By MARILYN TINNIN
Wendy Reinhardt Herring has the organizational skills of a CEO, the extroverted personality of a politician on Election Day, the energy and initiative of an entrepreneur, and the tender heart of a child. As the mother of a ninth grade son and a tenth grade daughter, she has not exactly moved into the season of “empty nest,” and so, it does seem slightly odd that she would voluntarily put on her “mom” hat and fill up her free time nurturing, playing with, and loving a group of teenage girls who live at Sunnybrook Children’s Home in Ridgeland.
Wendy sees nothing extraordinary in her actions. And that would be true if she were working through a volunteer organization or a charity, but she is not. She is like a one-woman show! Her eyes glisten and she flashes her huge smile as she explains, “We just love them. They are so easy to love. If we could take them all home with us, we would.” The “we” refers to Wendy and her daughter, Lauren, who were looking for a way to serve others back in 2011. They discovered Sunnybrook “almost in our own backyard,” and Wendy made a phone call to Moses Kendrick, Campus Manager at Sunnybrook telling him, “We want to come on a regular basis. What do you need and when can we start?”
Moses wasn’t sure what to think in the beginning. He was accustomed to church groups who descended almost out of the woodwork during Christmas, showering gifts on the residents, or coming occasionally during the year to give birthday parties. Of course, such generosity is always appreciated. But he had never had a call like Wendy’s where one family just wanted to commit to an ongoing relationship there. He says the visible changes Wendy has brought to the home are amazing. “She has brought a personal touch that you don’t expect to see in a group home.” He says that she has definitely brought the kind of eye to campus that only a mother can bring. She is all about turning a house into a home, and that includes building a relationship with the children in ways that put smiles on their faces and a sense of worth that you expect from well-nurtured children.
Wendy says, “I’ve just always been drawn to people with needs. I really feel like that is a gift God gave to me.”
From the first visit in January 2012, when Lauren and Wendy showed up with needle and thread and a simple sewing project, there was an easy exchange of conversation and a level of comfort that felt like family. Lauren points out that the girls in “Cottage Two” are her age, and they share common interests, the same favorite pop culture stars and music, and many of the same dreams and concerns for the future. The ever-growing bond of friendship between Wendy, Lauren, and “their” girls has allowed for many teachable moments on life decisions and values.
Lauren and Wendy have shared their enthusiasm with others and have succeeded in gathering an army of friends who have assisted them in an array of purely fun activities as well as a major decorating project—transforming “Cottage Two” from a dated and drab house into a bright attractive home where the girls’ artwork is showcased and where their photographs are arranged on the walls as in a family gallery.
They have great plans to see that the other five cottages in the Sunnybrook compound get a similar renovation. “It just takes time,” Wendy says. Because all the work is done strictly by generous friends who volunteer time and materials, progress is much slower than Wendy would like.
“We’re just chipping away, little by little, one step at a time.” With a determined smile she adds, “But we WILL get it done.”
Wendy’s “gift” of compassion came by way of another “gift” that she insists God used in her life. That would be the gift of dyslexia, which made her early school years difficult. As a second grader in the 1970s, Wendy was still struggling to learn to read. Conventional phonics and words on a page might as well have been hieroglyphics! Wendy’s parents were told that they would need to find another school for their daughter. She was falling further and further behind her classmates.
Little was known about treating learning disabilities at that time. There were few schools anywhere with any proven methods, and there were certainly none in Mississippi. St. Mark’s Episcopal Church near Hawkins Field operated a small special needs class called The Heritage School, and Wendy enrolled.
“In that class we had an array of challenges. There was severe cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, a little girl who had just come to the United States and spoke no English, and me. I just remember sitting in a dark room and being scared to death at first,” Wendy says. She realized that she could not read, but at the same time, she realized that her challenges were very different from her classmates. “But they all became my friends, and I stopped thinking of them as if something was wrong with them.” In processing that whole event now, she considers it such a blessing.
Eventually she did get into a program that taught her compensatory skills that allowed her to attend regular school again, to go on to college, and to graduate. She has never looked back on her years at Heritage as “wasted,” because they truly unlocked her passion for serving others.
In retrospect, she says that experience also helped her form a certain personal philosophy about challenges in life. “We all have problems of some kind, but they just come in different-shaped boxes.”
You’ve heard the cliché, “The acorn doesn’t fall too far from the tree,” and such was the case with Wendy. As the second daughter of Ray and Winnie Kay Reinhardt, she was well versed in the concept of living the Golden Rule even if it was inconvenient and other people sometimes thought you had lost your mind!
A Mission Mindset
The Reinhardts had their own family ministry to orphans. Wendy’s mother, Winnie Kay had been adopted as an infant. Aside from the fact that she dearly loved all things pertaining to babies, she and Ray adopted two sons. They also kept babies through Catholic Charities for a number of years. When the Bethany Services opened their first office in Jackson in 1983, Ray was a board member. It seemed the natural thing to do to become foster parents.
Over the next few years, the Reinhardts fostered 40 babies—all while running a retail business at Metrocenter Mall and driving an hour each way, every day. Winnie Kay simply set up a crib at the store, and life went on as the whole family and a few customers took turns rocking and feeding!
Winnie Kay says, “You know, when God calls you to do something, He really makes you want to do it. We prayed that God would give us a ministry for Him, and He did.” She adds that the great blessing of her obedience in that call to foster is that she sees the resulting legacy in her children today.
