Mark Charbonneau’s neighbor was visiting a widower one day and noticed something a little odd: pictures of babies all over his house. When she asked him what the story was, he told her he and his wife used to be foster parents.
“Looking at the number of pictures she asked a question: ‘Well, how many?’” Mark says. “He said, ‘over a hundred.’”
One-hundred-and-seventy-three to be exact. All newborns.
“His name is Burrell,” Mark says. “I don’t know his last name because I really don’t know him.”
Mark, who has three young kids, says he remembers how challenging it was taking care of them when they were infants. To think someone did this, willfully, 173 times knowing the children were going to be released to a family, he says, “boggled” his mind. It also brought about a lot of questions.
He wanted to meet Burrell.
Burrell W. Lankford is 77 years old and lives a block away from Mark in Southwest Austin. He’s retired now, but used to work at the Texas Comptroller's office.
The first thing Mark and I notice when we enter his home is a giant train set that takes up his entire dining room.
“I’ve been collecting trains since I was about 6 years old,” Burrell says. “I got a garage full of them.”
He leads us to the kitchen table and Mark jumps right in. He asks Burrell how he and his wife started fostering.
“It started back in January 1976,” Burrell says. “My wife brought the issue up before the family and decided that she wanted to be a foster parent, so she asked me and the kids if we would be interested and everybody said yes.”
Burrell and his wife, Leanna, who died five years ago, had two kids of their own. She was a social worker and familiar with foster care programs. Burrell says he had only one worry when Leanna brought up the idea.
“She liked children. She liked babies particularly, and I was a little concerned she would want to adopt all the children that would walk through our door,” he says. “I had this vision of driving the family around in one of these big, yellow school buses.”
Shortly after they were approved as foster parents, they got their first baby. Then the second baby.
“Then from there on, it was just baby after baby,” he says.
Over the next 36 years, the family would take in nearly 200 newborns for a few months at a time – sometimes longer. And it wasn’t just baby after baby. Burrell says they often cared for three babies at once.
“It was busy,” he says. “We had a row of car seats in the backseat. Eventually we got a van. That made it easier to carry those three car seats.”
There were plenty more questions. Was it expensive? Did it make it hard to get around? What was their strategy for sleep? How did this affect their own kids?
Burrell insists their life didn’t really change all that much; they just fell into a routine.
“Feeding, bathing and getting ’em dressed,” he says. “You’ve got to give all the credit to the foster moms. In my case, I worked during the day. [My wife was] here all day long, working with the babies.”
He says the family went on living their lives and the babies just tagged along. Family reunions, family vacations, little league games, dance recitals – he and Leanna took them everywhere.
The newborns definitely turned some heads, though. When his own kids hit high school, Burrell remembers they had to bring the babies to a back-to-school event.
“My wife would take one baby and go to the class, and I’d take one baby and go to the class,” Burrell says. “We’d be pushing a stroller down a hall and somebody would say, ‘Boy, they’re going to back-to-school night for a long time.'”
There were plenty of good times, Burrell says, but there were also times when things weren’t so rosy. He says some of the kids they fostered in later years were born with drugs in their systems.
“You just have to sit with them more,” he says. “Fluorescent lights would set them off sometimes. You just have to comfort them and hold them – until it was over with.”
Burrell says some of the babies had health issues and had to go to the hospital for surgeries. But he says this wasn’t the hardest part of fostering. The hardest part was preparing for a baby to leave.
“Our first longterm baby, when that baby left, it was hard on all of us in the family,” Burrell says. “It hurts. I mean, you get so adjusted and then you put all yourself into taking care of that baby – and then he’s gone, or she’s gone. And it just brings you to tears.”
Burrell says some of the babies he fostered have reached out over the years. Most of them just want to see where they slept. Sometimes their parents have questions. Four of the kids have stayed in contact. Burrell says he plans to send money to one of the kids for his birthday this month. He lives in town and is doing well.
Mark says he’s struck by the family’s commitment.
“It’s like you and your wife made this choice and you just assumed that you’re going to be inconvenienced,” he says. “Like, your life is going to be different, and that just became the new normal for you.”
Burrell says they made up their mind to take in these kids, so they just did what they had to do.
Mark asks if he ever second-guessed their decision.
“No,” he says, adding that if his wife were still alive, they’d still be doing it.
“It’s an incredible legacy, Burrell, and that’s one of the main reasons why I wanted to meet you,” Mark says.
“Well, we hope we made a difference,” Burrell responds. “We don’t know, but we hope we did.”