Q&A: Russ and Rita Hoffman, Foster parents to more than 500 children, Moorhead, Minnesota

For the past 45 years, Russ and Rita Hoffman, have taken more than 500 foster children into their home. As one of twelve recipients of this year’s Catholic Digest heroes award (see October 2007 issue), the couple recently took the time to speak with the magazine about the blessings children bring, the challenges of parenting, and the importance of respect.

CD: What motivated you to begin to adopt children?

Rita: We had one child of our own and we decided we wanted more, so we applied for adoption. Instead of getting one child we got a set of triplets, so our family went from three to six in two weeks.

CD: How did you come to adopt the triplets?

Russ: They had them!

CD: Were you looking for three?

Rita: No, we were looking for one.

CD: What drew you to these children?

Rita: I think God put a desire for babies and young children in my heart, which never ends, and I said, “Yes, yes, we will take them!”

CD: Was this overwhelming at first?

Rita: For my husband.
(Both laugh)

Russ: I just couldn’t understand how I was going to take care of three kids. At first they told us we were going to get two boys and a girl, but it wound up that it was two girls and a boy. I was skeptical of whether I could be a father to two boys at that time.

Rita: We adopted two more children after that.

CD: The young children you’ve taken in have had a wide range of ages and abilities, correct?

Rita: Yes. For thirteen years we took in mentally-challenged teenage girls — about 150. The purpose was to help them to become independent and live on their own. After that we took in twelve Vietnamese-American children. One is now a doctor, another an architect. One’s a home builder, some beauticians. We had 5 at one time who didn’t know English. They were from 9-16 years old.

CD: How many children have you taken in over the years?

Rita: Over 500; it became our mission in life.

CD: What there a point where you decided it would be your mission?

Rita: It just evolved.

CD: How many children did you have in your home at any one time?

Rita: Thirteen.

CD: Do you still keep in touch with any of the children?

Rita: Oh yeah, with a lot of them. Last week we had one of the girls that we had in 1984. She came home with her baby. It’s her first baby and she didn’t quite know all the ropes, and she said she needed some help. So, we had them for a week and it worked out great. We’ve also had some women who have had a baby and then come back to live with us for a period of time until they got out on their own.

CD: For all the blessings these children bring, I imagine there were a lot of challenges as well. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced?

Rita: Well, we’ve had some attempted suicides, assault with a deadly weapon.

CD: Does the idea of bringing the children into your home ever scare you at times?

(Both laugh)
Rita: Oh, we’ve been scared a few times, but it didn’t scare us too bad, evidently, because we kept on going. You’ve got to have deep faith that this is what God wants you to do, and if it’s what He wants you to be doing, He’ll give you the strength and the wherewithal to do it. Without that we wouldn’t last too long. We’ve also been very blessed in our marriage and in our life in general, and we just felt we wanted to share this with others. You have to work as a team. If you don’t work as a team, it won’t work.

CD: Do you each take on certain roles?

Rita: We just do what has to be done.
Russ: I just do what she tells me.
(both laugh)

Rita: It seems to be working. In March, I was diagnosed with cancer, and two days later Russ had a heart attack, so we had to put our foster care on hold for a bit, but we hope to be back. We’ve been doing this for 45 years. In May we received the National Foster Parents award in Washington D.C.

CD: How did you feel when you received that award?

Rita: it was great. We never expected to get any awards. When you’re taking care of the kids you just zero in on that. You don’t dream about ever getting an award.

Russ: When they presented it to us, I said, “How you can enjoy what you’re doing and still receive an award for it is beyond me.” I’ve always believed that there’s a higher being guiding us. We go to church faithfully every Sunday.

CD: What’s one thing you want the readers to know about your work?

Rita: It’s very rewarding.
Russ: There’s really nothing to be afraid of. A lot of people say, “I’d never be able to do that.”
Rita: Or they say, “I’d never be able to love another person’s child.” That’s not true.
Russ: Nope. It just comes naturally.

CD: Were you afraid of those things yourself in the beginning?

Russ: Yes, but it’s just like a normal relationship. You start out as a friend and it just develops.

CD: What’s been one of the most rewarding things about the whole process over the years?

Rita: To watch the kids become independent and to develop emotionally, physically, spiritually.
Russ: And lots of times become successful in what they’re doing.
Rita: Many of them own their own businesses. I think one of the rewards is when they come back and thank you. We have some really grateful foster kids. One of them came back after our home was flooded and actually helped us rebuild our house. We wouldn’t have this any other way. We’re happy doing what we’re doing.

CD: Did you find that you needed some respite from the kids once in a while?

Rita: Oh, we got a couple of hours one time. (Both laugh) I think we enjoy each other so much, and we enjoy what we’re doing so much that we don’t need that kind of assistance. It’s something we enjoy every day.

CD: What do the two of you enjoy doing together when you don’t have 500 kids around?

Rita: (laughing) Everything. We do everything together.
Russ: Yup. We usually take a week off every fall and go off by ourselves. Lately, we’ve been traveling in North Dakota.

CD: Has your idea of parenting changed over the years?

Russ: It has gotten more difficult.
Rita: There are certainly more problems out there. But our idea of how to parent is pretty much cut in stone. You have to be concise, and consistent.

CD: Any advice for parents?

Rita: I think you have to meet the child where they’re at, especially in foster care. You can’t expect miracles overnight, and some children you can’t expect to change a whole lot along the way, because of their difficulties, and you have to parent them differently. You have to work with what you have.

Russ: You can’t control them, but you can guide them.

CD: Did you ever pray with the children?

Rita: Oh yes, we’d pray every night with the kids. We’d say the night prayers, or we’d ask them to ask God to protect their families, their moms and dads, so that we know we’re not against their parents, that we think well of them. And when we’d take them along with us to church we’d tell them to remember to pray for their parents and their families. For the last seven years we’ve gone to the birthday parties of two boys that we cared for that were adopted. We’ve kept in touch with the adoptive parents and families. For a lot of the older girls, they have no parents left, so we’re mom and dad to them.

CD: How old are you now?

Russ: We’re both 74. She’s the older (both laugh)
Rita: (to Russ) That’s why I get to tell you what to do. (both laugh)

CD: It sounds like you have a great friendship.

Rita: Oh yes, we like to joke and keep things light if we can.

CD: What has helped you to keep your marriage strong throughout all of this?

Rita: I think the fact that we agree on so many things and work together.
Russ: And we love each other and respect each other.
Rita: Respect is a big thing. CD

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