The homeless boy and his two sisters had been locked inside a filthy gas station bathroom for the night so their mother could go out on the town with her friends.
A few months later, when Connie and Rod Spencer welcomed the neglected siblings into their lives, they were surprised to find dinner leftovers hidden beneath the kids' pillows and tucked inside dresser drawers. After a lifetime of hunger, the children had learned to harbor food whenever they could get it.
"We've seen things that would break your heart," says Connie, "but there's no greater reward than helping these kids. When they walk through that door, they're part of the family. It gets so you can't imagine life without them. It's real hard to say goodbye."
Connie says this as she fills plates with chow mein, fried rice and lemon chicken for Alicia, Joey and Jacob — the latest children to find compassion and comfort at the Spencers' crowded but cozy five-bedroom home in Rose Park.
She and Rod wanted to get together for a Free Lunch to help draw attention to Utah's growing need for more foster parents.
"I can't understand why anybody wouldn't want to try this," says Connie, 44, who also works as a special-education aide at her neighborhood elementary school. She and Rod decided to open their home to abused and neglected children five years ago at the urging of their adopted daughter, Jennifer, who was longing for a sister.
"For those like us who can't have kids of their own, it's the perfect way to have children in your lives," says Rod, 47, who works at a steel plant. "With so many kids waiting for foster parents, I wish I could convince people they have nothing to lose by giving it a try."
Step inside the Spencers' front door and it is immediately obvious that needy children are at the center of their lives. A "Home Sweet Home" plaque is surrounded by snapshots of all the foster kids who have spent a few months or a couple of years with the family before being adopted or reunited with their natural parents.
"Here's Katie — she was sexually abused by her stepfather," Connie says quietly. "And here's Chris — he had walked the city with his mother so many times, he could tell you every place to get free food. Then there's Danielle — our first foster child. Her mother had basically just given her away."
She pauses and blinks back tears. "You wonder how it could happen, but it does. A lot of people think of foster kids as problem children, but it's not true. These kids are very average, normal kids. It's the parents who have created the problems."
Many parents who lose custody of their children have a history of drug and alcohol abuse, says Rod, or have been caught dealing cocaine or cooking up batches of meth in the family kitchen.
"When the kids tell you their stories, you're stunned," he says. "It makes you even more determined to give them a happy home. These kids crave structure in their lives. When they first come here, they're a little frightened, but it doesn't take long before they're arguing over who gets to say the family prayer."
The only downside to foster parenting, says Connie, is knowing that the day will come when it is time to say goodbye.
"If their parents can work out their problems, you want the kids to be with them again," she says, "but you still hurt inside. All you can do is hope you've made an impact, somehow."
As the latest additions to her family scramble outside to jump on the trampoline, she points to an empty bed in Alicia's room. "I hope we'll get another call soon," says Connie. "You hate to see a bed go empty when there's room for a fourth."
Have a story? Let's hear it over lunch. E-mail your name, phone number and what's on your mind to freelunch@desnews . com or send a fax to 466-2851. You can also write me at the Deseret News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.