Bernie and Marvel Mayotte
Fostering love in their golden years
by Shelley Daily
A toddler is on the loose in Bernie and Marvel Mayotte's family room, weaving in and out among the toys and books that dot the floor, climbing up and down on couches, and pointing around the room. Bernie, age seventy-nine, and Marvel, seventy, watch her antics with delight. Licensed foster parents, they took in the eighteen-month-old shortly after her birth, and will keep her until she's adopted-which could be as soon as this summer.
The Mayottes, who've fostered about twenty children over the past ten years, also are caring for a teenage boy. The boy is fighting cancer and is currently hospitalized. A "Parent" badge is pinned to Bernie's shirt, and he's about to leave for a visit. "I'll sit with him," Bernie says. "Just so he knows he's not alone."
The couple never thought about foster parenting until one of their daughters was struggling and they took in their six-year-old granddaughter; she ended up living with them until she turned eighteen. So that the child could qualify for certain benefits, they completed classes and became certified through Michigan's Department of Human Services (DHS). About a decade ago, they began taking in other kids. "We saw the need," says Bernie, who's been retired from his residential contracting business for fifteen years. "I don't want to play golf. We want to do this."
But it hasn't always been easy. Their first foster child-a six-year-old girl-hit Marvel hard enough to leave bruises, and the girl barely slept because she'd never had a bedtime routine. Soon they relinquished her. "I cried and cried," Marvel says. "I felt like such a failure. But she had such deep-seated things she was dealing with. She needed an expert."
Because many kids in foster care come from dysfunctional backgrounds-addiction, abuse, neglect, abandonment-behaviors such as bedwetting, hoarding food, and sleeping problems aren't uncommon. "Many have never sat at a table for dinner-it all has to be learned from the ground level," says Marvel, recalling one
child who snatched a loaf of bread from the counter and ran off to eat it in hiding.
"We teach them the basic things. It's repetition, repetition, repetition," says Marvel. Bernie describes it as sharing "good people traits"-how to be polite, go out in public, and have a routine. "We have the time and can offer the consistency to do this," he says. Marvel attends the children's court hearings to better understand their family situations. Mostly, they see themselves as a "stepping-stone."
"We'd like to see families reunited and rehabilitated," says Bernie. If that's not possible, Marvel says, she's become "a great advocate" to make sure their foster kids are placed for adoption in a situation where they'll "excel, not just exist." Now they focus on taking in mostly babies-once they had two newborns-because Marvel says children have a much better chance at success if they receive the care they need at a young age.
The Mayottes have been married thirty-seven years-the second marriage for both. Together, they have eleven children, twenty-two grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. How they met, Marvel jokes, is "a very dirty story."
Bernie was excavating at his house on Ann Arbor's south side to make a larger basement. He was divorced and raising eight kids. "I had all this dirt, and someone said, 'Why are you hauling this away? There's a lady in the neighborhood who could use it for her yard.' So I offered it to her."
Recently divorced and raising two young daughters, Marvel wasn't looking for a husband. "I just wanted my freedom, but he wouldn't leave me alone!" What hooked her, she says, was his ability as a dancer. They combined families under Bernie's roof and had one child together, a son, who's now thirty-six.
"I guess I was out of my mind when I did it," Marvel says of raising eleven kids. "It was a big transition." She did the kitchen work, but the kids did their own laundry and slept in bunk beds in the four-bedroom house. Now grown, they live "coast to coast and north to south," Marvel says, with four still in the area.
By the time the couple reached retirement age, Bernie says, "it was too quiet" around the house, one reason they chose to do foster care. The Mayottes "are some of the most humble, giving, and unselfish people I know," says Gregory Pordon of DHS. Foster parents of young children are reimbursed about $17 a day by the state. "This is something you don't do for the money," Marvel says. "You do it for the love in your heart for kids."
Bernie gets up from the couch to warm a bottle for the toddler and put her in her playpen. "We're really going to miss her," Marvel says, though the couple who hope to adopt her are "going to let us be grandparents." The Mayottes keep in touch with several of their former foster kids-all of whom have been successfully adopted-going to birthday parties and exchanging Christmas cards.
The Mayottes say they plan to continue foster parenting as long as they're healthy and mobile. As kids move to new homes, they sometimes experience a short break with no kids at the house. When that happens, Marvel says, "Bernie will say, 'Gee, do you think we should call?'" DHS about getting another child.
With 200 kids in foster care in the county, the Mayottes are eager to recruit more foster parents. "If you've got room and your heart is open, let them in," Marvel says. "You'll get so much more out of it than you could ever imagine."
[Originally published in May, 2013.]