At nearly 90, Grace is still amazing

Woman has shared her love, home with 93 foster children over 44 years

Grace Cyr has cared for Kayla, who suffers from cerebral palsy, since she was 5 years old. Grace Cyr has cared for Kayla, who suffers from cerebral palsy, since she was 5 years old. (Essdras M. Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Bella English
Globe Staff / July 4, 2010

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BILLERICA — Five days a week, Grace Cyr gets up at 4:30 a.m. to bathe Kayla, diaper and dress her, fix her hair, brush her teeth, and prepare her breakfast. It’s a typical mother-daughter scene, except that Kayla is 19 and Grace is nearly 90.

Kayla, who has been with Grace and her husband, Frank, since she was 5 years old, has cerebral palsy and cannot walk or talk. But Grace has taught her some sign language: Kayla pats her head to say hello, and her chest to indicate love.

You might call Gracie Cyr the woman who can’t say no. For the past 44 years, she has cared for 93 foster children who had nowhere else to go. Some were newborns straight from the hospital. Most had serious physical or emotional problems. They were abandoned, abused, neglected, born with drugs in their system. Some have been in wheelchairs, on feeding tubes, or IVs.

Despite all the problems, Grace has not given up on one child. “Never!’’ She looked offended at the question.

Still stylish, Grace on a recent evening wore black jeans, black heels, a hot-pink blouse knotted at the waist, and Chanel No. 5. Her champagne-colored hair poofed like a cloud around her face, which has far fewer wrinkles than it should. With Kayla in her wheelchair and daughter Pam Galaid and granddaughter Jessica also sitting in her immaculate living room, Grace reminisced about the babies, toddlers, and teens she has taken in over the years — and whom she has dressed just as impeccably as herself.

Grace was recently honored at an annual fund-raiser for The Home for Little Wanderers, the country’s oldest child and family services agency. She is the organization’s longest-serving foster parent and the one who has cared for the most children. Stunned at the award and the standing ovation from the crowd of 950, Grace was choked up at the microphone. Composing herself, she told the audience: “One thing I will say. You do not have to conceive them to love them.’’

An open home and heart

Grace still laughs at the story of sending one of her foster sons to school on St. Patrick’s Day. She had dressed him in green and carefully packed his lunch for the occasion, including green Jell-O and a green can of ginger ale. Then she got a call from his teacher. “Grace, what did you pack for Ceree’s lunch?’’ came the question. Why, a banana, a green Jell-O, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and a can of ginger ale, she replied.

The teacher laughed. “You gave him the banana, Jell-O, and the sandwich, but you also gave him a can of beer,’’ she said. Mistakenly, Grace had thrown in a can of Heineken instead of Canada Dry.

Her life in the foster care world began in 1966. With three of their five daughters married, Grace and her first husband, Gordon, took the advice of their daughter Dolly, who had become a foster parent herself. Why not try it out, she urged her parents. They loved babies and had extra room in their Somerville home.

Grace and Gordon’s first charge was a boy who had been physically and sexually abused. At age 65, Grace took a course at Children’s Hospital Boston and learned how to deal with IV lines and gastric feeding tubes as part of the Home for Little Wanderers’ Intensive Foster Care program for children with special needs.

Growing up in Charlestown in the 1930s, she had wanted to be a nurse, but her family couldn’t afford to send her to school.

“So this is how she carries out her wishes,’’ said her daughter Pam, 55, watching as Grace put Kayla to bed.

In 1980, Gordon died of cancer. Four years later, Frank Cyr, a widower, proposed to Grace. “She said, ‘I’ll marry you on one condition,’ ’’ Frank, 80, said. “ ‘You have to love my foster children as your own.’ And it worked out.’’

That’s not to say it has always been easy. Over the years, the household has included children with Down syndrome, seizure disorders, and cleft lips. At one point, there were three foster children under the age of 6, all in wheelchairs. Though two of her foster children were terminal, she took them in. One was baby Sarah who suffered multiple seizures, was in a wheelchair, on a feeding tube, and couldn’t speak.

“They told me she’d live a year,’’ said Grace. Sarah ended up living with her for 15 years.

