's foster program. "The program is not for everyone." Yet when Ramsey, whose job is to find homes for the children, told Reverend Martin she would teach the required 10-week preparatory class at his church if 10 families would enroll, 22 families did.
One volunteer was Bertie Cartwright, 42, a single woman who lives with her mother, Beatrice, 66, in a mobile home next to those of her three sisters—all single mothers, with six of their own children among them. Though she always wanted kids, "I thought you had to be married to adopt," says Cartwright. But she signed up for the class—as did all three sisters—and last December she adopted three siblings: Marsha, 7, James, 4, and Ineza, 23 months. "I just hugged them and hugged them," she says of the children's arrival. "And they hugged me back." To be closer to home, Cartwright quit her job at a chicken-packing plant and now provides home care for the elderly. Up until a couple of years ago, Bertie was the one the sisters called to babysit. "Now I have to ask someone to watch my babies," she says with a grin.
Though the state gives adoptive families up to $475 a month per child and Medicaid covers health care, expenses add up. "The family supplies everything," says Judy Bowman. "Beds, car seats, clothing, food—everything." That has placed no small burden on the church's new parents, many of whom work 10-hour days as manual laborers in the logging industry, at the chicken plant or at a local hardwood-floor company. "I'm not going to say it's been easy, but we manage," says Diann Sparks, who raised daughter Shanta, 19, from a marriage that ended in divorce and is now bringing up little Nino. "When I go off to work [at the flooring plant]," she says, "I have something to come home to."
So does Fred Brown, 49, a trucker, and his wife, Johnnie, 45. Johnnie already had four sons and 11 grandchildren, but with the kids grown and gone, she says, "it got kind of lonesome here." When Reverend Martin started talking up the cause in church, Johnnie recalls, "we thought it would be wonderful if we could make a difference in one of these children's lives." Make that four children. In December she and Fred adopted 3-year-old triplets Tevin, Terrance and Tiayana and their sister Kiki, 2. They had arrived a year earlier, unruly toddlers in diapers. The Browns went to work with potty training, then discipline and manners. "Now," Johnnie says proudly, "they sit at the table and you can hear a pin drop."
Foster-parenting, of course, has its risks, and one of them is heartbreak. Since October, Ricky Cartwright, 36, and wife Dorothy, 41 (already parents of birth son La-Roderick, 15, and adopted daughter LaToya, 5), have been caring for a pair of brothers, ages 2 and 8 months. Even as they have fallen in love with the babies, they are aware that the children's mother may regain custody. "We know the situation," says Dorothy. "We've got a chance to lose them, but we have a chance to keep them."
The Cartwrights' willingness to take that risk is typical of the commitment the congregation has shown. "Not one of them has disappointed me," says social worker Ramsey, whose agency has already approved seven more would-be foster families. The Martins have already added another boy and girl—Joshua, 7, and Terri, 10—and are ready for more. "Every time I hear about these children," says Donna, "I want to save more."
Bob Stewart in East Texas
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