Because they love children.
That's the answer I got when I asked the Rev. Willie Howard, 71, and his wife, Betty A. Howard, 69, why they had opened their home and hearts to 238 foster children over the past two decades.
"Another foster parent talked us into it," Betty said. "We always had other kids with us and she thought it would be good."
That foster parent was right.
Not only have the Howards fostered children, but they have also adopted six and they have one biological daughter. They adopted two children before they even considered being foster parents. They currently have four foster children in their home along with a grandson for whom they are the guardian.
According to their biological daughter, Angela Mulder, if Betty could buy that orphanage on Georgetown Street, she would, and then fill it up with children.
Mulder was referring to the former Lexington Colored Orphan Industrial Home, now called the Robert H. Williams Cultural Center. Betty lived there from age 4 to 16, along with her five siblings. They were placed in the orphanage because their mother was deceased and their father was an alcoholic and incapable of providing a good home for them.
"We were homeless for a little while," Betty said. "Our father tried to stick with us. He was 62 when I was born."
The orphanage was not a bad place.
"That was home to me," Betty said.
The goal of the orphanage board was to educate the children so that they could provide for themselves. Betty's second oldest sister was sent by the orphanage to a trade school in Paducah where she learned cosmetology.
"When she got out of school and was working she bought a house and came and got me," Betty said.
The sister also took other siblings from the orphanage and opened her home to her father as well.
"All of us were in a three-room shotgun house," she said. "It was home. We were together."
That bumpy start in life obviously made a lasting impression on Betty. But what about her husband? Willie was the fifth of 13 children.
"I was raised in the country by the Kentucky River in Woodford County," he said. "My dad was a sharecropper."
There was no electricity, no gas, no running water in their home. He and his four older brothers walked about three miles to school, changed clothes when they returned home and headed to the fields to help with the tobacco, corn and wheat crops.
"He had a hard life," Betty said.
But having all those people under one room, having to share everything, must have prepared him for the children he has cared for on the salary of a solid waste employee with the Urban County government.
"We've had 10 foster children in here at one time," Willie said.
"We will take as many as we have beds for," Betty said.
Betty worked for Metropolitan and Kentucky Central insurance companies before she retired and Willie worked for solid waste for 27 years. Willie entered the ministry in 1971 and was ordained in 1978, serving as associate pastor for churches in Lexington and around the state before leading First Baptist Church in Ripley, Ohio, for about 15 years intermittently.
"I remember when he first became a minister," Mulder said. "He didn't read very well, but he read that Bible every day. That taught me I could do anything."
Throughout her life, if the church doors were open, the Howard family was there, Mulder said. And the children were expected to behave no matter their age.
"They are to respect the Lord's house," Betty said, who admitted to being the disciplinarian.
"And respect their elders," Willie added. "That is the main thing we teach."
"I bring my children up to sit in the sanctuary. The only way they are going to learn how to sit in church is by being there. We have a whole pew at Consolidated. They sit with me," Betty said.
Because of her experience with foster children, Betty helps teach classes in which foster parents are certified.
"I am able to tell other people the types of children they will come in contact with and how to handle their behaviors."
Rebecca Adams, of the Resource & Relative Caretaker Certification Team, works with Betty in many of those classes. A social worker is there, too, to explain policy and procedure and a foster parent is there to discuss various techniques that work.
"There are kids who have been abused and neglected," Adams said. "This is not puppies and roses and rainbows and skittles. I love working with Betty and teaching with her. I love how she mentors with other families,"
But there is one problem Betty wants us to help her with. More foster families are needed, especial black families, she said, and although there are no financial riches to be had, the joy reaped and sown are abundant.
Betty smiled as she talked about one foster child, originally from Bolivia, who lived with them for three years. He left their care 10 years ago.
Last summer he knocked on their door and wanted to say thank you. He wrote on Facebook that the Howards molded him into who he is today.
Just like the Howards' futures were molded by people and circumstances in their childhood, Betty wants a few more loving families to nurture children in need.
"They have inspired me a lot," Mulder said. "They love children."
Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.