Friday, May 21, 1999

Carrying on a mother's love

A daughter takes her mom's foster children, raising them as her own

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        If love alone can fix life's potholes, then Freda Strader's foster children surely have a smooth road ahead.

        The four children, ages 7-11, knew so little about love before 1995, when they came to live with the College Hill woman called Fre-Fre. They came from a house where there was not enough food, let alone enough love.

        So Freda Strader “Fre-Fre,” their new foster mother, gave them love. She became the mother who fed them. She was the mother who took them swimming. She taught them life's lessons, ranging from how to share to how to take out the garbage the right way — with a tight lid.

        Just when these children's lives seemed to be turning around, Fre-Fre died on Memorial Day last year.

        What would become of the children? Would they be separated? Who would love them now? Mercifully, the answers came quickly.

Jackie steps in
        Within days of Fre-Fre's death, Jackie Frye packed her belongings and moved from Fort Eustis, Va., to continue her mother's work. Jackie's husband, Rodney Frye, would join her later.

        “These were my mother's children,” she says. “They were part of our family. I could not see them going to another home and getting separated.”

        It's been almost a year since Jackie, 38, returned to the house where she grew up — a four-bedroom, two-story brick home in a quiet neighborhood. She lives there with her husband; 19-year-old daughter, Dashia; granddaughter, Ariel, almost 2; and the four children.

        A white Bible, flanked by two candles, sits on the coffee table in the living room.

        Photos of the children, Fre-Fre and other family members hang in the family room.

        Within these walls, the framework was laid years ago for what goes on today.

        It is this house where Jackie and her younger brother, Jeff, learned values — including hard work. Her father, Al, had his own business, J&J Construction, named after his children. Freda worked at the Hamilton County Courthouse and then did home day care until she got the children.

        The Straders taught their children the values of faith in God, honoring parents, telling the truth, being the best person you can be and loyalty to family.

        “We used to have a lot of fun times,” Jackie says. “I truly miss both of my parents. They were a great inspiration in my life. My mother and I were best of friends.”

        At the end of 1994, Al and Freda decided to become foster parents and underwent 72 hours of training. But Al died Feb. 3, 1995, at age 60 due to complications from brain tumor surgery. Freda continued the plans to become a foster parent.

        “Once Freda Strader makes up her mind, it's a done deal,” Jackie says.

Freda opener her arms
        Freda, 55, welcomed the children April 13, 1995. They were 3, 4, 5, 6 and 8. (The oldest, now 13, lived with Freda almost three years, but needed more structure. She now lives in a group home and still has contact with her siblings).

        “I met them over the phone,” Jackie says, “and fell in love with them.” A few days later, she met them in person. “They all got up and gave me a hug. From then, we were family. They are such sweet children. I love them dearly.”

        But these children have struggled in their young lives. Their birth mother had drug and alcohol problems, abused them and often left them unattended, social workers said. They were starved for attention and hungry. When they arrived at Fre-Fre's, they hoarded food and hid it under their beds.

        “They were severely neglected,” says Karyn Bellon, their social worker from Beech Acres. “Fre-Fre had to work with them not to stuff themselves at meal time and to get them to understand there would be a next meal. They ate so much, they'd vomit.”

        So Fre-Fre filled their empty stomachs and their empty lives. And, they loved her for it.

        “She had a deep faith in God,” Karyn says. “She believed this was a gift God gave her — to raise these kids. The kids were never considered foster children in this home. They are part of the family.”

        It was almost like Fre-Fre had a premonition about her death.

        Reunification with birth parents is the ultimate goal in foster care. In some cases, including this one, it's determined reunification is not possible.

        Fre-Fre could have adopted the children, but two months before she died, she decided against it. She worried who would care for the children if she died.

        The children were placed on an open adoption list. They worried they'd become separated. Who would want the whole package — four children?

        Then, as she did every Memorial Day weekend, Fre-Fre took a respite. She went to visit Jackie in Virginia and left the children with her sister. While visiting Jackie, she died unexpectedly at age 57 of internal bleeding.

A lot of uncertainty
        It was hard for the children to believe because when she left, she was just going on vacation.

        “That was just awful,” Karyn says. “Every day between the death and funeral they asked, "Do you know where we're going to go? Do you know what is going to happen?'”

