'An amazing gift': Foster parents leave legacy of love for more than 100 babies during 43 years
ST. CLOUD, Minn. — On a living room wall in Ron and Jane Brown's St. Cloud home, a decal bears witness to a sentiment the couple has been living out for more than four decades:
"Children deepen the heart of a home."
And on the side of a Little Free Library in front of their home are the words "Every child is a story yet to be told."
Ron and Jane would know.
Over 43 years, the couple has fostered more than 100 children ages 2 and younger. They retired from fostering at the end of June. Jane said it was purely age that pushed them to retire — they'd do it all over again.
Jane, 75, was an only child and said she wanted a big family. Ron, 78, was the second of seven children and wanted a smaller one. The couple began serving as foster parents for Catholic Charities when Jane saw an ad in the paper for infant foster care parents.
"They constantly needed people to foster," Ron said.
The couple was licensed to care for children up to age 2, and began fostering in August 1978. Catholic Charities has since discontinued its adoption and pregnancy services, and Ron and Jane moved to Lutheran Social Service.
'Foster child isn't your only title':How Simone Biles went from foster care to Olympic great
When they started, there was much more secrecy surrounding foster services and adoption, Jane said. This meant when children came into their care during the early years, Ron said, the child's name wasn't shared.
They called the first baby they cared for as foster parents Charlie (as in Charlie Brown). Then they worked their way through the alphabet, starting over with an A name when they ran out.
"We got pretty creative," Ron said.
And when babies left their care, she said, they never knew where they were going.
"It was hard not knowing what happened to them," Jane said.
She said more recent openness in the adoption and fostering process has helped them grieve those goodbyes.
Ron and Jane have four biological children, but health complications meant that each child was at successively higher risk during pregnancy. Jane said their biological children grieved, too, when a child they'd been fostering left. According to Ron, it helped their children to start thinking of names for the next child that would come into their home for care.
A more open adoption and foster care process also meant Jane and Ron could open their home to birth parents, who sometimes would spend hours at their house.
Dianne Delaney, an adoption social worker and pregnancy counselor for Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, said Ron and Jane would go to the hospital to meet new parents and help them feel comfortable, so they knew who their baby was going home with. And part of going "above and beyond" was opening their home for new parents to visit as often as they wanted.
"They would just welcome them and give them the space they needed to spend the time they wanted to with the child," Delaney said.
Delaney has worked with the Browns since about 1994, when she started working at Catholic Charities.
After she moved to Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, she continued to call on the Browns for bridge care, used when new parents are making decisions about whether to raise a child or make an adoption plan.
"They are just incredible people," Delaney said, "and they have really been quiet heroes for all of these years, providing the service in this community to new parents and to adoptive parents and to adoption agencies."
Delaney said foster parents are working with people during a very difficult time in their lives.
"Ron and Jane just have a way of helping them feel welcome and comfortable and supported, no matter what they decide," Delaney said.
Jane said they sometimes hosted blessing ceremonies with birth family gathered on one side of the room and the adoptive family on the other. It was difficult to watch someone say goodbye to their child on one side of the room, and others on the opposite side of the room become a family, she said.
"I would walk outside when it was done ... (and) I would look around (the neighborhood) and I would think, 'You people have no idea what just happened,'" Jane said. "You know? It's like, 'Wow. This really happened and we were here and we witnessed it.'"
Jane said she knew the foster children would experience grief, too, upon leaving. She wouldn't wash the baby's blanket just before the child left with it, so he or she could still smell them.
The couple always prepared a letter to be passed along with the child when they left, Jane said. They'd share the child's likes, their sleeping habits and more — "anything we knew about them," Jane said.
Ron and Jane also made an effort to take photos regularly. They'd send this photo album along, too.
"We wanted that child to know down the road that they were loved every single day of their life," Jane said.
'How many talents were lost?':Tennessee families of USS Indianapolis crew lost in WWII still mourning
'A huge act of love'
When a new mom is pregnant, "you've got nine months to shift," Jane said. The Browns had notably less time to prepare.
They went shopping for every child, she said, always providing blankets, clothes and a musical item.
The couple taught American Sign Language (ASL) to several of their foster children, Jane said, believing children could communicate with ASL sooner than they could speak.
"We spread that theory around a lot," Ron said.
He also read to every child they fostered, and Jane said many of the children they cared for now have a love of reading.
The pair also gives credit to their long-time pediatrician, Dr. Tom Schrup. Schrup currently works as chief physician for CentraCare, but once he began working with the couple, he cared for all the infants they were fostering until he stopped most of his clinical practice about five years ago.
Schrup said he doesn't remember his first time meeting Ron and Jane — but he remembers how they made him feel.
"I could see how seriously they took the responsibility, and how loving they were with each and every one" of their children, he said.
Because of privacy concerns, foster parents have little access to medical information about their foster child. When Schrup started practicing in St. Cloud in 1994, it was often challenging to get medical records. This meant basing care decisions on the information they had, and listening to the baby — which, Schrup said, Ron and Jane had already done.
"Babies of course can't talk verbally, but they tell us things all the time," Schrup said. "But you have to be listening and tuned in. And they were so tuned in."
As a pediatrician, Schrup said, he knows the value of every minute an infant, toddler or child spends connected with other humans. It has an impact on their entire life.
"Doing that for that many babies and over that many years is a huge act of love," he said. "And it's just absolutely astounding, and gives me faith in humanity and the goodness that's there, to care for all these innocent little ones who needed care of somebody who wasn't related to them by blood. It's an awe-inspiring thing to witness."
'An amazing gift'
Since they've been able to stay in touch with some of the children they cared for, they've received cards and attended weddings and graduations.
Jane said caring for these children taught the couple how lucky they are, and how fortunate they are to be in a situation where they could help in this way.
She said she sees that focus on helping others passed down to her biological children.
"If anything came out of this, it's our example passed on to our kids about what life is about," she said.
But Delaney and Schrup both said their example of love and caring for others has extended far beyond the Brown's immediate family.
"Although I was witness to it and many others were, I don't think that they'll ever fully understand what an amazing gift they've given to these babies and to the people they will become," Schrup said.
Nonprofit spotlight:Helen's Hope Chest creates program for aging foster care youth
Follow Sarah Kocher on Twitter: @SarahAKocher.