KANSAS, OK — For the past 55 years, Ivy and Nelson Pendergrass always have had a child in their home.
Their youngest, an 18-year-old daughter, graduated Friday night from Kansas High School in Delaware County and has been accepted to Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College on a cheerleading scholarship.
She is one of more than 200 foster children the couple have taken into their home and offered love, friendship, encouragement and shelter.
“We quit counting after 200; we don't know what number she is,” Ivy Pendergrass said.
Ivy, 80, and Nelson, 81, were honored this month by Gov. Mary Fallin and the Department of Human Services for their extraordinary commitment to Oklahoma's children.
“We have just felt it was an honor to serve as foster parents,” Ivy Pendergrass said.
‘I was their daughter'
“Even to this day I still call them Mom and Dad,” said Tammie Bledsaw, of Tulsa. Her two daughters, ages 8 and 3, also call them “Grandma Ivy” and “Grandpa,” she said.
At age 13, Bledsaw moved in with the Pendergrasses on Feb. 11, 1983. She lived with them until she aged out of the system.
“I was lucky. I got to stay with them the entire time,” Bledsaw said. “They never once treated me like a foster child; I was their daughter. I was always introduced as their child.
“For them, it's all about loving you,” Bledsaw said.
She said words from “Dad” stay with her.
“I am 40 and to this day he still says it to me — I am valuable and precious,” Bledsaw said. “You hear that enough and you start you believing it.”
On Bledsaw's 18th birthday, she came home from school and found that Ivy had filled her bedroom with helium balloons.
“They always made the day about us,” Bledsaw said.
Bledsaw said she loved her home.
“When I went to college, they drove me to my dorm room on a Friday afternoon,” Bledsaw said. “By Friday night I was back home.”
Bledsaw said she had some behavioral problems as a young teen, but Nelson and Ivy never game up on her or any of the foster children.
“They always said they were in it for the long haul,” Bledsaw said.
Answering the call
The couple became house parents at Bethesda Boys Ranch in Mounds in 1969.
“Nelson had read in the newspaper about the boys' ranch needing help,” Ivy Pendergrass said. “Nelson answered the call.”
With the Pendergrasses' four children plus three boys from the boys' ranch, the house was too small, she said. So Nelson built a home with four bedrooms and a larger dormitory style room for the boys, Ivy Pendergrass said.
Eventually, the couple would care for 12 boys, she said.
“We had a houseful, and that became too much of a load on me,” she said.
On the advice of Ivy's doctor in 1977, they moved into a regular home after Nelson retired from Southwestern Bell and went into the banking business.
Caring for children
Within a couple of years, the Pendergrass children began to beg their parents to get more children.
The couple went through the training and in 1979 became DHS foster parents.
“We have many children in our home,” Ivy Pendergrass said. “Years ago we took in infants. It breaks your heart when they leave, but you don't want to deny them the privilege of a forever home.”
The Pendergrasses said their faith is the reason they have taken in children.
“Going to church is one of things we do as a family,” Pendergrass said.
Since 1983, the Pendergrasses have only accepted girls, and they limit it to four or five at a time.
Highs and lows
Several of the couple's foster children have been straight-A students and were scholarship recipients, she said.
“It would be great if we could say every child was success,” Pendergrass said, “but a few go AWOL, and that breaks your heart.”
One foster child said when she aged out she planned to leave the Pendergrass home, she said.
“It broke my heart because I wanted to see her stay and graduated. Later she wrote me letter saying the worse thing she ever did was leaving our home,” Pendergrass said.
“One foster boy told me living with us was one of the happiest times in his life,” Pendergrass said. “We just loved them and treated them like they were our own.”
For them, it's all about loving you.”
Former foster child of Ivy and Nelson Pendergrass