By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 1, 2009
When Samuel Stewart retired as building manager for the Defense Department in 1996, he purchased a camper and made plans to travel across the country with his wife, Mildred, who had retired seven years earlier.
On Tuesday at their Mitchellville home, surrounded by two cribs, a playpen, a pint-size swing and five of the more than 40 foster children they have taken in over the years, the Stewarts acknowledged that their retirement has been a bit different from what they had planned. There have been no cross-country trips.
"I only have 5,000 miles on that Winnebago," Samuel Stewart said, laughing.
On Wednesday, the Stewarts were among 132 families, organizations or individuals from across the country to be honored as "Angels in Adoption" by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group dedicated to raising congressional and public awareness of foster children across the country.
During a luncheon at the Russell Senate Office Building, the Stewarts were greeted by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), who nominated the couple for the honor. "You are doing the work of the Lord," Cardin said.
The Stewarts began taking in foster children in 1996, after Mildred Stewart's daughter needed help caring for her 7-month-old son.
"We took in the child and raised him until he was 14," said Samuel Stewart, who added that it was then he and his wife began taking classes to become foster parents.
Between the two, Mildred and Samuel have eight children from previous marriages, three adopted children and their foster children.
"When you get a call and they say: 'We have a baby that needs a home. Can you take the baby?' I will say yes," Samuel Stewart said.
"The real key is being able to give a child opportunities that you didn't have yourself," he added.
"I think listening to them and being helpful is key," Mildred Stewart said. "My biological children had all of the opportunities, but these children didn't have that opportunity."
Mildred Stewart, who has served as president of the Prince George's County Foster Parent Association since 1997 and is acting president of the Maryland Foster Parent Association, said she hopes the award will shed light on the need for foster parents.
"I am not a person who lives for recognition, but it feels good to be appreciated," Mildred Stewart said. "A lot of people don't appreciate foster parents; they think that we do it for the money. But the money we get is not enough to take care of a child."
"It is really about giving back," Samuel Stewart said.
Many of the children the Stewarts have cared for over the years have come from troubled homes. Many of the children's parents have drug or alcohol addictions. "These children bring a lot of issues with them because they have been abused and neglected," Samuel Stewart said.
"The key to raising children, even if they have a tough start, is that you have to convince them that they can become useful citizens," Mildred Stewart said.
As Samuel Stewart played with and brought a smile to a 1-year-old girl now in the couple's care, he admitted that saying goodbye to the children can be difficult.
"I want to keep them all, but we know that these children are not ours," he said. "We only keep them until their parents can get their lives together."
Also honored at the luncheon were Montgomery County social worker Lori Weinstein and D.C. lawyer Michele Zavos.