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No ordinary dad, he cares for foster kids while legally blind

A 9-year-old boy ran into his house after school Monday afternoon, hugged a man he called "Dad'' and broke the news that he needed permission to go on a field trip Friday.

"How much is that going to cost me?'' asked the father, David Bearden.

"Nothing,'' the boy said. "We're just going to the park. And we're walking.''

The familiarity and affection between the adult and the child seemed ordinary, at least for a happy family. So did the knee-jerk worry about money, and the child's excitement about getting out of class for a few hours, even if it was just to the county park a few blocks from his school, Eastside Elementary, and his house in Hill 'n Dale.

Here's what is not ordinary: Bearden, 52, is the boy's foster father, not his legal one. The boy is one of three children who live with Bearden now and is one of dozens who have passed through Bearden's house over the past five years, some of them just for a few days.

And Bearden, whose German shepherd guide dog, Upton, lay quietly by his feet when the boy walked in, has been legally blind for 21 years.

Mostly because of his work as a foster parent, Bearden is one of several vision-impaired subjects in a new book, Trust the Dog, about the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation. That is the 50-year-old nonprofit organization that trained Upton and provided him to Bearden two years ago.

Funny how it sometimes takes an outsider to help us fully appreciate our neighbors.

This newspaper has written a lot about Bearden's public work — fighting for his rights as a blind individual and as former president of the National Federation of the Blind for Hernando and east Pasco counties.

In years past, he insisted that criminal charges be filed against a neighbor whose dog attacked Bearden's previous guide dog, Isaac, and against a Brooksville businessman who tried to bar Isaac from his convenience store.

Bearden has petitioned — without much success, he said — for better transportation for blind and disabled Hernando residents. He has even lobbied in Tallahassee for the rights of blind Floridians.

But we haven't written much about Bearden's personal life, the main focus of the chapter about him in Trust the Dog.

Bearden, a former hospital worker, contracted an infection in his eyes when he was emptying a bag of medical waste in 1989, he said. It left him completely blind in one eye and with only 26 percent of his vision in the other.

His wife departed not long afterward. With the occasional help of his mother, Margarita Romo, executive director of the nonprofit Farmworkers Self-Help Inc. in Dade City, he reared three daughters mostly by himself.

"I never saw those three girls when they weren't all spiffy, in cute little hats and cute little dresses,'' Romo said. "I never saw them dirty or when they looked like they were starving.''

So, by the time Bearden's oldest daughter, Cristyn, had reached her teens, he had the experience to take in other children.

And he had the opportunity. Cristyn had a friend whose parents periodically abandoned him at a Brooksville runaway shelter.

And he really wanted work, even nonpaying work.

"I can't stand to sit around all day doing nothing,'' Bearden said. "It's like being in prison when you don't have transportation.''

Since 2004, when he received a state license, he has taken in children whose mothers abused crack or alcohol during their pregnancies. He has taken in children who had been beaten by their parents or ridiculed for being openly gay. His adopted son, Malcolm, 15, was blinded in one eye after being shot with a slingshot as a toddler.

"The kids Mr. Bearden works with are some of our most challenging kids,'' said Nicole Clevinger, a supervisor with Kids Central, which monitors foster care in Hernando and other nearby counties. "He provides structure for those kids. He doesn't give up on them. … And the kids who are placed with him really become his family.''

How does a blind person keep order in a house full of children, some of them teenagers with serious behavior problems?

First, with the exception of one temporary placement, he accepts only boys. "I can't watch kids whose hormones are flying,'' he said.

Then he makes sure that there are things to do: the park, a vegetable garden in the back yard, art supplies so the children can draw. Malcolm, for example, has notebooks full of skillful drawings in the Japanese animé style.

Bearden can hear when children are watching banned television programs in their rooms. With the help of a scanner that lights and magnifies the screen of a laptop, he can check the history of Web sites visited and block the inappropriate ones.

Finally, there's Upton.

"He lets me know if someone leaves the house when they aren't supposed to,'' Bearden said. "And if I can't find a child, and he's been around them long enough, he can find them for me. Sometimes he's found kids as far away as the park.''

Upton also has a central role in the family's daily ritual — the walk to the Hess convenience store at the corner of State Road 50 and Spring Lake Highway. Sometimes it's just for a soda. On Monday, they planned to eat dinner at the Godfather's Pizza there.

Bearden is thankful he has a peaceful group of kids now — Malcolm and two boys, ages 9 and 14, whose names Kids Central asked that we not print. They are good students and all get along.

Bearden and the youngest boy walk together. The two teenagers hang back, talking about what their classmates said in school that day.

With the guide dog leading the way, flawlessly following commands and keeping a course along the side of the pavement, they don't look ordinary. But they do look like a family.

No ordinary dad, he cares for foster kids while legally blind 03/02/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 2, 2010 8:24pm]
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