There’s a moment Mary Tye relishes after welcoming into her home a foster child traumatized by past experiences.
“One of the most rewarding moments is when you see them start being affectionate toward a doll or stuffed animal,” she said. “They are modeling behavior. When you see them with that healthy behavior, it’s so exciting.”
Tye has had many opportunities to witness such moments. She has been Mama Tye to more than 60 foster children since she and her husband, Mike, started accepting children into their Pleasant Grove-area home.
Mike said the couple became foster parents in 2006 at the urging of their oldest child, Molly, and they took in their first foster child when their three “bio-children” were still in the home. Mike said his wife is a mother at heart and a natural for the foster parent role.
“It’s the way she loves on them and makes them feel safe,” he said. “She’ll do about anything for them.”
Mary said the 12 years of foster parenting has been a family endeavor. Her children benefited from the experience, she said. She proudly points out that her two daughters have master's degrees and her son is completing his master’s in engineering at Kansas State University.
"Our family loves children,” she said. “It’s our mission field. We love them unconditionally, whether they are our blood children or not.”
Foster children have been placed in their home for as short as 20 minutes or as long as 27 months, Mary said. No matter how long they stayed, they were family.
“We consider them all ours and our biological children have 60 siblings,” she said. “I’m honored when they call me Mama Tye. That’s who I am.”
The Tyes have stayed in touch with a few of their foster children.
“We really have close contact with just four,” she said. “We have casual contact with another five or six. That’s really not very many. Some days it hurts it’s not more. It’s our choice to take in children under 4. The reality is once they are gone a little while, they don’t remember being here.”
The formula for success with foster children is simple, Mary said.
“We know these children need three things: stability, safety and unconditional love,” she said. “Those three things are so simple, yet so profound. I would like to think every foster child in every foster home gets that, but we know that’s not the case. That saddens me and is why I do some of the advocacy work I do.”
Mary is a Safe Kids Douglas County board member and is vice president of the Kansas Foster and Adoptive Parents Association. With Mike, she mentors other foster parents in the Children’s Shelter foster child program. She takes an active role because she understands foster care is a challenging and complex job.
“They say it takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a whole city to raise foster children,” she said. “A lot of those people are professionals. We have a professional in our home once a week and stacks of paperwork to finish all the time.”
Shannon Livingston, a foster care worker with the Children’s Shelter, is one of those professionals and has worked with the Tyes for six years.
“I’ve never seen her enter a room without positive energy or a big smile on her face,” she said of Mary. “She never gives up hope, even in difficult situations. She comes from a place of hope and potential, and she creates that environment for children.”
Mary said she and Mike limit themselves to toddlers because they do their best work with that age group.
“It’s how God created us,” she said. “Some people don’t like to change a diaper. I don’t handle teenage behavior very well. I can handle rocking babies to bed or getting up at 3 a.m. to change a diaper. My heart swells for those little babies.”
But even at that young age, it’s not all hugs and cuddles, she said.
“It’s not for everybody,” she said. “There’s heartbreak. Nobody can see the scars on my heart. The same god who calls me to do this work provides the healing so I can do it again, again and again.”
The rewards make the pain of inevitable separation or challenging behavior worth it, she said.
“You can get it all at the same time because it can change in a little heartbeat,” she said. “You can be dealing with a terrible temper tantrum and turn around and get the sweetest hug and kiss you’ve ever had. It’s the hardest and best job you’ll ever have.”
Eventually she and Mike will “age out” of foster care, Mary said. When that day comes, they plan to keep mentoring new foster parents. She suggests that anyone considering becoming a foster parent connect with experienced mentors.
The woman who has opened her home to dozens of children doesn’t have big Mother’s Day plans. Her husband and son will be traveling, and she will be alone with the couple’s current foster child. But she’s thinking she might be on the road, too. Daughter Miriam and her 2-month-old grandson don’t live that far away in Missouri.
“I’m so excited to have a grandchild,” she said. “I’ve had some foster grandchildren, but I’ve only gotten to know one of them. It’s going to be hard to stay away from my grandson. I may have to take a trip. Whatever we do, we’ll make it fun.”