Jeri Wagner of Clovis has mothered so many children over the past decade that it’s easy to lose count. She believes it’s 18, but it could be 20.
The children were among the hardest to place in foster homes – siblings, older children, adolescents – but Wagner says she’s never had a bad foster child.
Foster parenthood “truly brings me happiness,” she says. “You get that happy feeling when you see someone else’s life change.”
You get that happy feeling when you see someone else’s life change.
Wagner, 59, and husband Steve Wagner, 60, have six former foster children who are permanent members of the family. The couple got legal guardianship, which is akin to adoption. Wagner says guardianship allows the children to qualify for college scholarships reserved for foster children.
Rudy Duarte, 21, is one of the Wagners’ six “adopted” children and came to live with the couple about three years ago. He has special needs and remained in the foster system until he turned 21.
Rudy uses one word, “awesome,” to describe his mom a few days before Mother’s Day. “And she’s like the Super Mom,” he says, elaborating on Wagner’s awesomeness. “She’ll do everything for us.”
The couple’s five other “adopted” children are Luke Mains, 21, Ramon Rodriguez, 20, Sherrie DeBarr, 18, Paul DeBarr, 14, and Cienna Goldman, 13.
Wagner says the six children are “the main six that God said at the very beginning that you would have.” In between their fostering and guardianships, other children have joined the family briefly before leaving to be reunited with their biological parents or to be adopted.
1,736Fresno County children in foster care
554Fresno County children ages 12-21 in foster care
The Wagners were not thinking about foster parenthood 10 years ago when they moved into a four-bedroom house next door to their biological daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren. Their new home felt big for them and a Chihuahua, but a chance encounter at a yard sale led to the couple’s decision to fill their home with foster children.
Jeri Wagner chatted with an older couple who came to the yard sale. They didn’t buy anything, Wagner recalls, but they wanted to talk to her about the six children they were fostering. “After they left, I told Steve, ‘We’re going to end up with six foster kids.’ ”
Steve Wagner, who works in the Fresno Unified School District custodial department, scoffed at his wife’s proclamation. But within the year, they had signed up to be foster parents through Aspiranet, a foster services agency. And they agreed to take siblings and older children.
Sherrie and Paul were their first foster children. Sherrie was 9 and her brother was 5. They had been living in a barn in Squaw Valley with no running water or heat. Within about a year, the Wagners were granted guardianship.
They take them in and love them and care for them as if they are their own.
Richard Alsonso, Aspiranet community engagement specialist
Soon after taking in Sherrie and Paul, they became foster parents to Ramon, then 11. They became his guardian after three years. Ramon, who now lives in Sanger, was a handful when he came to live with them. Jeri Wagner says “he’s a great kid now.”
Luke, a playmate of Ramon’s, lived down the street and joined the family next. He was 11. Within a year of fostering him, the Wagners became his guardians. He now lives in Oregon.
The Wagners had suspected that Luke was neglected. He wanted to be at their home morning and night, including Christmas Eve. (Jeri Wagner rushed to one of the only stores open, Blockbuster video, to buy a gift. “We bought a PlayStation and paid way too much money for it,” she says and laughs.)
Rudy joined the family at the behest of the Wagners’ biological daughter, Carry Gassett, a vice principal at Madera South High School. Rudy had been one of her students when she taught special education. She told her parents that he was a good kid. “He just needs someone to love him.”
Jeri Wagner says it’s not hard to embrace Rudy. “He’s the sweetest, most kind-hearted person.”
Cienna, the youngest of the six, has been in the family about 2 1/2 years. The Wagners have had guardianship since that time. She is their focus right now, Jeri Wagner says. “She needs a lot of attention.”
Wagner connects with the children she fosters. She had an alcoholic father, which contributed to a tough childhood.
“I know when they’re acting out they don’t want to do that, but they don’t know any other way to get their pain out,” she says. “I’m just so blessed that God has given me the ability to know that.”
It’s also made it easier not to give up on the children, something necessary for successful foster parenting, says Richard Alonso, Aspiranet community engagement specialist and life coach.
Jeri and Steve Wagner understand children will make mistakes, Alonso says. “They’re very loving and accepting of anybody and of their history. They don’t let the history dictate what the future is going to hold for these youths. They take them in and love them and care for them as if they are their own.”
I would still have all that hurt inside me.
Steve Wagner, who takes the children dirt biking and teaches them how to drive, says he is the disciplinarian in the family. His wife is the one with the big heart. “She always gives them the benefit of the doubt. Always so soothing and loving.”
The family’s nickname for Jeri Wagner: Mary Poppins.
She has been known to give out “a spoonful of sugar” to take the pain away. “I don’t like any of these kids to be hurting.”
That doesn’t mean she is a pushover, however. She is not reluctant to show her children “tough love,” but says, “Never give up on your kids, no matter how hard it gets.”
Other than that advice, Jeri and Steve Wagner can’t say why their child-rearing formula works – but it does.
Rudy has a job at Vallarta Supermarkets in Fresno. Within a month of starting work part-time he was promoted to full-time. “He’s a good worker,” Jeri Wagner says.
The three children remaining in school are “A” students, Wagner says. Paul, a Clovis East ninth-grader, is Greenhand president of the Future Farmers of America club. Sherrie is a track athlete, a cheerleader and received a Student of Promise award for persevering through adversity.
“All they need is someone to guide them through their life and for someone to show them there’s a better way,” Wagner says.
She wants this for her children: “A happy life. I want them to grow up to be productive adults and to really just have a blessed life, and they’re headed that way.”
Sherrie says her mom helped her find God, which has allowed her to release the anger she was holding for her biological mother. “I would still have all that hurt inside me,” she says.
Paul says primly that his mom is a hardworking person, but adds that what makes her special is that she is “able to deal with us no matter what we do.”
And his mom “means like the whole world” to him, he adds.
As for Wagner, their awesome, Mary Poppins, Super Mom – life couldn’t be brighter this Mother’s Day.
Her children are blessings, she says. “When you focus on someone else, life changes for the better.”