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When Brenda and Mike Brady of Normal decide to do something, they go all in. They take it to the limit, as The Eagles would put it. (That’s actually Brenda and Mike's song.)
The Bradys started fostering kids about 40 years ago. They didn't have much money, but they had a big house and figured it was a way they could help. Over the next 12 years, they fostered 253 kids.
About a third came to the Bradys after physical abuse. Another third was abused sexually.
“They were like a desert flower. It’s a little plant that doesn’t have much. But with a little bit of rain, and all of a sudden, boy it blooms and is a beautiful thing,” Mike said. “It was as simple as putting their paper they got from school on the refrigerator. That was a big deal, because that had never happened to them before.”
The kids all went through what they called Brenda’s Basic Training—how to use silverware, or how to pay for groceries. It’s little things we all take for granted.
They took a lot of emergency kids—those phone calls in the middle of the night. Brenda once picked up an 8-year-old from the county jail. He was basically living on the street and had gotten into trouble with the police.
“The day that I picked him up from jail, he said, ‘Momma, I feel my feet turning now.’ That was the cutest thing,” Brenda said. “We’re still in contact with him. He’s one of our special kids.”
And this was all on top of the regular responsibilities of everyday life. Mike was working full-time in insurance. They had three biological kids of their own.
“All of three of them would agree it was a positive for them also. They got to appreciate what they had a little bit more. And they gained an understanding of what’s going on in the world, more so than other kids,” Mike said.
Their last-ever foster kids—a brother and sister—were tough. They were affected prenatally by drugs. The girl had tremors and terrors so bad Mike had to quietly sneak in the back door of his own house after work so he wouldn't scare her.
But Mike and Brenda don’t quit.
“When we decided to adopt those two kids, we just knew we were not going to have enough left over at the end of the day for any more than what we were taking on,” Mike said.
By the time they stopped fostering kids about 20 years ago, they had six forever kids: three biological, three adopted. A sign that reads “Brady Bunch” still hangs outside their garage.
“And his name is Mike Brady, so it worked,” Brenda joked.
It turns out, Mike was sort of wrong. They had a little left in the tank after all. A few years ago, they started caring for pregnant dogs and their puppies. It was a new kind of foster care.
They’ve since fostered 230 dog-moms and puppies, most recently for Wish Bone Canine Rescue. They take in dogs who are in trouble. Their first dog was an American bulldog who was skin and bones, despite being pregnant. She lost all her puppies.
“People say, ‘How do you do it?’ I cried a lot. That one I cried a lot because she broke my heart. But she thrived, and gained weight, and is now in a great adoptive home,” Brenda said.
This month they’re nursing four puppies (all with parvo infections) back to health so they can be adopted. It’s the “M” litter: Molly, Mandie, Misty, and Margot.
It's a little different: dogs versus kids. This time, Mike is retired from the insurance business, so he’s cleaning up after the dogs and moving cages. And Brenda is now working part-time as a nurse.
“The puppies, the kids, the mama dogs—they give us back more than we give them. Or I wouldn’t be able to do it,” Brenda said.
Their commitment is remarkable: Last year, one of their children—the little girl they adopted, now all grown up—was very sick with a rare autoimmune disease. She was being treated at a St. Louis hospital.
Back in Normal, Mike and Brenda had a momma dog with nine puppies who wouldn't let anyone else care for her. So Brenda and Mike would commute back and forth, almost every day, to check on both sides of their family. Wish Bone offered to take the dogs back, but the Bradys stuck with it.
“It was pretty therapeutic, after coming back from the hospital, and being in a situation that was so dire, to pick up some puppies and snuggle with them for awhile. They do a lot for us too,” Mike said.
Their daughter, Morgan, passed away last summer at age 26. She had three kids of her own.
Brenda and Mike have some experience saying goodbye. Those 250 foster kids and 230 foster dogs—they all walked out the door.
“I can’t lie. It’s challenging. But some of the kids were a whole lot easier to give up than the others, because of the teenage behavior,” Brenda laughed. “However, we also had awesome teenagers who I loved to pieces. But anytime they’re ready to move on—the puppies or the kids—it’s so rewarding actually.
"I’d rather break my heart than theirs.”
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