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Amid Poverty, This Remarkable Alabama Woman Changed The Lives Of More Than 20 Foster Children

Alabama farmhouse

At 78, Thelma Kennedy is still caring for one of her foster daughters, Rita*, who, at the age of 12, came to live with Thelma 32 years ago. Rita is one of more than 20 foster children Kennedy has raised, along with her own six children, in Vredenburgh, a small, impoverished community of 300 in the Black Belt region of Alabama.

Kennedy also was a teacher’s aide in a class for special-needs students and worked in a community agency serving adults with developmental delays.

Kennedy and Rita live in a simple, four-room, yellow house down a dirt road — a deep puddle fills the dip after a rain. A dog sleeps on the front porch, and there is a garden of greens out back. Inside, plenty of chairs and couches are crammed into the small front room — no sitting on buckets as Kennedy did as a child.

Kennedy has a box of awards, plaques, letters, and certificates — from children she has helped, to agencies she has served, to former Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions — commending her for a life of giving. But she brushes off the accolades: It’s a way of life. 

“I was born to it,” she says.

Difficult Childhoods: Foster Care and Poverty

Rita’s story is one of many painful realities of foster placement. Rita’s mother was raped at age 12 by her own father. “Her father is her grandfather,” as Kennedy says. Rita was later diagnosed as developmentally delayed, functioning at a three-year-old level. When Rita turned 12 and her grandfather-father began to harass her, she was taken from the home and put into foster care at Mrs. Kennedy’s.

Her mother later married and had a family but left Rita with Kennedy, finally begging her to keep Rita always. “I said yes,” Kennedy said.

Over the decades she was a foster mother, Kennedy cared for many children who had suffered trauma at home. Her faith and her belief in the beauty and potential of each child helped her care for and walk with them along their journeys. Many still keep in touch. And her own children, who inherited her caring heart, happily helped. “They loved having other kids around,” she said.

In Alabama today, 6,000 children are in foster care, with only 1,500 foster care families, creating a crisis that is common across the country. For Kennedy, it was not a job but a calling that took root in her difficult childhood, growing up dirt-poor in rural Alabama in the 1940s and ’50s.

“I didn’t want to see any other child had it like I had it coming up. If I can help anyone, I would.”

Her family lived in a two-room log house with a tin roof, which local men built on land her grandfather owned in Chestnut, a tiny community five miles from Vredenburgh. Nine children lived in the house with no running water, no electricity, and no refrigerator. There wasn’t even a chair — buckets did double duty — and a mattress on the floor served as the bed.

Their mother, whose husband died young in a job cutting trees, could “hunt like a man,” Kennedy said, and fed them from the woods: possum, raccoon, and rabbits. They had fruit trees and a garden, and raised corn they took to the mill to grind for grits and meal. Kennedy recalled they had two flour-sack dresses for church, and the girls alternated Sunday services so all four could attend each month. “We always went to church,” she said.

Poverty in Alabama

Poverty in rural areas was common throughout the country, but Alabama, which still ranks as one of the poorest states in the nation, was worst. Personal annual income dropped from $311 in 1929 to $194 in 1935. In 1950, less than 2 percent of rural homes had running water. As late as 1960, U.S. Census Bureau data show 42.5 percent of Alabamians lived below the poverty line, and in communities like Kennedy’s, the poverty rates were close to 80 percent.

It was hardest for African American families, who faced the additional burdens of segregation, discrimination, and Klan violence.

To help out at home, Kennedy at 10 years old worked for a white family that lived nearby, raking the yard, feeding chickens, gathering eggs, and helping with the garden. At dinner time, she would sit on the steps outside while the family ate. She was never allowed inside the house. When they were done eating, she could see through the screen door that they scraped their plates and gave her the “leftovers.”

One day, a bag of clothes was sitting on the steps from a relative who had died. Thelma chose two dresses and thanked the family. “Why are you thanking me?” the woman replied. “Those clothes are gonna be burned. And you can burn those dresses too.” Thelma cried all the way home.

When she was 12, she worked for a white woman in a wheelchair. The woman was kind and even helped her with her schoolwork. The hours were long for a young girl, caring for the woman at night, running home at daybreak to dress for school, and then returning again at night. Kennedy believes her heart tilted toward the handicapped during that experience.

As a teenager, she spent summers picking tobacco in North Carolina. Trucks would come through her small community and pick up teenagers to spend the summer “up north” picking tobacco, cotton, and peaches. They sent the money home and got back in time for school.

Thelma Kennedy Let Her Light Shine

“It was a hard life,” she said. “But God pulled me through.”

Kennedy extends her helping hand to anyone in need in her community. “I don’t know anyone in Vredenburgh who hasn’t been helped by Mrs. Kennedy,” said resident Ellen Davis, 91.

When she heard about a woman with young kids struggling to make ends meet, she visited and found that the floor had collapsed. Kennedy helped her get a trailer home.

When children needed something to do, Kennedy would round them up — along with her foster children — and form a choir. They traveled, often on gas fumes, to churches all over the county to sing and eat supper.

Some members of Thelma’s choir.

Today, Kennedy takes Rita everywhere she goes: singing with her choir at church revivals, mowing neighbors’ yards, visiting the sick, and playing with great-grandchildren.

“I had a calling; it was what God wanted me to do,” she said. “Right to this day, he’s always been there, never left me.”

Kennedy loves her church, Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, which she has attended since she was a child. Recently, the congregation moved the 130-year-old church from along a rough and tumble logging road in hilly Sedan, Ala., about 6 miles to flatter land near Vredenburgh. Donations will help the small congregation put the steeple back on the roof (they had to remove it to travel on the road). It’s at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, P.O. Box 433, Vredenburgh, AL 36481.

A soloist with the church choir, Kennedy sings a few verses of her favorite song, an expression of her faith and her life. “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine. … My God gave it to me, I’m gonna let it shine.”

* Name changed to protect privacy.