Mary Frances Spencer isn't sure of the number of foster children she's cared for over the last 32 years.
"I stopped counting at 200," Spencer, 76, said yesterday at the 17th annual Family and Friends Day Outreach at Wayland Baptist Church, in the 3200 block of Garrison Blvd., where she was saluted for her efforts in behalf of foster children.
The event was attended by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke and Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-7th. Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., was guest speaker.
Spencer's career as a foster parent began in 1958 when she and her husband, John, brought the first of many infants into their two-story, five-bedroom house on Hilton Street in West Baltimore.
In two years, she recalled, the couple had cared for 50 children, most of whom lived with them for three or four months before they were adopted. It was a painful experience, Spencer said.
"I couldn't stand it," she said of losing the babies. So she and her husband decided to take in older children, who would stay with them longer. Her husband died in 1965, but Spencer continued as a foster parent for the same reasons she had begun -- an intense love for God and for children.
Spencer said that her own, somewhat painful childhood may have contributed to her becoming a foster parent. After the death of both parents, she and four brothers and sisters were sent to live with an aunt who already had 13 children of her own.
"I didn't like her ways," Spencer recalled, adding that she was often hurt by the favoritism her aunt had shown for only her own children.
It was then that Spencer made a promise to herself -- if she had children, even if they weren't her own, she would never show a preference for one child over another.
But, of course, Spencer did have favorites. But she said she never showed it, having become convinced that love and attention should be provided equally to her son, her three grandchildren and all her foster children.
Spencer also passed her Christian faith on to her children and encouraged them to get involved in the church. They all did, she said, joining the choir and serving as ushers.
They all learned the value of education, too, she said, proud that all her foster children have graduated from high school.
Some of Spencer's foster children attended yesterday's ceremony and talked abut what they learned from her.
"I learned that there's someone out here that can love me," said Sarah McDaniels, 29, who lived with Spencer for 11 years. "We all fuss and fight but she gives all of us love. I don't live here and I haven't lived here for a long time, but this is still my family."
"She a great person," said 22-year-old Treva Speight, who still lives with Spencer.
Altrecia Belk and Eric Sanders, both 16, who lived with Spencer for 10 years, said she taught them a lot about the importance of God in their lives. And "to always forgive people," Belk added.
"And stay in church," Sanders said.
Testimonials like that apparently keep Spencer going. "As long as I live, I will just have children," she said. "I have never regretted it. There's nothing like the pitter-patter of children's feet."
And the secret to successfully raising a child: "The best thing is not to let a child know he is bad," Spencer said. "Always set him up higher than what he is and he'll live up to it."