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‘Typical parents’ not so typical after all

They’ve made a home for more than 200 children during the past 60 years

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COVINA, Calif. — With two teenagers and a pre-teen in the house, things are quite typical for Tom and Ethel "Joey" Vehawn of the Covina 1st Ward, Walnut California Stake.

In fact, Sister Vehawn comes across as the typical "Soccer Mom." She takes the kids to soccer and baseball games along with helping with school work, handling discipline, keeping the house and preparing meals.

She had to limit a telephone interview with the Church News because she was also mixing bread to take to the women for whom she is a visiting teacher. Brother Vehawn couldn't talk on the phone at all because he was rushing off to watch their daughter run in a middle school track meet.

What makes them unique as parents is that Brother Vehawn is 85 years old and Sister Vehawn is 81.

The children in their home now — James, who is blind, age 21, Jade and Karen, both 13, and Jason, 9 — are the last of more than 220 foster children they have taken into their home since shortly after they were married 60 years ago. They have adopted the older three; Jason was adopted by their biological daughter, Pamela.

Setting aside plans common to senior citizens, Brother and Sister Vehawn are facing the prospects of getting the kids through school, which will include taking Jade and Karen to early morning seminary when they begin high school next school year.

Sister Vehawn puts the telephone interview on hold to answer the doorbell. It is a neighbor boy looking for Jason. She enjoys having her children's playmates come to her house to play, and several show up each day, she said.

The Vehawns were married in 1947. Shortly after they married, while they were living in Nephi, Utah, Tom joined the Church. They were sealed in the Manti Utah Temple in 1949 and a month later their first child, Michael, was born.

Brother Vehawn, who worked 47 years for U.S. Gypsum Co., was transferred to Salt Lake City in 1953. That was where Michael's pediatrician asked Sister Vehawn if she would take in a couple of babies with disabilities, given up by their parents, until they could be placed in permanent homes. She took six.

"I just thought I was helping the doctor out," she said of what has become a lifetime of care giving.

Besides routine foster care, the Vehawns took in three native American students during the Church's placement program and, after Sister Vehawn retired from teaching, became involved in a program designed to put families back together — taking children from shelters until their parents could work out whatever problems that were preventing them from caring for them.

In the middle of child care, Sister Vehawn began nursing school but had to quit following a horse-riding accident. But she did become a school teacher for 16 years.

She said her husband worked hard, often starting as early as 6 a.m. and going into the evening. On top of that, he has served in Church callings such as bishop and high councilor, which took more hours.

"He would come home in the evening and not even know what kids he was going to find here," she said.

Brother Vehawn is now a ward missionary. Sister Vehawn said she can't hold a regular Church calling because she has to care for James who is blind and has other disabilities. But she does substitute often in Primary; Tom cares for James on those Sundays. The Vehawns also try to get to the temple once a month.

Of the children they have taken in, many have been baptized and remained active in the Church. Sister Vehawn speaks affectionately of all those who have passed through her home and remains in close contact with most of them as they have become adults and gone out on their own, some serving missions and graduating from college.

"We're seeing the fruits of our labors as they come back," she said.

Sister Vehawn is president of the San Gabriel Valley Foster Parent Association, joining others in trying to make life better for unfortunate children. Right now, she said, the organization is pushing to make things better for those who age out of government-supported foster care in their late teens, often still ill-equipped to deal with life on their own.

At home, she said her focus is getting three more children through school. "This is such a critical time for them," she said. "You can't let down."

She isn't oblivious to her age, either.

"I've got a lot to do yet, and not much time left," she said. — Greg Hill