FARGO — From probation officer to jail matron to “adopted grandmother” for hundreds of malnourished children in Guatemala, Fargo native Audrey Erickson Gerhardson has had an interesting life of service to others.
Most 85-year-olds might have settled for a life of relaxation in an overstuffed rocking chair, but not Audrey. At a time in her life when most people have long since retired, she decided she had more work to do — and she's doing it far away from home.
She volunteered to join The GOD’S CHILD Project, founded in 1991 in Bismarck by fellow North Dakotan Patrick Atkinson, who has spent his life caring for orphans and other needy children around the world. The organization is designed to assist children from needy backgrounds who often fall through the cracks of society.
Based on the belief that every child is equally precious to God, the organization provides children with health care, housing, nutrition and schooling, among other vital services.
Born in 1934, Gerhardson grew up in Fargo, which then had a population of about 30,000. While earning a degree in social work from the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, she met her husband, Marvin Gerhardson, a fellow student and Korean War veteran.
“When I met him, he was 25. I was 20,” Audrey says.
They married a year later, in 1955. Marvin worked as a guidance counselor at the local high school, then moved on to Minnesota State University Moorhead, where he retired as dean of students.
Audrey became a juvenile probation officer, then went on to become a police officer before taking a break from work when her first child, Julie, was born. Four more children followed: Joel, Krisanne, Tim and Thorey. The children kept Audrey busy for the next 18 years.
When the youngest was old enough, she began looking for a new job. By then, the family had moved to a farm in nearby Hawley, Minn., because of the oldest daughter Julie’s love of horses. It was about 20 miles from where Marvin had grown up.
After seeing a rather forbidding ad in the paper, “Matron Wanted,” she started working at a local jail. Her duties consisted of fingerprinting and gathering information from arriving inmates, as well as accompanying them to the court across the street, when necessary.
“I loved it,” she remembers. “I stayed for 20 years. Every day was an adventure.”
The Gerhardsons were married 62 years when Marvin died of cancer in March 2016. His loss was difficult for Audrey.
“My five kids had all grown up,” she says. “I thought, ‘Here I am all by myself in this little house on top of a hill... what in the world am I supposed to do?'”
She chose to get out of the house for a while, deciding to take a train trip around the United States. When she returned, she went to get her mail one day, and out tumbled a new purpose for her.
“Come and rock the babies,” the mailing said. It was from The GOD’s CHILD Project, specifically for a project-run hospital, Casa Jackson, that cares for malnourished infants in Guatemala. The Central American country has a massive problem with malnutrition, and an estimated 50% of its children are underweight.
Guatemala’s native people, the Mayans, suffer the most. Many Mayan families live on only $1 or $2 a day.
Most octogenarians would have balked at the idea of traveling nearly 3,000 miles to a developing nation to take care of undernourished babies. But Audrey knew that Casa Jackson was where she was supposed to be.
She and her husband had seen the hospital for the first time during a tour of The GOD’s CHILD project center in Antigua, Guatemala, and she had also visited the hospital for a week with friends. She has a simple answer for her favorite part of spending time at the hospital.
“Just rocking the babies,” she says, smiling broadly while holding a pig-tailed baby girl in her arms.
The babies must be keeping her young, because she looks like she’s in her 60s.
Audrey doesn’t stop with volunteering for months at a time in Casa Jackson. She designed a presentation to tell people back home about the program, raising money and attracting more volunteers for the nonprofit.
“I did one for a group of federal workers,” she says, smiling proudly.
Many people half her age would be leery of living in Central America. But the stout-hearted Audrey is not the worrying type.
“Most people my age are afraid to come here,” she says, “because they’re afraid of heart attacks, strokes or falling and breaking something. But if that happens, it happens. I’m not going to worry about it.”
Besides the opportunity to feel useful and help care for the babies at Casa Jackson, she says she's grateful for her family, especially her children.
“They like each other,” she says, laughing. “That’s a real good feeling.”
She chuckles when asked what she would say to older people about why they should volunteer at The GOD’s CHILD Project. “If they would only come and see all the opportunities,” she exclaims.
Soon, Audrey will be back. After all, she is Casa Jackson’s grandma.
For more information about The GOD'S CHILD Project or to find out how to volunteer, visit godschild.org.