Ernie and Rita Montoya have opened their hearts and their homes to more than 100 foster children. Jessica Palmer Photo
Ernie and Rita Montoya describe their beginnings as humble. Yet the couple has accomplished a great deal and provided a service to their community in a quiet and modest way. One child at a time.
Neither graduated from high school, but Ernie speaks eloquently and Rita’s face glows as they discuss their foster children, for Ernie and Rita have opened up their hearts and their homes to more than 100 children during a period of 16 years.
Ernie joined the Army in 1965, serving in Germany. He returned to the U.S. and worked briefly for the water department. He earned $89 every two weeks. Later he became a security guard for the school district. Ernie was injured and permanently disabled when he broke up a fight between two students.
His bride Rita held two ambitions. She wanted to be a beautician. She applied to school the first time when she was 12 years old. She was told she had to wait. She returned to the beauty school to work for them at the age of 16 and worked off her education. She still works as a beautician today.
Her second wish was to open an orphanage. The idea, she says, was inspired by the Lord. The couple applied to the state to set up an orphanage in the old rehab center on Alameda. They submitted construction plans. They were rebuffed. The state said they had other plans for the building. It remained derelict and was eventually torn down. In 1996, though, they achieved the goal when they were approved by the state as foster parents. “We had to go through the process, the background check and the training,” said Ernie.
The couple had brought children into their marriage. Rita had two, and Ernie also had two. They had two together, but one died at the age of 15 weeks. The couple adopted nine, all one-time foster children who could not be returned to their parents. “Their ages range from 49 to 2. Our house is a bit like yours, mine and ours and ours over and over again,” said Rita.
Ernie agreed. “When they step in the door, they become ours.”
In a pinch, they have housed over 15 children at one time or had six babies in diapers. The couple has taken on cocaine babies and meth babies.
They fostered one child, born without functioning kidneys, who required dialysis. They learned to give the medicine and do the treatments.
The children come into the extended family challenged. “There is always terror. They have been taken from their parents. They don’t know what’s happening. They don’t know who we are,” said Ernie.
The couple has loved each one. “One thing they say is you can’t get attached. I could not process that. How can you not get attached?” he asked.
“When they come to our house they are like withered flowers, but you love them and watch them blossom,” Rita said.
The couple has also seen the children reunited with their families, a happy ending, and the couple has had these same children come back to visit when they were grown, young and successful.
The couple remains humble. “We can’t say that we are perfect. We’ve made mistakes,” Ernie said. He relayed a story about a young child who came to them speaking no English. “One day he asked me for the baño, and I thought he was asking for a bath. … A little while later, we got a call from our neighbor telling us he was going in the backyard. I apologized, and I realized when he said baño he meant he had to go.”
Most of their children have stayed with the couple for at least six months and some have stayed for years. They urge each one of the children to pray for their parents and set goals for themselves.
They talked of troubled youth, particularly the high school years. Ernie speaks with sympathy. “I was 29 when I found the Lord.”
The allure of gangs is a real concern for the couple once the children enter high school, but they remind their children that gangs take them away from their goals.
“We do get paid for fostering. Some people see us in the park and say we must be getting rich with so many children, but we’re not rich. We took the family out to breakfast at Denny’s to celebrate the day we adopted Isaiah. It cost $100.66. We have to save up to do this,” said Ernie.
The Montoyas remember every child, their names, their faces, their personalities, their trials and tribulations. “It just lights up your heart to see them grow,” Rita said.