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Trailblazing Minneapolis foster parent Helen Marie Rider dies at 82

December 1, 2018

From childhood, Helen Marie Rider told people she was going to have 100 children. Mostly, they laughed.

But in the end, the talkative girl from the tiny town of Morgan, Minn., “came kind of close to that,” said her daughter, Tammy Rider.

Helen Rider cared for 58 children in her decades as a pioneering foster parent, becoming one of the first single parents in Hennepin County to take on the role. Counting Tammy, she mothered at least 59 children. Their photos filled bookshelves at her longtime home in north Minneapolis.

Rider died Nov. 14 of respiratory failure in Minneapolis, her daughter said. She was 82.

Growing up in Morgan, Rider always loved babies and babysitting. She got married in 1963 and gave birth to Tammy during a brief marriage. But when she heard about Hennepin County accepting single parents into its foster care program, her path forward become clear, her daughter said.

She took in her first foster child in 1967 in Minneapolis. She cared for her last child well into her 70s.

“I think that was her way of continuing to have children and make a difference in children’s lives,” said Tammy, of Rochester.

As a single parent, money was tight. Rider did not work outside the home, instead filling her days with the consuming care she provided for her foster children, mostly infants, toddlers and preschoolers.

The county provided some money to help with their care, but often the children came with nothing but the clothes they were wearing, Tammy said. That was never a problem, she said; her mother kept drawers full of baby clothes, ready for children of any size.

Sometimes the children arrived with medical conditions or special needs, from fetal alcohol syndrome to cerebral palsy.

One day in 1968, a tiny baby with Down syndrome arrived in a little yellow outfit. He never left. Rider cared for Tony Lowry until her late 70s and considered him her son. He was the eighth foster child to come into her care and the one she never let go.

When Rider began foster parenting in the 1960s, she didn’t think twice about taking babies from racially diverse backgrounds, even if some of her older relatives did.

“No matter who you were, she was accepting and loving toward you,” Tammy said.

Decade by decade, the cries of babies and the laughter of children at play filled Rider’s north Minneapolis duplex, mixed with the sounds of Twins games and music from country crooners and gospel singers. Toys and playthings were often left pell-mell around the house. Rider didn’t mind the mess, her daughter said.

“She said [the house] was decorated in early American childhood,” Tammy recalled.

Standing just over 5 feet tall, Rider’s curvy arms and full figure seemed tailor-made for rocking babies. “They could just cuddle into her,” Tammy said.

No shrinking violet, Rider also made her opinions known and her voice heard. “She was a force,” said Jamie Schultz, Rider’s pastor at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis. “She was a person who spoke out.”

Throughout her decades of soothing fussy infants, Rider took only one vacation: to see a former foster child in Seattle. Even in her last years, after the final baby had passed through her home, she still made a point to connect with the children at her church, learning their names and birthdays by heart.

In addition to her daughter, Rider is survived by three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. A memorial service is planned at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, 420 Cedar Lake Rd. S., Minneapolis.

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