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Ahlin: Wealth and fame can’t trump a meaningful life

Rita Hoffman, the mother of a good friend of mine, died recently from breast cancer at the age of 81. Her obituary didn’t make the front page, although one line in it made me think it should have. The sentence read, “Over a 48-year period, Rita and Russell (her husband) were foster parents to more than 500 children in need.”

Five hundred.

It is a number I can’t get my head around. As I sat in the prayer service for Rita, I found myself thinking how extraordinary she had been in devoting almost five decades to foster parenting.

My next thoughts were how limited our society’s notions of success and achievement really are. While people of wealth, political influence and celebrity receive all kinds of attention, quiet, ordinary people live purposeful lives that have extraordinary impact but are mostly unnoticed.

My thoughts turned to commencement addresses given at high school or college graduations, which usually are one variation or another of “Follow your dreams.” We’ve all heard those speeches: If you can dream it, you can do it; don’t let the world beat you down or stand in your way; reach for the stars; nothing is beyond your grasp. Of course, to illustrate the importance of dreaming, speakers use examples of successful people – folks who came from humble beginnings and ended up rich and famous. The takeaway for graduates is that before the rich and famous became rich and famous, they dreamed big.

With all due respect to graduation speakers trying to be inspirational, the whole “dream big” emphasis is a con of sorts; certainly it’s the wrong message for the majority of young people.

For those who desperately want to have a dream but don’t, or for those who have a bundle of dreams but cannot quite pin down one, it’s an invitation to frustration. They mistake lack of direction for lack of a dream.

Rita did not dream big, try to break records or seek awards. She and Russ simply wanted a family. When they realized there only would be one biological child, they set out to adopt and ended up with triplets: two girls and a boy. (One of the triplets is my friend.) Later they adopted two more children. Actually, that number should have been three because Rita and Russ were the only parents one foster son ever knew, even though his biological mother would not allow him to be adopted.

As a mother, Rita soon realized she had the energy and love to take in foster children of all ages without regard for race, ethnicity or mental illness. My friend remembers many times getting up in the morning to discover that somebody new had arrived during the night. If police officers removed a child or children from a dangerous or neglectful home situation in the middle of the night, Rita took them in. Probably dressed only in filthy diapers, they soon were in warm, soapy baths. Then came clean diapers, soft pajamas and food. Rita said the children invariably were pitifully hungry. And when they were clean and warm and full, she could almost guarantee they would sleep for 12 hours straight.

Rita and Russ also took in older children and people of many ages with mental or physical handicaps. Occasionally, a foster child with mental illness would become violent, but Rita never wavered in her commitment to taking in mentally ill or abused children. Drawing on rock-solid faith, common sense and confidence that she was doing what she was meant to do, Rita made things work out.

I think Rita would tell young people not to worry about a big dream. Instead, focus on things they’re good at and enjoy, things that bring them satisfaction. In their interests, they will find ways to have a positive impact on the world and make a living.

I think she would say that wealth or fame never has and never will trump a meaningful life.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum. Email