CHOCTAW — As foster parents, Merle and Ernest Bean have seen sadness. "We’ve had kids in full-body casts,” Merle said. "We’ve had cigarette burns. We’ve had broken limbs. All kinds of abuse.” Added Ernest, "One child had holes in her feet where somebody had poked pencils.” A boy the couple planned to adopt in 1994 was kidnapped at gunpoint from his elementary school by a man now on death row in Florida for another person’s murder, and the child never was found. A girl the couple adopted as an infant died seven years later in 2002 from health problems she had because her mother was a drug addict. The Beans, both 58, wouldn’t have traded their experiences, though. They would have missed sharing their home and lives as foster parents for more than 80 children handled by the state Department of Human Services since 1986, while raising three of their own children and their adopted girl. "We wanted them to see how a family could be,” Merle said. The Beans’ journey has been one of faith and charity, a mission to show the unfortunate "that every family doesn’t abuse their kids,” as Ernest put it. "We did what we felt the Lord would have us do, and that improved the lives of kids.” For daughter Rachel Barnes, 29, growing up around unrelated kids, sometimes seven at a time, was mostly fun. And enlightening. "You learn to appreciate what you have,” she said. Barnes said the Beans’ household worked because the couple always had enough attention and love to go around — for their own children, for others and for one another. "Any time you’re with them, you can see the love they have for each other.” It was 1968 when two teens met at Springlake Amusement Park in Oklahoma City, Ernest working and Merle out with friends. "When I saw him, I fell in love,” Merle recalled. Within a year, the two married. Soon they had a son, the first of what Merle hoped would be a dozen children. Ernest was sent to Vietnam, where, pulling guard duty one night, a thought came to him that changed his dismissive view of Christianity and put the delinquent tendencies of his younger years in perspective. "God spoke to my heart,” he said. "He made me realize that if I died, I’d go to hell.” Back home, Ernest and Merle became more involved with their Southern Baptist church. One day they met some new members who had two foster boys. "We thought we might like to do that,” Merle said. Their first two foster children, boys 6 months and 4 years old, stayed only 10 days before being returned to their family. Rachel, always the "little momma” of the Bean household, asked where the baby was, Merle said. "That was kind of heart-wrenching.” The couple were always clear about their children’s responsibilities. "Being a foster family meant sharing your mom and dad, your home, your bedroom, your toys and your clothes,” Merle said. "Whatever you had, you had to share.” It was worth it, Rachel said. "It was a joy to be able to share it with kids whoweren’t as fortunate,” she said. "Even though we were the kids in the house, we always had a part in helping to better somebody’s life.” Today, Rachel is director of a child care facility, where she comes across abused kids. "I have a heart for children who are going through tough times.” And so it went in the Bean household, with kids coming and kids going. Some would stay a few weeks, others up to four years. Parting was almost always sorrow. Except with a few very disturbed kids, Ernest said. One 6-year-old who had been severely abused by his mother’s boyfriend had "a lot of anger.” After visits with his mother, "he’d come back and say, ‘I’m going to ... get a knife and kill you all.’” Then he’d calm down. But after the boy shared a bunk bed with the Bean’s son, the couple found a stuffed animal sliced to pieces. "He’d gotten up in the night and went to the kitchen and got a knife,” Ernest said. Along the way, the Beans had tried to adopt several foster children. However, at that time DHS preferred to keep kids with their families. After leaving, a few foster kids kept in touch for a while, but most "get out and get busy,” Ernest said. "You lose contact.” Thoughts turn to their temporary family members sometimes. Marie, for instance. "She was a little tow-headed doll,” Ernest said. "Everybody loved Marie.” The girl stayed with the Beans for two years and went home when she was 6. "We never heard anything,” he said. "You always wonder.” The Beans managed their busy home on the $10 a day DHS provides per foster child along with Ernest’s appliance repair work and heat and air contracting business, and a small military disability. Today, Ernest is ready to retire, sell the house and travel in a motor home if he can persuade Merle, who says she is "almost there.” Even then, the Beans will look to help others, planning church mission trips. "That’s the secret,” Ernest said. "If you ever retire, don’t just do nothing.”
Editor’s noteMerle and Ernest Bean are the fourth couple featured in the "Oklahoma’s Most Inspiring Couples” 2010 calendar, sponsored by the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative. The couples featured in the calendar are being profiled in The Oklahoman’s Life section each month. For more information about the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative’s inspiring couples, go online to www.foreverforreal.com.