Photo by David Uhrin
Bettie Bell, of Newport News, found out she was pregnant the day she was scheduled to attend foster parent training. She had struggled with infertility, so she was thrilled by the news. However, she had also dreamed of being a foster mom since she was 14, when her family opened their home to foster children. “I never questioned that my journey to parenthood would include fostering and adoption,” she says.
Bell was fostering a newborn with special needs while pregnant with her son Bobby, and she credits that little baby with saving her son’s life. She went into premature labor, and Bobby was born too soon at 25 weeks. “If I hadn’t been home on the couch, taking care of a baby with a medical condition, I very well could have miscarried,” she explains. “In a way, I think that baby brought me Bobby.”
Although Bobby faced medical challenges as a result of being born premature, Bell’s desire to be a foster parent never waned. Her parents, who fostered numerous children over the years, instilled in her a strong sense of community. “My family truly believed in volunteering,” she says. “The family philosophy was, ‘You’re here, you have a good life, so why not make a difference for someone else?’”
Since 2002, Bell has fostered 19 children and adopted six: Ryan, who is grown and on his own; Zack, 16; Maya, 14; Reese, 13; Lia, 11; and Quentin, 10. All were medically-fragile children with conditions ranging from autism to Type 1 diabetes. Between the six children, there have been 25 medical diagnoses and, to date, 55 surgeries.
“The medical piece is tough,” says Bell. “Foster parents can’t consent to treatment as easily as birth parents, and taking care of the paperwork can be a battle.” Although she watched her parents go through the fostering process, it was a different experience when she became a foster mom. “When you’re a foster parent, you’re not the only parent making decisions,” she says. “You are co-parenting in the most complicated way possible. Often the child’s birth parents are not happy that their child is in a foster home. You have to focus on building relationships and doing what is best for the child.”
Five of the children Bell adopted are multiethnic or African-American, and being a transracial family brings challenges of its own. With a laugh, she recounts the learning curve she experienced with her kids’ haircare. “I was standing in the haircare aisle, crying because I was so confused and had no idea what to buy,” she recalls. “A complete stranger saw I was having trouble and asked if she could help. I’m so grateful that woman saw my heart and ignored my ignorance.”
The kids are only about a year apart, and that spacing sometimes makes it difficult to keep personalities and hormones in check. However, Bell points out, the kids have so much in common because of their backgrounds and medical concerns. “They can talk to each other about things that others just wouldn’t understand,” she says. “I truly believe that if they did not have each other and their shared experiences, they would not have such an incredible amount of support.”
Bell strives to give her children dignity in a world that isn’t always kind or accepting of those who are different. “As a mother, I want to give my children the tools they need so they can one day handle things on their own,” she says. “Motherhood is more than caretaking; it’s acknowledging the gift of personal growth that children provide.”