One of Wendy’s fondest childhood memories is waking up in the middle of the night and seeing her mother sitting by a space heater rocking one of their foster babies and then seeing her get up early the next morning and work in the store all day without complaining. The mindset was always that keeping these babies was a special privilege and a true call from a loving Father. If they were weak, then He was indeed strong.
Ray Reinhardt also had a great compassion for the hearing impaired. He started a Sunday school class for deaf students in the 1970s, rented a school bus, and drove about 60 deaf students each Sunday from the Deaf School to church and back again. Wendy was enlisted as his assistant while she was still a little girl.
As a child, she may have assumed all families were like hers! As an adult, she wishes they were!
Being an Intentional Parent
When Wendy and her husband, Lee, started their family, they were on the same page when it came to parenting. They had learned by watching their parents that the most indelible character traits are “caught” rather than “taught.” A picture is indeed worth a thousand words. “It was important to our family that our children would teach their children the things our parents taught us. I think the most wonderful gift we can give our children is to teach them to love others and to develop in them a ‘servant heart.”
Lee says, “We wanted to give our kids the example and opportunity of doing something for someone without the expectation of getting something in return.” It really made perfect sense that, like the Reinhardts, the Herrings would also become foster parents to Bethany babies. As Lee says, “Crying babies have very little to offer at 3 a.m.!”
Wendy says with conviction, “These days the world is devouring our children and we can be so busy signing them up for every activity out there, taking them all over the place to compete in this and that, and then just assume they are going to learn to be generous, to be thoughtful, to love others, but they’re not—not in this world.”
It was after a mission’s conference at Pear Orchard Presbyterian Church where they heard about the ministry of Palmer Home in Columbus that they began to consider how they could be involved in a ministry to orphans and other displaced children. Simple logistics and distance made it difficult to have the level of involvement the Herrings wanted. It did not take Wendy long to discover Sunnybrook and make that first call.
As Lee says of his wife, “When she sees an unmet need, she begins figuring out how it can be met. She brings a lot of energy to any project and her enthusiasm is contagious; before long she has a crowd of folks asking how they can help. She gets energized seeing lives changed—both the givers and the receivers. Her joy and excitement is a real witness.”
The Practical Problem Solver
As the visits to Sunnybrook became frequent, Wendy became more and more aware of their needs, and many of them were simple things that are easily taken for granted in most families. Just as families live within their monthly means, the cottage families at Sunnybrook must do that, too. After groceries, cleaning products, and the bare essentials, there is not much left for luxuries like an outing for ice cream or pizza or a grooming product that would be a staple in most households.
Wendy and Lauren set up an email account, Thelistforsb@hotmail.com. Anyone who requests can be on the frequent updates and have the opportunity to supply a need. It may be as easy as a few extra rolls of paper towels, canned goods, coupons for Chick-fil-A, or a frozen casserole that will give a house mom a little free time one night.
Last fall Wendy’s list sent out a request for help with homecoming dresses for three of the girls who are students at Ridgeland High School. As usual, she rallied her troops and made it happen—including new shoes, new jewelry, and even corsages.
Her thank you email the week after went this way:
Last Friday 3 of our girls went to their homecoming dance. They looked beautiful! Let me just tell you, they were BEAMING!!!!!!!
And then, she was on to the next project:
October 27, 5:30-8ish p.m. is the “Trunk or Treat” we are having at Sunnybrook Children’s Home. I have about 15 families that are willing to come help, have a car with a game. I need more cars! Please let me know if your family would like to help with this!!
And in November, she sent out pleas for desserts for their Thanksgiving meal. What’s the Thanksgiving meal without a plethora of scrumptious desserts! The troops rallied.
More blurbs from Wendy’s frequent email updates:
The Valentines’ Dinner (Feb.15th) for the Cottage Parents is coming along. Thank you to everyone for your help. This whole process has been wonderful for the girls. Every part of the process has made them stop and think of the parents instead of themselves. Please pray that their hearts will be filled with joy when serving their cottage parents and that they will see what joy it is to serve…
…I was at Sunnybrook the other day admiring the new chairs Ross Furniture had given the girls to brighten the home up…(work in process). The Cottage 3 mom (mom of the younger boys) told Cathy (older girls cottage mom) to pass the word to Wendy that they are in great need of a sofa. The arms are falling off theirs. So if y’all know of someone getting a new sofa or has a sofa that needs a new home, call me!
…I’m also going to be recovering their kitchen chairs soon if you want to help ($) with that!
Her major project for 2013 is to arrange for the construction of an outdoor common grilling area where all the cottages can regularly enjoy a relaxed fellowship and an easy meal together. Because residents are assigned to cottages based on their age, there are siblings who rarely see their brothers and sisters. Cottage parents would also welcome the chance to visit and socialize with each other.
This is probably Wendy’s biggest undertaking to date, but she will be praying for the pooling of talents that have helped her execute everything she has asked for thus far!
Every month there is a project. Count on Wendy to be sure that it is fun and that it is part of the larger plan to enrich the lives of the Sunnybrook kids and to equip them with the same values and sense of purpose that she hopes she instills in her own children.
“It’s mindboggling how much can be done ” says Wendy. “Youth groups, Bible studies, small groups, community groups, anyone can do this. Loving and encouraging require no education— just the heart for it.”
“Just the heart…” Indeed, Wendy Herring has just the heart, and it is very, very large!