Samuel and Mildred Stewart bought a camper and planned to spend their retirement years traveling across the country. Samuel had retired as a Defense Department building manager in 1996; Mildred retired seven years earlier.
There have been no cross-country trips.
“I only have 5,000 miles on that Winnebago,'' Samuel Stewart said.
At their home in Mitchellville, the Stewarts are surrounded by two cribs, a playpen, a tiny swing and five of the more than 40 foster children they have cared for over the years.
Recently, the Stewarts were among 132 families, organizations or people from across the nation to be honored as “Angels in Adoption'' by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.
That's a nonpartisan, nonprofit group dedicated to raising congressional and public awareness of foster children.
The Stewarts' labor of love began in 1996, after Mildred Stewart's daughter needed help taking care of her 7-month-old son.
“We took in the child and raised him until he was 14,'' said Samuel Stewart. It was then that the Stewarts began taking classes to become foster parents.
Mildred and Samuel have eight children from previous marriages, three adopted children and their foster children.
“When you get a call and they say: 'We have a baby that needs a home. Can you take the baby?' I will say yes,'' Samuel Stewart said. “The real key is being able to give a child opportunities that you didn't have yourself,'' he added.
“I think listening to them and being helpful is key,'' Mildred Stewart said. “My biological children had all of the opportunities, but these children didn't have that opportunity.''
Mildred Stewart has served as president of the Prince George's County Foster Parent Association since 1997 and is acting president of the Maryland Foster Parent Association. She said she hopes the award will emphasize the need for foster parents.
“I am not a person who lives for recognition, but it feels good to be appreciated,'' Mildred Stewart said. “A lot of people don't appreciate foster parents; they think that we do it for the money. But the money we get is not enough to take care of a child.''
“It is really about giving back,'' Samuel Stewart said.
Many of the children the Stewarts have cared for have come from troubled homes; many of their parents are addicted to drugs or alcohol.
“These children bring a lot of issues with them because they have been abused and neglected,'' Samuel Stewart said.
“The key to raising children, even if they have a tough start, is that you have to convince them that they can become useful citizens,'' Mildred Stewart said.
Samuel Stewart said saying goodbye to the children can be tough.
“I want to keep them all, but we know that these children are not ours,'' he said. “We only keep them until their parents can get their lives together.''