When She Sees Children in Need, ‘Just Bring Them In’

MADISONVILLE, Tenn. — Even before she was pregnant with her first child, Edna Harris would joke with her husband, Asa, about having a large family. She would say she was going to start “an orphan home.”

“I was going to get all the kids I could and just bring them in,” Ms. Harris, 78, said on a recent rainy afternoon at the Good Shepherd Center, a thrift store and food pantry about 60 miles south of Knoxville, Tenn.

The Harrises eventually had three children, but it often felt like more.

“When my kids were growing up, every kid in the country would come home with them,” Ms. Harris said. “So I always had a houseful of kids.”

Shortly after their biological children left home, the Harrises took in a 7-year-old grandniece. Then her little sister. Then two of their own grandchildren. Then the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services started calling.

“I think what Edna did was get a reputation early on,” said her friend Donna Bradshaw. Ms. Bradshaw, who has known Ms. Harris since the 1980s, taught many of Ms. Harris’s foster and adopted children in the school system and is on Good Shepherd’s board. “So after the first couple, D.C.S. got wind of it, and that’s where part of it came about.”

With the department’s encouragement, the Harrises started taking in foster children. Many of them stayed only a weekend or a couple of weeks, but others stayed for years. The couple eventually adopted three of their foster children.

Then, in 2007, Mr. Harris died.

“When he died I was real lonesome,” Ms. Harris said. “And I had just four kids at that time that I was looking after.”

The following year, the newly widowed Ms. Harris found herself, at 66, taking in five siblings, ranging in age from 1 to 9, who needed a foster home. Three years later, the Department of Children’s Services began the process of finding permanent homes for the children. But every time Ms. Harris started to fill out the paperwork, she said, she began to cry.

“I kept them all that time, and Aiden was only 1 when I got him. So I couldn’t let that kid go! He became my baby,” said Ms. Harris, whom the children call “Mamaw.” “So I finally just told them that I’d have to adopt them.”

“Mamaw helped us out a lot, and I’m just thankful for it,” said one of the children, Sherry, 17.

In 2013, Ms. Harris was reaching for something in her minivan at the top of her steep driveway when it became stuck in neutral. The van dragged her about 45 feet downhill, trapping her. She broke several ribs, her neck and her back in three places.

Ms. Harris, who had been making a living selling insurance, was forced to stop working. She was in another accident a year later; a car struck hers as she was making a turn. She broke more ribs and vertebrae, she said, and was laid up for a full six months.

“I just couldn’t, after that — it took me a long time to get out of it,” Ms. Harris said. “It’s been a rough road.”

Ms. Harris and her family struggle to get by on her Social Security and disability benefits, and on the money she receives from the state when she takes in foster children. She hopes to return to work in the new year.

To keep her household afloat, Ms. Harris turned to the Good Shepherd Center in Madisonville, Tenn., just down the road from her home in Vonore. Good Shepherd is one of more than 550 nonprofits in 18 counties that receive food from Second Harvest Food Bank of East Tennessee in nearby Maryville to help feed an estimated 160,000 food-insecure people in the region. Second Harvest is one of 200 food banks affiliated with Feeding America, a beneficiary agency of The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund.

With Good Shepherd’s help, Ms. Harris was able to keep her children fed.

“I could come out here and get food when I needed it, and that’s a big help,” she said. By picking up items like peanut butter, macaroni and cheese, meat and potatoes, Ms. Harris and the children were able to make meals and alleviate some of their stress.

Tina Smith, 51, has run Good Shepherd for 13 years. She said Ms. Harris is better known for helping others than for helping herself.

“She’s always involved in helping people in the community,” said Ms. Smith, who noted that even if Ms. Harris’s pantry was running low, she was likely to share what she had with others. “Anyone who needed help, she was there.”

Four of Ms. Harris’s adopted children are still living with her, and the affection they have for one another, and for their mother, is palpable. At Good Shepherd last month, they spontaneously exchanged hugs and cracked jokes, and some ran around in circles while others tried on shoes.

“These kids have come out of their shells,” Ms. Smith said. “They were very, very quiet when they first started coming here. They wouldn’t speak to anybody. They were very calm, very quiet. Now they’re at home. They feel at home.”

During the recent trip to Good Shepherd, Ms. Harris encountered one of her former foster children, who asked if she could move back in with her. Ms. Harris gave her a hug in response. Since then, Ms. Harris has taken her in.

“I can’t make it without kids around. That’s all there is to it,” Ms. Harris said. “And that’s what makes my life complete, taking care of kids. Because there are so many out there that need somebody.”

And if it takes an extra box of food from Good Shepherd to feed an unexpectedly larger family, then Ms. Harris will do what it takes.

“It helps a lot of people,” she said. “I know it’s really helped us.”

Donations to the Neediest Cases may be made online, or with a check or over the phone.

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