Mother Goose has nothing on Martha K. Gardenhight.
As a foster parent who’s worked with many local agencies, including Eliada Homes, Gardenhight and her second husband, Billy, have taken in more than 60 youngsters (almost all boys) over the past 22 years. Though both are now retired from their jobs, the couple has not retired from foster parenting. The Gardenhights are currently taking care of one 15-year-old boy, and another 16-year-old is set to move in soon.
“You can’t do this job for the money,” she says. For Gardenhight, it’s a labor of love that grew out of a solemn commitment she made to God decades ago while raising two young sons alone following her divorce. And that love gets returned: Even after her kids have “aged out” at 18 and moved on, many still call or drop by on birthdays, at Christmas or on Mother’s Day, she reports.
Seeing troubled youths—many of whom had been abused or had mental or discipline problems—blossom into responsible young men has helped sustain her over the years, says Gardenhight. Two of her boys, she notes proudly, have gone on to complete college. And an impaired boy who lived with the Gardenhights until he was in his 30s is now living independently, attending A-B Tech, and has a driver’s license, a job and his own apartment.
Gardenhight’s remarkable contributions in providing therapeutic foster care to scores of young men have not gone unnoticed. On Nov. 28, the Asheville branch of the NAACP presented her with the sixth annual Sophie Dixon & Grace Dorn Leadership Award, given to women who “exemplify the qualities of action and influence of leadership in the Asheville community.”
Joe Hammond of Eliada goes further: Martha, he says, “has continued to give back to her community by helping children in need, providing a safe, structured and caring home for teenage boys. She has been open to caring for some of the more difficult therapeutic boys. … Martha has always been fair with what is expected in her home, and she will go above and beyond to help her boys reach their fullest potential.”
Mountain Xpress: What drives you to be a foster parent, especially after all these years?
Martha Gardenhight: I wanted to give something back. I came from a large family in Madison County, and I wasn’t always blessed as I am today. But after my divorce, I made a promise to God. I said if He helped me raise my kids and get them off to [college], I’d help someone else in need.
You seem to favor preteens and teens. Why is that?
To me they’re just better to deal with. They can kind of help themselves a little bit. Of course, I don’t have any objections. … If [younger ones need me], I’ll go ahead and take them. But I don’t really care for taking care of real small kids.
What’s the most children you’ve taken care of at one time?
Three; most of the time it’s two. Each kid has to have his own bedroom.
You also specialize in special-needs kids. What are their most common problems?
A lot of these kids are in and out of court. A lot could be institutionalized because of their needs, and they have behavioral problems, too. A lot of these kids have been sexually abused before they come here. They won’t take their clothes off [even to go to bed]. Their hygiene is real bad, too. So you deal with a little bit of everything.
What are your thoughts about foster parenting for the money?
Oh, I wouldn’t recommend any foster parent get into this for the money, because you really have to have love, compassion and patience for these kids. If you get in it for the money, that won’t work. Because some of these kids are going to run away, or they do something and they have to be put back into a juvenile center. So if you’re thinking about making a house payment or rent or car payment, you shouldn’t get into it. If you’re not doing it from your heart for the kids, you need to leave it alone.
Explain your parenting style.
I’m from the old school: I have rules and regulations with my kids, like I had with my biological kids, but I’m not obsessed with it. I can bend a little bit. But I don’t deal with kids that do drugs, period. I won’t allow drugs in my home. And I don’t like gang members. Anything else I can deal with. And I also feel that all kids need to be affiliated with church. A lot of these kids have never been to church until they come here.
Over the years, how diverse has your household been?
I get kids of all cultures: black, white, biracial, Mexican. But all I see is a kid that needs a home and needs love. Some foster parents don’t take different cultures; they just don’t want to deal with that. I’ve even had some people at my church say, “You keep white kids in your house!?” And I say, “Yeah! We all bleed the same way and are going to die the same way.”
What do you learn from those kids?
The biracial kids—have mercy, Jesus—have more problems. They don’t really know where they’re coming from; they’re confused. A lot of the whites don’t accept them; a lot of the blacks don’t want to accept them. A lot of these kids don’t know if they’re white or black. I’ve had them come in and say to me, “I’ve never stayed with black people before,” and they don’t even look as mixed as I do. But believe me, they don’t want to be labeled as black. But at the same time, they can’t be labeled as white either.
If raising fine young men is the best part, what’s the worst aspect of your foster parenting?
Whenever I have to take them to court. That just tears me up; it just tears my heart out.