You won’t find any kids thumb-dancing on their cell phones at Darlene and Curtis Bell’s warmhearted foster home, where over 30 children have been harbored since they began hosting them 32 years ago. “We just want kids to be kids,” Darlene told Adoption.com. “We tell them to just go outside and play! They’ve got balloons; they’ve got balls; they’ve got scooters; they have each other. They haven’t had the opportunity to be kids sometimes in the places they come from. Boys have been expected to be the man of the house when they were young. They’ve never been to camp; they’ve never played team sports. We have different rewards systems, but sometimes you have to just stop and breathe. Our kids have never been to Dairy Queen; they have never been inside a McDonald’s. You don’t have to be an adult if you are seven or eight years old. A lot of our children have had that weight.”
Darlene and Curtis Bell were recognized at a Minnesota Twins game on July 13, 2018, where they were celebrated as champions of foster and adoptive care by the Mixed Roots Foundation, which works to create awareness and support in the adoption and foster care community. Also honored at the game were U.S. Women’s Hockey Team sisters Hannah Brandt, who won the gold medal along with Team USA, and her sister Marissa Brandt, adopted from South Korea at birth and part of the first ever United North and South Korea Women’s Hockey Team. The Bells also appeared on a question-and-answer panel hosted by the Mixed Roots Foundation along with U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, also known for her work in improving foster care throughout the state.
The Bells are the parents of six children, three of whom are adopted. Darlene told Adoption.com that “a lot of people don’t even know which of our kids are adopted and which aren’t. They even look like us. They were ours right out of labor and delivery.” The Bells first fostered those three children and were able to adopt all of them within six years. To their other foster children, Darlene says, “We are a bridge. We’ve had a lot of foster kids who overcame grief and loss and fear. We wanted to give them that element of ‘we’re family.’ That is the most rewarding: to come to a house where there’s unconditional love which gives them an opportunity just to be children,” And children they are! Many former foster kids write them letters tumbling over with love and thankfulness. “You never called us your foster kids,” they say, “you called us your grandkids.” And the Bells’ previous foster children still refer to them as Gram and Pop.
The Bells’ callings to foster care began when they were young. Darlene recalled that her family of origin “just [took in kids] for the village before there was a foster care system and felt led and called to do that, rather than let them go outside the family.” Curtis was taken in by his grandmother for a time at age eleven. He remembered that “My wife and I got married and had some relatives in the foster care system, and we became foster parents to those kids and later adopted them. We are called to do this, and we know it.”
Routines and life skills are an integral part of children’s upbringing in the Bells’ home. Kids learn to do chores, help with the cooking, brush their teeth, and make their bed every morning. “We cut them some slack at first,” Curtis explained, “but we realize that they will have these skills for life.”
Darlene exclaimed that “they are so proud they can take care of themselves! They like to ask if they did a good job. We always sit down and have our meals as a family.”
Both Bells are essential members of Minnesota’s chapter of QPI, the Quality Parenting Initiative, which launched in October of 2017. They are each on several different subcommittees for the state, working to ensure that adequate information is provided to every child’s foster home, and that proper training is provided to foster parents dealing with children who have histories of trauma, grief, and fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). They campaign for funding for sports, YMCA activities, and CPR certification for foster parents. “We see a need to advocate for more resources and more training for social workers and agencies. If we can reduce the amount of re-entry, kids will have a better chance of making it,” Darlene explained.
The Mixed Roots Foundation learned of the Bells’ work in foster care through a Star Tribune article, and wanted to praise their courageous story along with those of the other honorees. While the media tends to highlight gloomy narratives about foster care, their family shines as a positive lantern in a dark night. Darlene reflected that “a lot of times, what you hear about foster care is so negative. But what we received from our kids is so much more than they will ever receive from us. They are our babies, and just look at the joy we got from standing in the gap for them! I believe that this is one of the most rewarding things that Curtis and I were called to do. Not everyone is called to this, and that’s okay. We are called to this.”