100 Kids and Counting
06/09/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
Kathy Harrison grew concerned when nobody answered the apartment door, so she kicked it open. She isn't a cop, just a foster mother who had agreed to take 9-month-old Karen to see her birth mother, who police say was in a "semi-lucid" state. Entering the apartment that day in 1994, she found drugs strewn over the coffee table, the mother lying semiconscious and another woman on the floor—dead from an overdose. Then she spotted the dead woman's toddler son, whimpering for his mother. Harrison scooped him up and fled. That night, as she rocked Karen to sleep at home, she whispered a promise: "You are safe," she said.
For the past 13 years Harrison and her husband, Bruce, have kept that promise to more than 100 children. Their Cummington, Mass., house has become home for three children they have adopted (including Karen, now 9) and a place of temporary shelter, emotional support and TLC for dozens more. "People ask, 'Why in God's name would you choose to surround yourself with people who most of us try to avoid?'" says Harrison, 50. Her answer: "I love what I do."
To explain why, the former preschool teacher has written a touching, sometimes painful memoir, Another Place at the Table. With the nation's foster-care system under scrutiny because of abuse and neglect, the book serves as a reminder of how two selfless souls can literally save kids' lives. "They care about kids and do what's best for them," says Susan Crane of the Massachusetts Department of Social Services, who has placed children in the Harrison home. "They put their heart and soul into the work."
Not to mention their energy. One 6-year-old in their care arrived with a police record for breaking and entering. Some children have been so traumatized by neglect and hunger that they hoard Cheerios boxes under their mattresses. Besides providing a home, Harrison tries to help children gain a sense of identity by encouraging them to keep journals of memories often accumulated in a hodgepodge of homes and shelters. "Even if they don't particularly like to write," says Harrison, "it gives structure to a life that might otherwise look pretty chaotic."
Her own early life helped plant the seeds of the nurturer. Growing up in Hinsdale, Mass., she watched her parents—a police officer and a schoolteacher—frequently offer shelter to unmarried pregnant girls who had been rejected by their own families. Though she dreamed of becoming a writer, she studied to be a medical assistant. She married Bruce in 1973 and had three sons—Bruce, now 27, Nate, 25, and Ben, 22—before settling in Cummington, where she began teaching at a preschool. There Harrison had an experience that would change her life. One day she asked a little boy, who happened to be a foster child, whether he owned a particular book. "The real kids have it," the boy replied, "but I'm only foster."
Harrison was stunned by the boy's sense of not belonging. That same year she became close to a pupil named Angelica, who had become too challenging and combative for her foster parents. Harrison had been asked to take in the then 5-year-old girl when a social worker informed her that Angelica's sister Neddy, then 8, had to come too. "We talked about it," Harrison recalls, "and went from 'Okay, can we do this?' to 'How can we not?'"
Angelica proved difficult. She stole, lied and fought with other children. The Harrisons answered the defiance with love. Bruce showed her how to use tools and built a deck with her. By 1993, when the Harrisons adopted Angelica and Neddy, Kathy had quit her job to focus full-time on fostering.
Not every placement has turned out well. One 5-year-old attempted to strangle the family cat and ended up in a psychiatric ward. "You can't beat yourself up about it for too long," says Bruce, 57. "We just say, 'What they needed, they couldn't get here.' " But plenty of kids have—and the Harrisons are ready for more. Says Kathy: "We're very lonely when we don't have kids around."
Anne Driscoll in Cummington