Becoming foster parents later in life honors their son’s memory

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Gail Rosenblum, Minneapolis Star Tribune (Tribune News Service)
May 24, 2015

MINNEAPOLIS—It's early on a Monday morning, quiet on her street. But Hannah Lieder has long been in high gear.

An hour before the kids awoke, she and her husband, Kevin, sat with a cup of coffee to solve the world's problems. At 8 a.m., a teacher from Minneapolis Public Schools began an hour-long assessment of 5-month-old baby Louis, who coos contentedly from Lieder's bedroom.

Lieder thanks the woman and says goodbye, then races to straighten the bathroom, sends a quick text and redirects the blueberry-scented marker in 3-year-old Alena's hand from the living room couch onto a piece of construction paper.

Chaos? Hardly.

Chaos defined a big chunk of Lieder's life before these two foster-care cherubs arrived. For years, Lieder was the trusted den mother to dozens of hungry, scared, abused teenagers, many of them runaways who arrived at her door in Minneapolis' Phillips neighborhood at all hours, drawn by word of mouth or her two big yellow Labs.

“We didn't have the intention of doing this,” Lieder said. “We were just living our life and the kids came.”

They came with so many needs.

“For a while, not a week went by when we weren't going to court, jail, ER, detox,” she said.

One morning, Lieder opened the kitchen door to find a young man she knew, badly beaten with a bat, lying on the back deck awaiting her nonjudgmental embrace.

Some ate her food, slept on her couch and stole her wallet. But Lieder loved them all; still loves them all.

She became the unstoppable founder of Minneapolis Swims. Her grass-roots nonprofit fought successfully to restore and renovate the Phillips Community Center pool so that long-ignored low-income children can have free, easily accessible swimming lessons.

While she didn't envision raising a second family at this juncture, it's not surprising if you know her. Lieder can't escape her heal-the-world DNA.

To this day, homeless kids, some in trouble with the law, some pregnant, know they can count on Lieder, whose only child, Graeme, died in drug violence nine years ago.

“Grief is a terrible thing,” she said of losing her son. “So big and unpredictable. There is no such thing as closure, which I was seeking, but instead there is life before I lost Graeme and now life after.”

So little Louis needs a diaper change? That's the easy stuff.

“These kids are such a blessing to me,” Lieder said of the two unrelated foster care children, whose happy noise fills her small, handsomely appointed three-bedroom home, where a large painting of Graeme hangs above the dining room table.

“I get to wake up every morning to their smiling faces,” Lieder said. “I get to see the world again through the eyes of a child.”

Barring the unexpected, Hannah and Kevin—both 59—will be adoptive parents to Alena, Louis and perhaps Louis' sibling by the end of this year.

“Looking forward, 18 years is a long time, and there are a lot of unknowns,” Lieder said. “Why would we do this at our age? What more important thing could there be to do?”

Lieder grew up in Hudson, the oldest of four siblings. Her mother was a homemaker, seamstress and “incredible cook.” Dad had a factory job.

Lieder was born with maternal instincts.

“I always took in all the baby animals,” she said. But she had no idea there were homeless kids, hungry kids.

She majored in geography and art history at the University of Minnesota, experienced a series of “messed-up” relationships and worked as a substitute teacher for Minneapolis Public Schools for seven years.

In 1979, she became a single mother to Graeme, experiencing for the first time “a constant gnawing at your heart that you're inadequate.”

She worked a full-time factory job and struggled with how to guide her son.

“Being a single parent is a really, really difficult job,” she said. “Unless you've been there, you do not know how hard it is.”

In 1993, she moved to Egypt to study Arabic and teach English. She returned home several times to visit Graeme, who was then living with his father.

She came home permanently when Graeme was 17 and met Kevin soon afterward.

Kevin, who works in videoconferencing and is the father of one young-adult daughter, was taken by Hannah, who is so willing to help and to see the best in people.

“She's undaunted by the challenges and mess presented to her,” Kevin said. “She understands that life is messy and that it's OK to make mistakes and fix those things. She's always optimistic.”

Lieder feels blessed to have met Kevin at a time in her life when she was struggling.

“He is just so incredibly steady,” she said.

After moving to Phillips in 1999, Lieder met a family whose 12-year-old son had drowned. Soon she realized that this was not a rare occurrence. In fact, black, American Indian and Hispanic children drown at alarmingly high rates, yet Minneapolis has no public community pool offering swimming lessons.

Lieder founded Minneapolis Swims to change that.

From 2010 to 2014, she recruited neighborhood children and drove them to the State Capitol to rally for restoring and expanding the Phillips pool into an enviable, financially viable Aquatic Center with a six-lane competition pool and a four-lane teaching pool. One official report called the Lieder brigade “our little band of derelicts,” a term Lieder cherishes.

The Minneapolis Park Board approved a $5.42 million plan for the center in April.

“We learned as we went,” Lieder said. “We successfully lobbied for a bonding bill, negotiated with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, documented swimming disparities in the city and statewide, educated elected officials about the importance of swimming as a lifesaving skill and raised $2.5 million.

“Not bad for a bunch of unknowns.”

Still, she wanted to quit many times. The politics got to her.

“Everything hurt my feelings,” Lieder said. “I took everything personally.” But every time she prepared to quit, she'd see kids at the bus stop, or at her door, and she knew she had to keep going.

When Alena arrived a year ago, Lieder happily stepped down. Denny Bennett, who followed her as Minneapolis Swims board president, is adamant that “there would be no Phillips Aquatic Center were it not for Hannah. I feel like I'm finishing Hannah's pool.”

Unable to step away completely, however, Lieder is supporting a Senate bill requiring swimming instruction in every public school. She likes to point out that Bangladesh is ahead of us on that score.

No wonder they still call her “the swimming lady” over at the Capitol.

On this morning, however, Lieder is busy getting Alena ready for day care, a two-block walk from their home, where crayons, books and pink “My Little Pony” toys are scattered on the family room floor.

As Lieder fills a bowl of Froot Loops, Alena rushes out of her bedroom wearing tap shoes.

“Oh, you can't wear those to school,” she tells Alena, “but you can wear them now.”

“Read to me!” Alena implores. “Not now,” Lieder says. “Soon.”

Lieder is grateful to Minneapolis Public Schools for its help in preparing her to adopt the two children. She's grateful to the Minneapolis Park Board, “who engaged with Minneapolis Swims even though they knew what a tiny organization we were.”

Mostly, she's grateful to Kevin, who is fully supportive of rearing a new family.

“They kind of keep you younger,” Kevin said. Besides, he said with a laugh, he's looking down the road to living on a sailboat, “and we'll need a crew. Three or four years from now, they'll be old enough to be sitting on the boat.”

Then he adds, as if he had to, “With their life vests on.”

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