Editor's note: This story highlights the Independent's 32-page 'Hometown Faces' section that is included with Saturday's paper. The section features two dozen vignettes on people across our coverage area who take time from their lives to focus on others and make their community a better place to live.
TRACY - Tracy native Irene Bakker is a rare treasure, someone who has made a difference in the lives of so many with her generosity, insight and ability to provide unconditional love to everyone around her. She's an elder in the Presbyterian church, a local author and a strong advocate for special needs children. But most of all, she's a mother.
It takes someone extra special to graciously open his or her heart and home to others, but Bakker, and her husband Guys, who died seven years ago, did just that. Along with providing a loving home for Irene's four birth sons, the Bakkers also welcomed eight adopted children, all of them with special needs, into their Tracy home.
Photo by Jenny Kirk
Irene Bakker has given so much unconditional love in her life. In addition to raising four sons, she graciously welcomed eight adopted children, all with special needs, into her home and life. As she battles with Stage 4 cancer, Bakker draws comfort from seeing many of those faces on a blanket hanging near her.
It's something that they felt called to do, Bakker said.
"It was a lot of work, especially when you have a lot of them at home," she said. "God just told us to, so we did it. God said 'there's another one who needs you. Bring 'em home.'"
Now at age 82 and diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic and liver cancer, Bakker is hoping and praying someone will do the same for her adult son Brian, who is currently in need of a permanent home.
"I'd always hoped they'd be able to get out of the house when they were ready," Bakker said. "Now, it's just Brian I'm worried about, getting a home for him. The rest all have a place and they're happy where they are. And I can still keep track of them, and they can still come home."
Bakker was blessed with four sons - Jerry, Lonnie, Michael and Danny Clark, all of whom live around the area. As her boys grew into fine young men, Bakker said, the thought of adoption began to cross her mind.
"I've always loved babies," she said. "And we worked as a team, or we'd have never made it. My husband loved the kids and did a lot to help with them."
The fact that the children had special needs attached to each of them never kept the Bakkers from taking them in. Six of their adopted children have Down syndrome, while one has cerebral palsy, and one suffers the severe effects of fetal alcohol syndrome.
"I just thought they were so precious," Bakker said. "I know some people wouldn't agree, and some people think we're crazy, but it didn't make any difference to us. We knew it was what God wanted us to do. Otherwise, he wouldn't have put them in our path."
Five-year-old twins Abby and Betsy were the first to join the Bakker home in the late 1970s.
"We just decided we were going to adopt a girl," Bakker said. "My only girl (Mary Dell) died when she was only a day old. A social worker called and asked if we were interested in Abby. She didn't say anything about Betsy at first."
Later, the Bakkers learned that Abby had a twin, and that Betsy, as it turned out, was in a bad foster home situation in New York.
"We told them we wanted Betsy, too," Bakker said. "Abby was in a good place, but they were split up. We thought it was nice that we could keep them together."
Despite social workers' warnings, the Bakkers happily welcomed Betsy into their growing family. Betsy didn't advance as far as Abby did because of her early home life, Bakker said, but the sisters had a special bond.
"My husband said 'we'll take her, even if she was a vegetable,' because we saw the foster home she was in and how she was treated there. It's sad because they can't defend themselves," she said.
Identical twins Holly and Stephanie arrived next, followed by Brian.
"Brian was seven when we adopted him from South Dakota," Bakker said. "He's a Sioux Indian. Ours was the seventh home in the first seven years of his life."
The Bakkers took in Cheri Lyn when she was just 9 months old. When she was eight, she underwent open heart surgery to close a big hole in her heart.
"We didn't know about it when we adopted her," Bakker said. "No doctor ever detected it until she was 7 years old. That was scary. But it was successful."
At the age of 5, Jeffrey came to live with the Bakkers. Suffering from the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome, Jeff was a handful right from the beginning, Bakker said.
"There were behavioral problems, he had bad teeth, bad eyesight and he always woke up during the middle of the night," she said. "We took him to the University of Minnesota, and they said he was very severe. He's legally blind now."
Bakker recalls Jeff as being the most challenging of all of her children, but that he had that special something, too.
Suzanne, who has cerebral palsy, was the 12th and final child to join the Bakker family. She was adopted from an orphanage in Korea when she was five. According to Bakker, Suzanne's American father married her mother but took off after she was a few weeks old. Suzanne's mother tried to take care of her but had a real hard time and eventually gave her to a priest from the orphanage.
"The priest got guardianship of Suzanne," Bakker said. "He and some Korean people came here to visit us one time, and he said he didn't think she'd ever find a home. We were so glad that she could get out of the orphanage because in Korea, they don't know a lot about cerebral palsy."
Having the kids attend school and get involved in the community was important, Bakker said. It was also a good way for the community to get to know her children. Most of the time, people were respectful to the children, she said, though she recalls that some girls at school used to tease sometimes and make harassing phone calls to their home.
"They called at 11 o'clock one night, giggling and talking silly," Bakker said. "So my husband talked to them, asked them if their parents knew they were doing this and explained that it was not a very nice thing to do. They never called again."
Since she was a young girl, Bakker said she had always enjoyed writing stories and poems. To date, she's written and published a handful of books, thousands of poems and several songs. Her first book, "Tornado: A Funnel of Fury," is about the F5 tornado that ripped through Tracy on June 13, 1968.
"In her next book, "Fetal Alcohol," Bakker reveals the challenges and rewards of raising two children affected with the syndrome.
Bakker said her mom often told the story of the little curly-haired boy who was adopted and tales of his siblings who moved here and there and were not always treated well.
"They stood him up on the table and got him all dressed up because he was getting adopted," Bakker said. "I don't know if that was one of the reasons I thought about adoption, but I always loved that story about him."
Perhaps it's why Bakker believes that family is just who you love. It's a message she's handed down to her children.
"It's strange, but you'd think they were all birth brothers and sisters, these kids, because they think of each other that way," Bakker said. "They've grown up together, just like any other kids in a family."
With encouragement from her four oldest sons and Albert Dalle, whom she married three years ago, Bakker started chemotherapy late in October.
"So far, it's been pretty good," she said. "It did shrink the liver tumors a lot. It just gives me a little more time, though. It's not a cure."
While Bakker is not afraid to die, she said she feels badly for her children and for Albert, who lost his wife Helene to cancer in 2009.
"The kids just depend on me so much, and it was so hard for the kids when they lost their dad," Bakker said. "He had brain cancer. They were really close to him. Brian still talks about him a lot. They spent a lot of time together."
Before her time comes, Bakker wholeheartedly wants to see Brian find a new home in Tracy. Currently, she said, there are three group homes in Tracy, but all of them are full.
"They're HSI (Habilitative Services, Inc.) homes," she said. "Each one has four residents in it and then the staff. And they're all female residents except for one male."
According to Bakker, former governor Tim Pawlenty put a moratorium on group homes, so they cannot build a new one in Tracy or anywhere in Minnesota. While praying for a miracle, Bakker is also contacting state legislators.
"I don't know how long I'm going to make it with this cancer so I have to find Brian a home," she said. "Then I'll be happy."