        But fate came to the rescue.

        Jackie's husband, Rodney, had planned to retire in a year or two after more than 20 years in the U.S. Army, and they would return to Cincinnati. They were going to become foster parents, like Fre-Fre.

        Now, Fre-Fre's death accelerated those plans.

        Jackie quit her full-time assembly line job and came immediately to Cincinnati. Strings were pulled so she could be trained and become a licensed foster parent quickly. Separating the children now, Karyn knew, would be the last straw. “That would have killed the kids,” she says.

She raised them right
        Rodney followed in the fall and completed training. He loves the children, too, and has supported his wife in this life-changing endeavor. “I love her for it,” says Rodney, 40, who now works at Home Depot. “She jumped right on the boat as soon as it happened ... She's still grieving in her own way. You never get over the death of your mom. They talked just about every day of her life, no matter where she was.”

        Jackie and the children attended grief counseling through Catholic Social Services. They made memory books about Fre-Fre, released balloons and sang songs. They routinely visit Fre-Fre's grave.

        “We go down there and sit around,” Jackie says. “It's not really sad. We talk to her as though she could hear us. They used to speak like she was coming back. I had to sit them down and tell them, "Fre-Fre is not coming back.”'

        Jackie has tried to pick up where Fre-Fre left off.

        “My mother, when she raised them, she raised them right,” Jackie says. “I have an easy job.”

        She tries to instill the value of appreciating what they have. Taking pride in themselves, in where they live.

        They've had so many losses in their life, it would be tempting to give them everything, to salve their wounds with material things or let them get by with more than kids should.

        But the Fryes resist, knowing that structure and discipline are what they need. They limit gifts and the children appreciate what they receive.If the children misbehave, they are put in time-out.

Doiong chores
        They want the children to be dependent on no one but themselves, so Jackie is teaching them to cook. The children help wash and fold laundry. They mop floors. If they don't have homework, they have to read a book. The 11-year-old boy is Ariel's buddy, so he's started changing her diaper.

        The one thing the Fryes don't skimp on is affection.

        “Here, we show lots of love,” Jackie says. “We hug. We kiss.”

        The four children bound in from their school day, dressed neatly in khaki pants and polo shirts. They're smiling.

        Now, the three boys are 11, 10 and 8, and the girl is 7. They're in grades 2-5. Because they are foster children, permission was not granted to identify them in stories or photos.

        They hug and kiss Jackie. “How was school today?” she asks them. “Do you have homework?”

        The children talk about their day. This is part of their after-school routine, including a healthy snack, homework and cleaning their rooms. Then, Jackie checks their homework, and they can go outside to play or watch TV. Bedtime is 9 p.m.

        “Everybody wants to go to college,” Jackie says. “Everybody wants to be something.”

Their mother now
        The 10-year-old pipes up, “Is there a college around here where I can go so I don't have to move out?”

        He wants to be a police officer or firefighter. The oldest wants to be a doctor. The 8-year-old has his heart set on being a lawyer and judge. The girl wants to be a nurse.

        The children are polite and talk with visitors. The 10-year-old shares the memory book he made about Fre-Fre and her photo. “I love her,” he says unabashedly.

        Jackie is their mother now, and they love her, too. Sometimes, they call her “Mom,” but mostly “Jackie.” When asked what they like about living there, they're at no loss for words.

        “They take care of us, and they're nice and kind,” the 11-year-old says.

        The 10-year-old: “They give me a lot of love and a lot of clothes.” He swivels in the tan rocker, shrugs and says, “And I love them.”

        The 8-year-old: “The best thing about living here is she takes care of us. She feeds us. She gives us gifts. Every day seems like Christmas.”

        “Jackie always takes us somewhere,” the 7-year-old says. Then, she whispers, “Jackie always be nice to us. She always gives us chips and stuff.”

No decision on adoption
        Jackie and Rodney have talked about adopting the children, but no decision has been made.

        What would Fre-Fre say today? The 8-year-old answers:

        “I think she'd be saying, "Jackie, you've done a good job. I'm proud of you. I appreciate your taking care of my kids and not losing them for me.”

        Fre-Fre would be proud.


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