A boy born without a brain stem could neither speak nor see. Grace put his bassinet near her grandfather clock, whose ticking seemed to soothe him, and took care of him until he died.

There’s been no problem she couldn’t handle, she says, adding that her only bad experience was with an abusive mother: “She was going to beat me up because I had her child,’’ Grace said with a chuckle. “I made sure they didn’t know where I lived after that.’’

In those early days, during the civil rights era, a caseworker called and asked whether Grace’s neighbors would mind if she took in a black child. “Why should they?’’ she replied. Her brood has included white, black, Hispanic, and multiracial children.

Throughout the years, caseworkers have advised Grace to take an annual “respite’’ vacation away from the children, who would be placed temporarily for the week. She has steadfastly refused. “I couldn’t relax knowing someone else was taking care of them,’’ she explained.

Instead, she — and the children — have taken their own “respites,’’ first in the trailer she owned on Beaver Lake in Derry, N.H. Since selling the trailer, she has taken them for much of the summer to daughter Pam’s vacation home on another New Hampshire lake. Foster parents are given a stipend of $50 a day to cover expenses. But over the years, Pam says, her mother may well have lost money on the deal, buying everything from typewriters to bicycles for her “kids,’’ and even keeping one girl on for a full year after she had “aged out’’ of foster care. Recently, the Cyrs bought a large flat-screen TV for Kayla’s bedroom.

Marla Dixon is a clinical case manager at Home for Little Wanderers and has worked with Grace since 1992.

“I pray every day, may I please get to be 90 years old and be just like Gracie,’’ Dixon said. The Home for Little Wanderers has no age restriction on foster parents, though yearly evaluations ensure quality care. “She has an amazing amount of energy and all her faculties. . . . She has the devotion and dedication to be able to do this work, where people who are young enough to be her grandchildren probably wouldn’t want to do it.’’

‘She made you feel special’

Pam’s daughter Jessica, 22, is an only child and spent much of her afterschool hours and weekends with her grandmother’s various foster children.

“Nana always treated us exactly the same,’’ said Jessica, who recently graduated from Colby-Sawyer College. “It was fun for me, because whenever I came to Nana’s, there was always someone to play with.’’

Lisa Gagnon was taken away at age 8 from a mother she says was alcoholic and neglectful. She lived with Grace for a year until she was adopted by another family. She left at 16 because there were “problems in the home’’ and asked to return to Grace’s, where she lived until she was 23. When she got married in 1995, Grace bought the wedding gown.

“Even though you come with baggage, she made you feel special,’’ said Gagnon, 41, who now has two children of her own. “If there was a problem, she’d say, ‘Sit down, I’ll put the tea on, and we’ll talk.’ She was just so accepting.’’

Gagnon, who lives in New Hampshire, still sends cards or flowers to Grace and Frank on birthdays and Mother’s and Father’s days, and often spends holidays with them. Gagnon was on hand for Grace’s recent award, as was Ceree Gilbert, a foster son now in his 20s who also keeps in touch.

As the years passed, Grace Cyr hoped that she would get to her 100th foster child. But then Kayla came along, and the agency said she needed one-on-one care. When she and Frank first went to see the 5-year-old they were warned that she could be difficult. She was. She threw her food on the floor, spit at them, and bit Frank.

“Now, she’s a perfect lady,’’ said Grace as a beaming Kayla hugged her.

It’s 8 p.m., Kayla’s bedtime, and Grace undoes her leg braces, rolls her from the wheelchair into a specialized bed with a guard rail and zippered netting to prevent falls.

Grace has swaddled Kayla in a soft blanket — “She has bad circulation’’ — and places her white teddy bear within reach. “There you go,’’ she coos. “You’re as snug as a bug in a rug. Sweet dreams! God Bless!’’ The nightly ritual of five “high fives’’ on each hand complete, Grace turns to go. Kayla blows her a kiss.

“This is the pact I made with God when I first started with the agency,’’ said Grace, who says the rosary before going to bed. “God, if you give me my health, I’ll take care of your angels.’’

So far, it seems both sides have kept the bargain.

Bella English can be reached at