DES MOINES, Iowa — Linda Harrell and her husband, Richard, raised two children of their own, but when they got a call in 1990 that there were two young girls in a Des Moines homeless shelter with nowhere to go, they jumped into action.
On a recent Thursday evening, Linda Harrell prepared and served food in the kitchen at Corinthian Baptist Church in Des Moines. Feeding and taking care of people is in her DNA. She is the fourth of 10 children. A mother of two grown children of her own, she vividly remembers the day in 1990 when she and her husband, Richard, received a call about two girls who were in a homeless shelter.
“And we thought, you know, this is Linda Harrell. We can go around and get the children little did we know we had to go through foster care training to get the children,” said Linda.
They learned quickly about what’s required to become a foster parent.
“Training wasn’t as rigorous as it is now. And that we went through it in record time to get the children but now the foster training is much more extensive than it was at that time. We worked day and night to be able to get the children,” Linda said.
Over 20 years, the Harrells parented more than 30 girls and one boy, the majority were Black.
“But our choice was to parent girls because they were harder to place than the young boys were. African-American girls are harder. They stay in shelter and group homes longer. So that was our choice. African American Girls, teen girls at that,” Linda said.
She recalls teaching many of the children how to eat with a knife and fork.
“It would bother me to see a child eating with a spoon. But that’s all they had. So, when he and I talked with them about that, and I told them we go out. I want you to know how to eat with a knife and fork. Of course, there were times that we would go out and they would come over with ‘which fork do I use?’ So, it worked out,” said Linda.
Some of the children lived with them from the age of 10 until high school graduation. Graduation was the goal.
The students went to school and worked part-time jobs. The Harrells instilled financial management and time management skills, but imagine helping more than a dozen teenagers get their driving permits!
Linda said, “And my husband and I taught them how to drive and must have hit couple of cars but a couple of tires, but we did it. And he took them to buy the cars. That was really something big when they purchased their cars.”
And they worked to make the holidays special.
“They would help me to cook Thanksgiving dinner. During Christmas time, they said this was the best Christmas they’d ever had. We would even hide gifts from them and they will have to go and find them and this is just to make the holidays fun for them. I would even buy gifts for their parents, some of them so that they would have something to give them,” said Linda.
One of those girls who lived with the Harrells is Brittany Overstreet Beard. At one time she was homeless. Now she’s married with three children and lives in the Quad Cities.
“I remember Mr. Harrall, he told me about the importance of memorizing your Social Security number. And they, it was with them when I had perfect attendance at school. I was on the A-B honor roll,” said Overstreet Beard. “I’ll never forget the ways that they just loved on me even when I was so undeserving.”
“These children want unconditional love. Once they finally realize that then it’s easier to parent them because they have lost some of the fear. You noticed here that when I do something bad, you don’t put me out. And I’ve had some of them say that, but we’re not gonna put you out. We’ll discuss and we’ll talk about it, but we’re not going to put you out,” said Linda.
The Harrells also instilled faith in the children. Sunday was the day for worship and while they didn’t have to go to the same church as the Harrells, they did have to attend church that corresponded with their religion.
The Harrells parented their last child in 2010. Richard Harrell died in 2015. But the Harrells’ legacy will live on through a scholarship in their name that helps foster children get an education. A ceremony was held in August to honor this year’s scholarship recipients.
Overstreet Beard established the scholarship. After her time living with the Harrells, she went on to become Miss Black Iowa. In the five years since the start of the scholarship, more than $60,000 has been raised.
If you’d like to donate to the Richard and Linda Harrell Foster Care Scholarship, go to www.harrellfostercarescholarship.org.