Helen Rider is mom to 58 kids
Helen Rider never met a child she didn’t like. That’s why her work as a Hennepin County foster parent to 58 children over 40 years has been more a joy than a job.
“I tell people I’d do this for nothing,” said Rider, 70, who is still guardian to her former foster child, Bobby (not his real name, which couldn’t be used for privacy reasons), 38, who has profound Down Syndrome. “I was really glad they [Hennepin County] sent me a check to be able to buy clothes for the kids.” But the kids in Rider’s care always received more than new clothes. They were surrounded by educational toys and games, books and most of all, love. As she spoke, Bobby, who is nonverbal, looked over at Rider and signed ‘I love you.’
The love she never had
Rider poured into her foster kids and her biological daughter, Tammy Joy, all the love she never felt as a child. One of four Wilstermann children who grew up in the small town of Morgan, Minn., just south of Redwood Falls, Rider had two brothers and a sister.
“I always felt ignored in that family,” said Rider, a plump, sweet-faced woman with curly gray hair and green eyes that sparkle with life. “Davie was the cute little baby with blond curls. Joy was the big sister who could do everything-get good grades and play the piano and clarinet. And my big brother Allen, well, I never thought he liked me. Whenever he did talk to me, it was derisively with little stupid digs. One time at a family reunion, he yelled down two tables, ‘Helen, you talk so much, it’s a wonder you’re so fat.'” Rider and Allen are still estranged today; she maintained contact with Dave and Joy until their deaths. Dave died in 2001, Joy just two months ago.
Rider has a way with words. One of her hobbies is writing heartfelt poetry. Though she is an intelligent woman with a keen wit, she said she wasn’t much of a student-probably because no one in her family expected it of her. “But I was always good at spelling. In sixth grade I won the [school] spelling championship, beating out the seventh and eighth graders.” At the county bee in Redwood Falls, she finished 10th, “tied with this cute little redheaded boy, Johnny.”
The Wilstermanns struggled financially, and Rider shared a doll with her sister Joy, until, at the age of 10, she bought her own beloved Bonnie with babysitting money she’d saved. Rider always wanted to be a mommy when she grew up, and started babysitting little Dennis Seidel at age 7. As a frequent visitor to the Seidel home, Rider got to see how the other half lived.
“They were rich, rich people,” Rider said. “They had carpet on the floors, a doorbell and a phone. And Mrs. Seidel got a newspaper every day, something we could never afford. I used to lie on the floor and read her newspaper.” Thus began her love affair with newspapers. She has had several letters to the editor published over the years in the Star Tribune. Rider’s mother, Lila, left the family when Rider was 15, moving to the Twin Cities where she worked as a nanny and housekeeper. Until then, Helen and her mother had had a normal, if not demonstrative, mother-daughter relationship. “We couldn’t mention her name in the house,” Rider said. “Dad referred to her as ‘she.'” And though Lila visited from time to time, none of her kids would speak to her. “We felt we were honoring our dad because she left him,” Rider said.
Though it was a blow to Rider when her mother walked out the door, as she grew up she began to see the situation differently. Though her father, Henry, wasn’t neglectful or abusive, he paid little attention to Helen, leading her to begin to empathize with her mom. “Later, I understood that she just couldn’t live with my dad. He was emotionally not there.”
All her children
With that new understanding, Rider began calling her mother from time to time, and when she moved to Minneapolis and took a job in the shipping and receiving department at Dayton’s, the two reconnected. They remained close until Lila’s death in 1981.
Along the way, she met and married her ex-husband, Ed, a fellow country music fan. “I’ve always been a hillbilly,” Rider said. “I love country music.” Though the marriage was short-lived, it produced daughter, Tammy, who was born April 17, 1964. “I say that’s when my life began,” Rider said. God finally gave me [a baby] of my own.”
Three years later, when Rider discovered that the county allowed single people to become foster parents, “I jumped on that right away and took the training. They tell you not to think of them as yours. Right.”
Rider pulled out an index card box where she has recorded the names of all the children who have shared her home. Beneath each child’s name is their birthdate, the day he or she came to Rider and the day the child left. Rider knows where many of them are today, and some of those who left with adoptive parents stay in touch.
Rifling through the cards, reminiscing, Rider said most of the kids with T.J. initials were given names by her and Tammy. “They came to us as just Baby Girl or Baby Boy.” Why T.J.? For Tammy Joy, of course.
Son of the heart
Bobby was Rider’s eighth foster child. He was just over five weeks old when he came to her, as an emergency placement. Bobby was supposed to stay only a few days until a home opened up with foster parents who were experienced in caring for disabled children. “Well, a few days has stretched into 38 1⁄2 years so far,” Rider said with a chuckle.
She recalled that Bobby was not thriving when he was placed with her. “He was so tiny and had no muscle tone at all. It was like holding a rag doll.” But Rider got help and support from her pediatrician, Dr. Richard Tudor.
Rider switched to Dr. Tudor after becoming indignant when the nurses at her former pediatrician’s office made a big fuss about how cute her other little ones were and ignored Bobby. “They were treating my son just like I had been treated,” she said, flushing with anger all these years later.
Although she never adopted Bobby, he is her son of the heart. When Rider needed back surgery three years ago, she worried about how Bobby would fare. Though the pain was excruciating, “I put off surgery because I thought I would no longer be a foster parent to [Bobby], that I’d be done. I wouldn’t even consider it until the doctor told me if I waited much longer, they’d be pushing me down the street in a wheelchair,” she said.
Rider no longer worries so much about Bobby’s welfare when she becomes unable to take care of him because she and her daughter Tammy have agreed that Tammy will take over as Bobby’s guardian. She also is relieved that he did well in a group home for four weeks during her recuperation. “My son is such a charmer, and so many people love him,” Rider said proudly. Currently, Tammy takes him one weekend a month, giving her mom a break, and spoiling her little brother with the “blue pop” and doughnuts that he loves. “She is the most important person in the world to him-even more than me,” Rider said.
Summing up her feelings about the priorities of her life, Rider recites an anonymous quote from a plaque on a table filled with children’s pictures: “‘One hundred years from now it will not matter what kind of car I drove, what kind of house I lived in, how much was in my bank account, nor what my clothes looked like. But the world may be a little better because I was important in the life of a child.'”
Delma J. Francis is a former writer and editor for the Star Tribune. She adopted her daughter Whitney in 2000 when she was Helen Rider’s 56th foster child. Today Whitney calls Rider Grandma.