The Other Mothers

I was grown and out of college before I knew macaroni and cheese came in boxes and cornbread could be made in a jiffy. Mama knew about fresh, whole foods before it was trendy. She made jelly and pies from the apple trees in our backyard. Fast food was biscuits straight out of the oven.

Mama knew about positive parenting without reading it in books. She gave unconditional love to her children and all children who crossed her path-no matter how old they were. Her heart and home were always open. Mama anchored lives. With a smile, a good talking-to, a scoop of her famous potato salad and a piece of pound cake, she let children know they were worthy and capable.

Instilling in children a sense of self-worth, love and belonging is arguably the most important function performed by mothers. Without it, children grow up disconnected, disheartened and often looking for love in all the wrong places. That’s one reason it’s so important that other mothers step in when biological mothers cannot or – for whatever reasons – do not.

There is a saying that “mothers are God’s angels on earth.” That’s especially true for foster mothers. And so, for National Foster Care Month, BLAC Detroit pays tribute to three of these angels. They are all heaven-sent, according to the children they’ve nurtured and whose lives they’ve saved.

Penny Greenlee, Detroit

A recent visit to Penny Greenlee’s northwest Detroit home looks like a scene from a typical American family.


Two children scurry into the house after school. They rush in offering “Hi Moms” and hugs before grabbing chicken sandwiches and lemonade. While eating their snack, they chat about their day before beginning homework.

“After we do our homework every day that’s when we get to play,” explains 11-year-old Antonio, speaking for himself and his 6-year-old sister, Chila.

Such a normal routine is extraordinary considering Antonio’s behavior when he came to live with Greenlee at age 4. He hoarded and hid food around the house, apparently unsure there’d be plenty.

Greenlee, 58, eventually brought a kitchen shelf at his eye level, placing food there, so he’d know it was always available for him and he never had to hunt it down or hide it. Those signs of a troublesome childhood have all but disappeared.

Now, he and his sister enjoy school and earn good grades. He says Greenlee’s decision to take him and his sister in is the best thing that anyone ever did for him.

Greenlee’s decision to become a foster parent was as much about her needs as it was about the children’s. A divorced mother of three adult sons, she had spent her entire working life in a variety of office jobs that her heart was not in.

“When I turned 50, I decided to do what I wanted to do and not what I had to do. The thing I did best in my life was raise my children. None of my sons have ever been to jail, there’s no history of crime, arrest or drugs. They all grew into good men.”

The more Greenlee thought about it the more she felt it was her calling.

“I had a lot of support in raising mine. My mother. My mother-in-law. My aunts and other people were there for me, so I wanted to give back by helping others. I think it’s a gift God has given me to mold children, and that’s what I want to do.”

Greenlee first became a foster mother in 2005. Since then, she has had 10 foster children, including Antonio and Chila.

“Antonio just had this spark about him,’’ she recalls. “I remember he was struggling to learn to ride a bike and he couldn’t ride that bike. When he went to bed that night, he said, ‘Tomorrow I’m going to ride that thing.’ The next day, he got up and got on that bike and rode it.

I saw then that this kid has determination. He just needs someone to stay in his corner. That’s really what they all need, someone in their corner. With the right kind of nurturing and love they can be successful.”

Veda Thompkins, Detroit

This month, National Foster Care Month, also marks Veda Thompkins 27th year as a foster mother. She’s had so many children, she can’t tell you how many. But she adopted three, now independent adults.

She specializes in delinquent teenage boys, children who end up in foster care through the juvenile justice system. Some people would call them bad kids. Thompkins says they are children in need of extra love and attention.

“My goal is to give a child a home while they’re waiting to go home,” says Thompkins, 59, who has also become an advocate for foster parents and the need for more adults to become foster parents.

Thompkins thinks she was meant to take in children.

“My mother’s house was always Grand Central Station,” she recalls. “There were always kids around. So my parents were unofficial foster parents.”

After her cousin got in trouble, and she couldn’t take him in, she got licensed in juvenile justice foster children. She scoffs at suggestions that there’s reason to fear such children.

But it’s not because she hasn’t had problems with some of them. “The biggest problem is stealing, or sometimes, disrespecting me. They learn to steal at an early age. I had one boy who stole my jewelry, gave it to his mother and she hocked it. But stealing and disrespecting – those are learned behaviors,” says Thompson, who has three teen boys living with her. “And they are children and they can unlearn it.

Besides, if I don’t care for them, who’s going to care? 

“If we don’t take them in and nurture them and give them a home, what are you going to do when they get out of residential treatment and have no sense of love or family?

“We can stop that by giving children a good home,” she says. “I tell my kids when they come here, ‘I don’t do prisons and I don’t do funerals.’” Of the numerous children who she has been a foster mom to, she knows of only one who ended up in prison.

“I set rules and children will try to wear me down, but I tell them, ‘You can not wear me down.’ And eventually they believe me.’’

Sybil Harmon, Chesterfield Township

After their four sons were grown and gone, their house was too quiet for Sybil Harmon, 57. She mentioned taking in foster children to her husband, Herman. The retired truck driver said no.
“I figured I’d already done my job.”

But the matter wasn’t settled. Sybil had a dream in which God told her she could become a foster parent. She went to a foster care agency to begin the training on one day; her husband joined her the second day. “I learned when I was a little boy, the power of a black woman,” Herman Harmon says with a laugh.

The Harmons have never regretted that decision made in 2000. Since then, they’ve had seven foster children, have adopted three brothers and are in the process of adopting their brother. The boys’ biological mother’s dying wish was that her sons be raised together. The Harmons decided that the only way to assure that was to adopt them.

“Taking in children is really a part of our culture,” says Herman Harmon, 54. “When we were coming up, neighbors, family, the whole community looked out for children. We didn’t think any children were bad, even though kids might do some bad things.”

The Harmons are licensed to take in special needs children, children who have disabilities or challenges. One of their greatest joys was seeing a child walk who they were told would never walk.

Their youngest son, DeMarca, came to them when he was a sickly 5-year-old. Caseworkers said the boy who scooted across the floor, would never walk.

“I liked him right away, and there was no doubt in my mind that I’d have that child walking,” says Sybil Harmon, a retired school secretary.

“She worked with that boy every day,” her husband says with pride. Within six months, DeMarca was walking.

“I like a challenge,” Sybil Harmon says. “In order to feel worthwhile, I have to see results.” She practiced in their living room and on their lawn. “He had to trust me and understand it’s OK to fall; you just get up and take a few more steps.”

After they took in DeMarca, they took in his two older brothers. DeMarca Harmon is now 15; his brothers, Jalen and Hijuno Watson, are 16 and 18, respectively.

“I respect and appreciate them for taking me and my brothers in as their own,” says Hijuno Watson, who has been with the Harmons since he was 9 years old. “I’ve been through a lot of things growing up. I didn’t like living in a boy’s group home. Here, I feel like I’m home.”

Hijuno says more people should consider taking children in. “Kids out here can’t do things on their own. They need a mom and a dad to guide them in the right direction.”

The Harmons say the reward comes from seeing the children happy and successful.

“The greatest thing you can do is invest in a child’s future,” Sybil Harmon says. “It’s up to us as Black people to take care of our children. Tender loving care is the best solution for most of their problems.”

Omowale Faye Brown is a Detroit-based freelance writer. 

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