It Just Takes One: Foster Mother Mollie Jelks Raises 36 Foster Children

It Just Takes One: Foster Mother Mollie Jelks Raises 36 Foster Children

In honor of Mother's Day, HuffPost Impact presents It Just Takes One, a series on children and the tutors, mentors, guardians and others who have made a difference in their lives. We'll be featuring a new story every day through Mother's Day.

After spending 22 years of her life working in mortgage banking, Mollie Jelks admits she never found the sense of fulfillment she longed for. When her Citibank office relocated to St. Louis, Jelks wasn't willing to follow. Instead, she picked up a temp job at the Children's Bureau, a Southern California organization working with abused and neglected children, pairing them with loving foster and adoptive parents. She reflects, "I didn't know what it meant to be a foster parent, I just wanted to help kids."

Inspired by the children she saw daily at Children's Bureau, Jelks took in a foster child of her own. Jelks' biological children were grown, with the youngest finishing her last two years of high school. Jelks filled out an application, and before she knew it, she had a rambunctious five-year-old under her care. Jelks recalls, "Her name was Precious, but she was the opposite."

Despite Precious' best attempts to thwart her guardian's warmth, she soon found herself eager for her daily hugs from Jelks. A psychiatrist who worked with Precious was stunned at the difference. "What did you do to her? She's been in the system for 18 months. We thought she'd never give or receive love."

Jelks' experience inspired her to keep going -- over the last 16 years, she's taken in 36 foster kids, many of whom came to her malnourished, scared by abuse or neglected by drug addicted parents. Four of the children that passed through Jelks' doors never left -- she adopted two boys and two girls.

To support her family, Jelks started a day care center on her property, based on the same principles she uses to raise her own children: "teaching love and sharing." Jelks now employs three staff members, each committed to her vision of fostering a "home away from home" for the youngsters.

By far, her biggest challenge was Kendra, a young girl who had been bounced around to different homes countless times. After struggling with a schizophrenic mother, given up by her biological grandmother and being rejected after two years with an adopted family, Kendra was an emotionally scarred little girl -- deemed "too difficult" by many that tried to care for her.

Frustratied by the circus that left Kendra feeling rejected and unloved, Jelks decided to give her a permanent home. Getting Kendra to come out of her shell, however, was another task altogether.

Through it all, Jelks didn't give up hope, continuing to support Kendra, even when her actions seemed to go unnoticed or unappreciated. She explained to Kendra, "What's your last name? Jelks. What's my last name? Jelks. That means we're family now." It took nearly five and a half years, but slowly, Kendra began to open up, to trust Jelks and to accept that she could be loved.

Jelks speaks fondly of Children's Bureau, the same organization through with she took in all of her foster and adopted children. She laughs, "I'm not biased, but they're the best."

The feeling, it seems, is mutual. "Mollie is an inspiration to all parents. She has a true love for children along with the warmth, kindness and patience it takes to make a difference in the lives of these special children. We are fortunate to have this extraordinary woman as part of our Children's Bureau family," said Lou Graham, Children's Bureau's director of foster care and adoption programs.

Now, rising to take care of her four young adopted children and oversee the day care center, Jelks believes "every morning is a joy." Jelks is proud of her brood, speaking excitedly of each of their unique talents. Of young Tyler, she gushes "oh, he's the lawyer." Between track practice for 14-year-old Kendra, piano lessons for 12-year-old Amy, dance classes for nine-year-old Sean and basketball games for 11-year-old Tyler, Jelks has a busy schedule, helping all of her kids reach their potential.

Now in her 60s, Jelks is taking a step back from foster parenting, focusing on raising her adopted children. Jelks shares the knowledge she's accumulated over her lifetime of parenting as a mentor to other foster parents.

Mollie Jelks and her chidren. Photo by Michele K. Short.

When she encountered a foster mother struggling to get through to a girl, who, like Kendra, was introverted, she knew how to help. The mother had hoped to solve her own unhappiness by caring for the girl, but the struggle was making her even more unhappy. Jelks advised her, you're "putting too much on the child. Find happiness with yourself, so you can take demands off the child."

When the mother returned to Jelks, months later, to announce the pair had had a breakthrough and were finally getting to know each other and develop a loving relationship. "To hear that victory, that's the ultimate goal of mentoring."

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