Helen McCray, 72, caregiver, foster parent of 19 children

February 28, 1996|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Helen McCray, who opened her heart and home to foster children and the developmentally disabled, died Saturday at Good Samaritan Hospital of complications after surgery. She was 72.

While raising their three children, Mrs. McCray and her husband, Willie, a retired city police officer and clothing store manager, also took in four developmentally disabled adults and 19 foster children -- three of whom they eventually adopted.

They were foster parents for the city Department of Social Services from 1958 to 1983, then began taking in clients of Chimes Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the mentally disabled.

"Helen wanted to help and she didn't care who they were. She saw a need and was determined to do something about it," Valerie Pettyruff, Chimes assistant director, said yesterday. "She used to say, 'This is what God has wanted me to do. This is my purpose in life.' "

Even when her health began to fail, Mrs. McCray was looking after others in her Argonne Drive home.

In addition to being a caregiver, she found time to be active in the community. She taught troubled youths cooking skills, was a Cub Scout den mother and volunteered as a school aide.

Her philosophy was simple, she said: Treat each individual with love, respect and a sense of self-worth.

The love that she gave was reflected Sunday as the McCray living room filled with many of her former foster children, grateful for the stability and purpose she brought to their lives.

Cecil S. Fox, Chimes senior vice president, said that Mrs. McCray was one of the first caregivers when its Family Services Program began in 1983.

"She was selected as a caregiver because of her lovable and caring nature. Her death is a big loss to the program. She devoted her life to the care of others and in the process managed to touch their lives," Ms. Fox said.

The foster parent role grew from Mr. McCray's concern for needy children he found roaming the streets while walking his beat in the Northeastern District in the 1950s. He would bring them home for a meal and return them to the streets with sandwiches packed by Mrs. McCray.

In 1958, the McCrays became foster parents and began filling their home with abused and unwanted children.

Sacrifice came naturally to the McCrays as they put their needs on hold to help others. Sustained by a deep religious faith, Mrs. McCray often advised those who were considering becoming foster parents never to use the word "foster."

"We never used the term 'foster' because once we take children into our home, we called them our children," Mrs. McCray said in a 1982 article in The Evening Sun.

Their work brought numerous awards, and Mrs. McCray became in 1970 the first foster parent to represent Maryland at the National Conference of Foster Parents, held in Chicago.

In 1982, in recognition of her life's work, then-Rep. Parren J. Mitchell presented her with a silver plate engraved with the emblem of the House of Representatives. In 1990, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke gave her an award after she was inducted into the 100 Black Women Hall of Fame.

She was twice named Foster Mother of the Year and Woman of the Year by the Afro-American newspaper.

Born and raised in Petersburg, Va., the former Helen Bland moved to Baltimore in 1941 and married Mr. McCray in 1943.

A soprano, Mrs. McCray sang for many years in the choir of All Saints Lutheran Church, 4215 Loch Raven Blvd., where a memorial service will be held at 7 p.m. tomorrow.

In addition to her husband, she is survived by three of her four sons, Willie McCray Jr., James A. McCray and Andre W. McCray, all of Baltimore; two daughters, Alice C. Wells of Baltimore and Donna P. Carter of Washington, D.C.; and nine grandchildren.

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