Gallery: Harrison Nero raises foster children to become prosperous adults

LONG BEACH — It will be a Father's Day for the ages in the Harrison Nero home.

The 80-year-old retired postal worker and assistant pastor at Antioch Church plans to celebrate with nearly a dozen of the 25 or so kids he and his wife Loretta have fostered over the years.

After rearing five children of their own.

"We just wanted to do something for someone else," Nero said last week from the comfort of his westside home. "It has been a real blessing to do that. It's been wonderful to give back what you've been blessed with."

He keeps on giving.

Nero and his wife recently welcomed two teenage girls into their home. They joined another girl who at the age of 12 had been placed with the Neros five years ago through the foster care program at Hathaway-Sycamores Child and Family Services in Pasadena.

Dressed sharply in dark brown slacks with light blue pinstripes that matched a finely knotted necktie hung nicely over a crisp dress shirt, Nero sat in a living room chair and talked about the joys of foster-parenting while small children occasionally clung to his knee between outbursts of play.

"Papa" had cared for their mothers.

A Mississippi native whose own father died when he was just 6 months old, Nero's life-worn voice crackled and popped with a slight accent revealing that a Southern man never quite loses the soft notes of home, even if he moves to California around the age of 20.

"God put it on our heart to do something like this," he said. "Sometimes you don't know what life is going to give you. We go through some ups and downs, some hills and valleys. You just don't know what valley you're going to go through or what hill you're going to cross."

Reared on his grandfather's farm, Nero made his way to the Golden State in search of something better than the 83 cents an hour he was making in a furniture lumber yard.

He met Loretta, who works as a hairstylist in the TV and film industry, at a relative's birthday party, and they married in 1976.

After their own children had grown up and after living happily in an empty nest for two years, the Neros decided in 1999 to welcome their first foster kids home. A woman at their church had talked to them about the lack of foster parents in the community.

The Neros took in four siblings, the oldest of which was 13. A fifth sibling joined them later, and the children remained with the loving couple until they were adults.

After his own children were grown and moved out of the house, Harrison Nero and his wife, Loretta, decided to open their home to foster children and have
After his own children were grown and moved out of the house, Harrison Nero and his wife, Loretta, decided to open their home to foster children and have had over 20 come into their lives over the years. Nero, right, shares a laugh with former foster child Nate Martin. (Photo by Scott Varley, Los Angeles News Group)

"One turned into four, and four turned into five," Loretta Nero said. "We feel God has blessed us."

The five visit often. Among them is Nate Martin, a 25-year-old bus driver in the Downey Unified School District who plans to transfer out of community college to UCLA in the near future and eventually become a teacher or counselor.

Sitting next to Harrison Nero, Martin smiled often and praised his foster parents for the attention and deep affection they gave him.

"No matter how many people are in the house, you feel like the only one," he said.

Nero became the father-figure Martin longed for. Chores and church colored the blank pages of what had been a rudderless childhood. Martin said it molded him into the man he is today.

He laughed as he recalled the awe-inspiring words of Nero, spoken like a classic dad who is ready for bed and has put up with enough commotion from the kids in the living room: "Don't make me come down there."

Steve Dubin, a clinician with Hathaway-Sycamores, said it is difficult for foster parents to establish trust with kids because so many of them come from abusive homes.

"He and Loretta, they really open up a space for that relationship to develop, and they do that just in their welcoming manner," Dubin said. "They give the child an opportunity to express themselves. It's almost like the invitation is there for them to open up. The stability of their home and their solidness gives kids confidence to know they're in a safe place."

Nero said one key is to use restraint and not be harsh with foster children. And it doesn't hurt to promise trips to Disneyland and the movies as rewards for good behavior.

As for retiring from the child-rearing business, Nero hasn't considered it.

"As long as I'm able to give back some of what I'm blessed with, I'll go until I can't go no more," he said.