BY CRAIG COLEY
In 29 years of foster parenting, Mary Hickman and her husband, Morris, helped raise 54 foster children alongside their own four children. Some of the foster children stayed as long as 10 years. And the Hickmans didn’t shy away from the toughest cases. “I would tell them, ‘I want the kids that no one else can control,’” Mary says. “I was raised in an orphanage, and I know the hurt of not having someone.”
Mary, 73, was born in Bardstown, Kentucky, and grew up on her grandparents’ farm with nine siblings and her father, who was handicapped. “My grandfather died,” Hickman says, “and we became poor with a capital P.” When Hickman was 11, she and her five sisters were taken to one orphanage in Louisville, Kentucky, and her four brothers to another. “When I started fostering, I let them know right up front I did not want children separated,” Hickman says. “It’s bad enough to be separated from Mom and Dad, but you got a little bit of a cushion when you’ve got your brothers and sisters.”
She began dating Morris, 76, when she was 17; their first date was a Jackson 5 concert at the county fair. Morris joined the Air Force and proposed by mail from Vietnam. Mary still wears the ring he mailed to her. They married in 1967 and the next year moved to Bloomington when Morris got a job with RCA. In 1989, Mary responded to a newspaper ad from Debra Corn Foster Care agency, which places children for the state’s Department of Child Services. It would provide a third income—Mary worked nights as a supervisor in building services at Indiana University—and an opportunity to help. “Our first 10 years were pretty tough,” Morris says.
Their first foster child was one of the most challenging. He sliced a window screen, tore up a bedroom, drew gang symbols on a mirror, and threatened to kill their children. Hickman says one of the biggest challenges was helping her own children understand this kind of behavior. “I would say, ‘These are children that do not have love, and they are starved for love, so we have to be patient with them,’” Hickman says. Their daughter Jeanice grew up to become a foster parent.
The Hickmans said goodbye to their last foster children, four siblings, in May. “We need a little bit of time for ourselves now,” Mary says. “We’re going to try to enjoy what little time we got with each other.”