Uploaded: Friday, May 1, 2009, 9:35 AM
Norma Hesterman: Opening her home, and opening hearts
Emotionally wounded teens need listening and love, says mother of 25
|Norma Hesterman gave birth to her fourth child in 1968. Coincidentally, it was the year Stanford University professor Paul Ehrlich published his best-seller, "The Population Bomb." She knew it was time to stop having babies.
But after Hewett, Anne, Sara and Andrew, Hesterman and her husband Vic had only just begun.
The first foster child, a playmate of the Hesterman kids in their Palo Alto neighborhood, arrived by happenstance in 1971.
"We offered to take care of her for a year because she was very neglected," Hesterman recalled. "The mother had quite a few problems. I confronted her and told her I'd do everything I could to help her, but if things didn't change I'd have to report her."
The child, a second-grader, blossomed in the Hesterman household. "Everybody loved her," Hesterman recalled. The three girls dressed alike and played constantly.
"We felt successful, and that experience gave me the confidence that I could do this," Hesterman said.
In 1976 the couple bought a four-bedroom house on an acre in Los Altos Hills to make room for chickens, rabbits, a goat who ate the poison oak -- and lots of children. By the time they sent their last foster child off to college in 1996, the Hestermans had raised 21 children in addition to their original four.
All the while Norma Hesterman took on major volunteer commitments, including Girl Scout leader; PTA president; Christian educator at Trinity Lutheran Church; art teacher; and founder and board member of major community organizations, including Adolescent Counseling Service and Palo Alto Parents and Professionals for Art.
The foster kids arrived from many sources -- usually from the county children's shelter, but sometimes from friends and acquaintances. Once, while vacationing on Norma's childhood farm in Iowa, the couple got a call from a fellow church member, a single mother who'd just been seriously injured in a car accident.
"She said, 'I really wouldn't want Wesley to live with anyone but you.' We took him right away," Hesterman said.
In another case, the owner of a drape-cleaning business was re-hanging the Hestermans' curtains when he heard about what they did.
"'You mean, you take care of other peoples' kids?'" Hesterman recalled him saying. "He sat down in a dining room chair, gave a big sigh and said, 'Let me tell you about my son.'"
The boy's mother had died; the father had remarried, and the stepmother disliked the child.
"He was hard to like, for awhile," Hesterman said. "But what I loved doing was helping to bring out their better qualities, trying to determine the talents that a child has and just zeroing in on that.
"A lot of our success was just due to listening to them. When a child feels like they've been hurt, having someone listen makes all the difference in the world to them. I always asked a lot of questions, which led to wonderful conversations. And we laughed and teased a lot."
"When they first came I'd always asked the child, 'Did you ever run away?' I'd say, 'The first thing we need to do is learn how to run away.' They thought that was hilarious. Then we'd make a list of what they would need to run away.
"And we had very little running away."
The Hesterman household had rules: Kids had to do chores, help in the kitchen and were not to go to the cupboards and get out whatever they wanted.
"Before dinner, we always had a plate of vegetables out. If they didn't want it, they weren't hungry. If they were hungry, they ate it," she said.
"We always had a tablecloth and candles and sat down to dinner together. All the foster kids thought I was such a good cook. I wasn't a good cook -- it was the atmosphere and the conversations that they remember.
"We tried to teach them all to be producers rather than consumers, and most of them made it," she said.
Hesterman credits her four biological children with supporting the family enterprise. Son Andrew's school counselor reported to Hesterman after a meeting: 'I expected to find resentment (of the foster siblings) but all I found was admiration.'
"The kids were all interested, and Vic was interested," Hesterman said. "I loved it when I'd hear them, without any prodding from me, compliment the kids or just say something nice to them."
The foster kids have landed on their feet, for the most part. They work in landscaping, high-tech support, school administration, engineering and retail management. One is on welfare, but also in school.
And quite a few of them keep in touch.
"I'm writing to let you know just how much I really love you guys," one wrote to Norma and Vic. "And to apologize for all the pain and all the problems I put you through, but most of all showing me a right way and a wrong way to live. If it wasn't for you I know I probably wouldn't even be able to finish this letter, or even high school, my life would be so messed up.
"I wouldn't be able to have faith in God or in anybody if it wasn't for you both. I just want to let you know every time I think of you guys and all the good times we had I feel like crying, but I can't because I have to keep this tough guy act up so nobody will say I'm just looking for attention. You guys gave me everything I really ever wanted and that was love, peace, happiness, education."
Of her foster-parenting career, Hesterman said: "It's part of our family value. ... Each generation is charged with guiding and bringing up the next generation. And I just love children."
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Posted by Elissa Chandler, a resident of the Old Palo Alto neighborhood, on May 2, 2009 at 2:52 pm
What an inspiring story!
Posted by anonymous, a resident of another community, on May 8, 2009 at 12:40 am
[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]