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Paynesville Press - October 8, 2003

Rice Lake couple earns foster parent award

By Michael Jacobson

(Editor's Note: The Ihrkes asked that their foster children's surnames be withheld.)

Allan and Sharon Ihrke don't think that winning awards for being foster parents is a big deal because they were just doing what they love to do: taking care of children.

During the last 35 years, the Ihrkes, who now live on Rice Lake, have taken care of 35 foster children, most on a long-term basis. They specialize in caring for teens, especially those with problems that make them difficult to place in other foster homes.

Recently, Allan and Sharon Ihrke were honored as regional Foster Parents of the Year by the Minnesota Social Services Association.

Currently, the Ihrkes share their home with Adriano, 13; Justin, also 13; Ashley, 16; and Tricia, 18. It gets a little hectic at times, but it works for them, according to Sharon.

"It keeps things interesting," said Tricia, "having all of these personalities together."

The Ihrkes began doing foster care in Iowa 35 years ago. At the time, they had three children of their own, (they had a fourth child a few years later) and they wanted to do something for children who weren't as fortunate as their own.

Ihrkes foster family Their first foster child was a mentally-handicapped eight-year-old with parents who were also mentally handicapped. "And that one led to 34 more," said Allan.

They did foster care in Iowa, Missouri, and in the Twin Cities before moving to the Paynesville area 12 years ago.

According to Sharon, they have cared for gang members and juvenile offenders, as well as children who have been through various forms of abuse and neglect. Some had mental illnesses, and others were forgotten children that may have been in several foster homes before finding the Ihrkes.

The Ihrke family currently has six members in their Rice Lake home. From left are Tricia, Adriano, Sharon, Allan, Justin, and Ashley. Sharon and Allan have been foster parents for 35 years

They are licensed to care for up to five foster children at a time, but since sibling groups are figured as one child, the Ihrkes have had up to nine kids in their home at one time.

Social services can call the Ihrkes at any time, asking them to take in a child or a family of children. Usually, by the time the Ihrkes have been called the children are considered hard to place because of their ages or their backgrounds.

Sometimes Sharon and Allan say no, if they believe a new foster child would put the family in danger, for instance. "I don't know what makes me say yes. I just get a gut feeling," said Sharon.

"As foster parents, the Ihrkes are successful because they spend a lot of time with their kids, and because they're not afraid to set rules and limits," said Pastor Joe Williquette of the Paynesville Evangelical Free Church.

Most recently, Adriano and Justin wrangled their way into the Ihrke's home and their hearts.

Adriano, a sixth grader, spent his earliest years in a Brazilian orphanage. A failed adoption attempt brought him to the United States, and he spent time in a few homes before being placed with the Ihrkes, where he was supposed to stay until an appropriate adoptive family could be found for him.

Adriano, however, had different plans. He decided that he wanted Sharon and Allan to be his parents and gave not-so-subtle hints that he had found his home.

When Sharon mentioned once to Adriano that they were looking for a nice young family to adopt him, he replied "Maybe I don't like young people," she laughed.

Two years later, Adriano was an Ihrke. To celebrate, the church threw Adriano and his family a huge party attended by over 150 people.

Sharon and Al had never adopted a foster child before. They had considered it on other occasions but were never able to do it, usually because the child wasn't available for adoption because family members were still in the picture.

13 year old Adriano They worried a little about their ages before adopting Adriano. In their early 60s now, when Adriano graduates from high school, they will be in their 70s. Their biological children are already in their 30s and 40s, and the Ihrkes have grandchildren of their own, too.

The Ihrkes haven't ruled out adopting again, said Al.

Thirteen-year-old Adriano is the first foster child that the Ihrkes have adopted.

Justin, also a sixth grader, became a part of the Ihrke household because his sister, Ashley, already lived with the Irhkes. Overnight visits weren't enough for Justin, who wanted to stay with the family on a more permanent basis. Justin has been part of the Ihrke family for nine months; his sister has lived with the Ihrkes for almost two years. Al, a municipal bonds broker for a St. Cloud investment firm, enjoys having fun with the foster kids, playing basketball and going tubing or waterskiing.

Sharon would like to say that she is a stay-at-home foster mom, "but I'm actually a stay-in-the-van foster mom," she laughed. Her calendar, filled out in a rainbow of colors representing each child, is jammed.

Besides shuttling kids to the usual teen activities like sports, school and church activities, and work (both Ashley and Tricia work in Paynesville), Sharon makes regular trips for social worker meetings, visits with siblings, and counseling appointments, though, for the time being, none of her kids need regular counseling. "We go in and out of town sometimes six or eight times a day," said Allan.

Getting their kids involved in activities is important, said Sharon. "We want these kids to lead as close to normal lives as possible," she said, adding that their foster kids go on vacations with them and recently spent time in Indiana as part of a church mission project.

Active members in the Paynesville Evangelical Free Church, the Ihrkes like to get their foster children involved with the church youth group right away. Sharon is a leader for the group. This year, all of the Ihrke's kids played on the church softball team.

Through the years, most of their kids thrived under their care, but there were a few that the Ihrkes couldn't connect with, they said. Some had difficult beginnings but ended up in loving relationships between foster parent and child. "Sometimes these kids have trouble bonding because they've been through so much," said Sharon.

Tricia was one of the latter. She had a difficult time at first, but eventually adjusted. "We've bonded," said Tricia, resting her head on Sharon's shoulder.

Some of their kids never make the adjustment. Some - particularly gang members - run away, and others end up in group homes or with other families, according to the Ihrkes. "When a kid doesn't make it, you have to accept it. You have to do the best you can," said Sharon.

The Ihrkes also provide respite care for other foster families. In some cases, children can't be left with a sitter for various reasons, so Sharon and Al care for them, giving their caretakers a break.

Following her parent's example, one of the Ihrke's daughters also provide respite care.

According to Sharon, she took care of people from a very early age. Even with that experience, she knows that she and Allan couldn't have done so well with their foster kids without the support they've gotten from others. They've gotten unwavering support from their church community, the county's social workers have been great, and the support shown to the family by the Paynesville Area Schools has been incredible, said Sharon.

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