Monday, February 9, 2009

Sister Teresa's long legacy for caring for children

47 years of foster care at N.Y. Foundling Hospital
Richardson, Clem. New York Daily News, Feb. 9, 2009.

The black-and-white photo was among the raft of mementos Sister Teresa Kelly came across while cleaning out her New York Foundling Hospital office.

It shows Kelly, former Mayor Ed Koch, Foundling Hospital President Dr. Vincent Fontana, television weatherman Irv (Mr. G) Gikofsky, several other nuns from Kelly's Sisters of Charity order and 10 children, all with big grins on their faces.

Sister Teresa remembers the moment.

A thunderstorm was raging outside, rattling the walls.

"Mayor Koch looked around and said, 'Don't worry, children, the Mayor is here,'" Sister Kelly recalled. "One of the children said, 'We're not worried; the Sister is here.'"

After a 47-year career with the Foundling Hospital, during which she has been mentor, confidant and surrogate mother to thousands of children, Sister Teresa retired last month.

Her decision had nothing to do with her age, but rather a recent city Administration for Children's Services directive to place fewer foster children in congregate care facilities, said Foundling Communications Director Jennifer Gilbert.

Public acceptance of unwed women having children has also reduced the number of babies being abandoned or put up for adoption.

That has meant fewer children coming into Blaine Hall, the top-floor dormitory facility at Foundling Hospital offices on Avenue of the Americas in Manhattan.

The last child living at Blaine Hall was adopted by a Foundling staff member in December.

Sister Teresa's retirement leaves only one Sister of Charity at the Foundling, down from as many as 60.

Sister Teresa, a bartender's daughter who was a Clairol model before joining the Sisters of Charity order in 1957, has been program director at Blaine Hall since it opened in 1974 to house older Foundling children.

She also was a teacher at the Blaine House school, and said the program was the driving force in her life.

"Blaine Hall has had only one program director for more than 34 years," said Foundling Executive Director Bill Baccaglini. "This is one tough Irish woman who doesn't suffer fools. I will miss her."

Sister Teresa has seen the business of foster care change over the years, and not always for the better.

"You used to be able to take a child to the movies or out to the museum or even home with you at night," she said.

"You could sit on the bed with them and hug them and comfort them. Now, you have to be very careful how you deal with a child, after all those abuse cases in the news.

"People don't know how much some children suffer in their lives," she added. "So many of them just need to feel loved. The people who do this kind of work do it because they love children and want the best for them."

WHAT DID working with children for so many years mean to her?

"I had family and I had love," said Sister Teresa, who plans to live with a sister in Westchester County. "People sometimes ask me if I regret not having any children of my own. I tell them I had everything I every wanted."

Some 138 people, including several of her former charges, turned out for Sister Teresa's retirement party, held at Rosie O'Grady's Restaurant in midtown.

She's not sure what she will do next, only that it will have something to do with caring for children.

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