In 1998, 49-year-old Mary Keane was living in a small apartment in Yonkers and working as a healthcare consultant when her work brought her into a Westchester County residential center for foster children, and face-to-face with the staggering number of teens lost in the system. Mary recalls seeing all of these teenagers who were provided with food and shelter and all of the basic necessities, except for one major one: love. “They had nobody to love them, and it really devastated me. I couldn’t just walk away and ignore this issue,” she explains. Mary traded her apartment for a 12-bedroom Yonkers Victorian fixer-upper and became a certified foster-care parent. On February 16, 2000, she took in her first teen, 14-year-old Jennifer Blanco. Today, Mary is mother to 13 children—2 boys and 11 girls—who range in age from 23 to 45 (seven are legally adopted; the rest are what Mary calls “morally adopted”).
As a lesbian, Mary originally planned to foster only gay teenagers because this group has a particularly hard time finding permanent placement, but she soon realized how many teenagers in foster care were in desperate need of a permanent home, regardless of sexual orientation. As Mary explains: “Nobody wanted teenagers. So, when they found out I would take them, they filled my house up rapidly. It was actually quite a while before a gay teen was placed in my home.” Mary became so committed to finding permanent homes for foster teenagers that she switched careers, taking a role with You Gotta Believe, a Brooklyn nonprofit organization with a mission to find families for older kids before they “age out” of foster care at 21.
Jennifer, now 30, says her life was forever changed when her adoptive mother took her in. “When I walked into Mary’s house, I didn’t have anyone. Mary changed my life because I learned what it feels like to be loved. My sisters, my brothers, Mary—we are all there for each other,” she says. Echoing her sister’s sentiment, Anni, 33, who came to live with Mary at age 17, says, “She taught us how to love and be loved. Misbehaving, fighting, playing hooky—Mom taught us there was nothing we could do that would stop us from being her children.”
Raising this large multicultural family wasn’t without its challenges. They had to become inured to the strange looks they would draw when they all went out together somewhere, and financing a comfortable life for the large brood was also a challenge. “I’ve always worked multiple jobs and did whatever I had to do to make a go of it,” Mary explains. She received subsidies from the state while the children were in her care and under the age of 21, which, she says, was “an enormous help.” But, mindful of hurtful assumptions that foster parents abuse the subsidies, Mary notes, “I was actually relieved when the money stopped [after the kids turned 21], because when the money stops, they know you are not in it for profit.”
Mary says she would do it all again, too: “I just love my kids. I adore each of their personalities. I love their ability to get out there every single day and try again, regardless of what they’ve gone through—and they’ve gone through horrific lives. Still, they get up and keep trying and hoping and imagining better. To me, they are inspirational.”
At 67, with her extensive family—which now includes 25 grandkids—Mary has finally closed her doors to any new foster children. But she has not given up on her mission to help teenagers find a family. “Adopting older kids is one of the most powerful and transformative things someone can go through,” she says.