Sunday, July 20, 2003

Foster mom reassures kids, adults of good in the world


Paul Daugherty

Some people just can't help but help.

These chronic volunteers show up at the church supper to ladle spaghetti sauce and at the building site to pound nails. They sing in the choir and lead the food drive. A few days before Christmas, they're at the shelter, making sure everyone has a gift and every gift is wrapped. They are the vital, silent stitches in society's fabric.

They take in stray dogs. And kids. They take in stray kids.

Holleigh Long, 42, has had 11 kids since last August, none older than 3. They are abused kids, at once bright and sad, laughing and wondering, too young to question but not to cry. She is their foster mother, providing them a window of sanity and grace until the system determines where they should go.

Holleigh has had a 4-month-old boy come to her with a broken arm and a black eye and other fractures that went untreated. She has had a 14-month-old boy who, when he became frustrated, would pound his forehead on the floor.

She has taken in the babies of drug-addicted mothers. The babies were addicted, too. One had seizure-like symptoms, his body jerking violently.

Holleigh has a little girl now. The girl is psychologically damaged. Her parents swapped partners with another couple, then had sex in front of her.

Holleigh Long tries to remove the rough edges. She's their mother in all ways but biologically. "She has an instinct to help the helpless," says her mother, Elaine Bedwell.

Caring started early

She can't help but help.

She was feeding her baby dolls when she was 18 months old. She worked for free at the humane society, cleaning cages.

When Holleigh was 6, she brought home a kitten so new, it came with umbilical cord attached. She was up every two hours feeding the kitten. Six months later, she gave it away.

Did we mention she's a registered nurse? Sainthood can be a full-time job, but it doesn't keep the lights on. Holleigh works from 7 until 3:30 in the afternoon. She has been divorced nearly four years and has two kids still at home, ages 20 and 17.

"You find time for things that are important in your life," she says. "When I was going into this, there were 100 reasons I shouldn't have, and maybe only one reason I should. I listened to the one reason."

Sometimes, life is only as good as the goodness you put into it.

She wants no mention for this saving of little lives. "I just like having little kids in the house. I'm sure some are bad, but I haven't gotten a bad one yet," Holleigh says. "Me losing sleep is nothing, compared to what these kids have been through."

She has kept children for as little as a weekend, and as long as eight months. As long as it takes the system to locate potential happiness. You'd think there would be sadness at giving up these kids. There isn't.

"Children belong with their parents," Holleigh says, "if the parents are decent. You have to know your place."

She cried just once, when she gave up the first child she fostered. "Tears welled up and I had to run out of the house." But she still visits that child weekly. He's back with his parents, and thriving.

'We need more of us'

A secret to volunteering is, on some level, it's a selfish act. You do good for others to feel good about yourself. As Paul McCartney put it, "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make."

At church, we had a clothing drive for Holleigh Long's kids, Three grocery sacks of infant clothes spilled over onto the floor of the narthex at St. Paul United Methodist in Madeira, where Holleigh's parents, Don and Elaine Bedwell, are members. Elaine boxed everything up and shipped it to Holleigh, who lives near Atlanta.

It was a nice feel-good moment. But the shortage of foster parents is chronic. "We need more of us" is how Holleigh puts it.

I asked her if she thought she was remarkable. Not really, she said. "I think everybody needs to contribute something to the world."

Every so often, we need to know about the saints on earth. Just for the reassurance.

For information on becoming a foster parent, call the Hamilton County Job and Family Services department at 632-6366.


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