ST. CLOUD, Minnesota — When Travis and Rhonda Kitch met Ron and Jane Brown for the first time in 2008, they were already family.

It was the day the Browns, longtime foster parents, introduced the Kitches to their daughter, Grace, whom the Browns had cared for almost from birth.

The Kitches also had a 7-year-old son, Carson. Carson had a liver transplant as a baby, an open-heart surgery when he was 6 months old and another open-heart surgery when he was 3 years old. He also lost most of his hearing while he was ill, waiting for his liver transplant. The couple also experienced four miscarriages before beginning the adoption process in 2008.

“Our home-study paperwork wasn’t finalized when our social worker called asking if we wanted to know more about a toddler in Minnesota,” Rhonda recalled. “She indicated the child had had an open-heart surgery and a hearing loss.

“When she asked if we wanted to know more, there wasn’t any doubt that we wanted to learn more.”

Grace was placed with the Browns almost as soon as she was born. The Browns had been foster parents since 1978 and had seen almost everything in their years of service. But Grace had more obstacles to overcome than most of the 100-plus babies who had been placed in their care.

“We had five months to get her up to 12 pounds so she could have the surgery,” Jane recalled. “We had to wake her up to eat. We rejoiced at every ounce she gained.”

Grace’s surgery was successful and the Browns continued to nurture her until she was healthy enough to meet her forever family. Travis and Rhonda met Grace Aug. 4, 2008, when she was 17 months old.

“It was evident Grace was raised in a home filled with love,” Rhonda said. “We loved seeing the backyard where she played, the nearby park, the ease she moved throughout the home. Grace has only known love.”

“We got to learn about her routines, her favorite items and toys, see pictures of her growing up, hear all about her medical journey, and giggle about silly stories,” she said. “We were so grateful we could always ask questions about her experiences and hear stories about our sweet toddler.”

Carson met his sister who shared his “matching scar” Aug. 5, 2008, and the Browns brought Grace to the Kitch home Aug. 8 of that year — their Forever Family Day.

“Everybody’s got a perfect match,” Jane said in an interview with The Central Minnesota Catholic, magazine of the Diocese of St. Cloud. “These are the things we can’t explain. How amazing that (Grace) was placed with parents who had a son with hearing aids so they already knew sign language.

“You can’t take those memories away from us. To see that baby, to watch how they change and grow and start smiling at you, and bonding with you, and then to hand them over to their adoptive parents, we can’t even explain it in words.”

Jane is an only child and always dreamed of having a big family. The couple has four children. But, if you ask the couple, their family really includes over 100 babies and the countless birth parents, adoptive parents and their families who entered their home and their hearts through foster parenting.

The Browns decided to become foster parents through Catholic Charities in 1978. Over the years, they did work with Stearns and Morrison counties and ended their 43-year stint as foster parents as a bridge couple with Lutheran Social Service.

“Every baby was new life for us,” Jane said. “Our commitment was with the adoption program, but our first priority was always with the birth parents because they gave birth. And bless their hearts, they didn’t have to do that.

“To place a child for adoption is such a great gift, one of the greatest gifts anyone could give. Our job was to support them along the way.”

The Browns worked with both the birth parents and the adoptive parents, and oftentimes, extended families, welcoming them all into their home.

If they wished, the birth parent or parents planned a “blessing ceremony” — where both the birth parents and the adoptive parents came together for the sake of the child. This was almost always done at the Browns’ home.

The Browns were the first foster family Jane Marrin worked with when she served as a social worker for Catholic Charities in the 1980s and ’90s.

“They made it easy for me as a social worker,” Marrin said. “They are one of, if not the most, faith-filled couples I have ever met. Their example of treating everyone, and I mean everyone, as Christ is unparalleled.

“The way they welcome all life and treat everyone with dignity, from the birth parents to the social workers to the adoptive parents to the pediatricians to a person they just met on the street. They built their home and their lives on those principles. It is who they are.”

Now age 78 and 75, respectively, Ron and Jane Brown retired in June after 43 years of loving service. Reflecting on the myriad stories of love and loss, joy and hope, the couple said they are at peace with their decision.

“We’d love to keep doing it, but we thought it wasn’t fair to the babies if something should happen with our health,” Jane explained.

Their door will still be open to all — the families and birth parents who have remained in contact over the years, as well as the numerous international exchange students they’ve hosted and also their Cathedral High School family, particularly the hockey team.

Ron has been the assistant hockey coach at Cathedral in St. Cloud for 41 years.

“Each year we invite the team into our home for a meal,” Ron said. “It’s not about hockey. We talk about life and goals and plans for the future. It has become a tradition that we look forward to every year.”

Jane proudly sports a crooked finger, which she deems her “filming finger,” from all the years of traveling and filming the hockey games. She and Ron put together a scrapbook every year for each of the seniors.

“Cathedral is our family,” Jane said.

The Browns modestly realize their lifetime of service has made an impact on countless people over the years, but what they really hope is that everyone who has come through their door knows that each one has had an impact on them, too.

“It’s humbling really,” Ron said. “To recognize the fact that you’ve been an important part of someone’s life, even for a short time.”

“They helped us realize what is important in life,” Jane said. “While we helped them become parents, they helped us become parents. If we were to say the biggest blessing of being foster parents, it would be the lessons it taught our children. We realized what we wanted to teach our kids — to be people who give to other people.”

“Everyone needs a purpose,” Jane said. “What better purpose than to be a volunteer for something that you love or feel strongly about? You do it because you want to. Never would we look at anything we did as a sacrifice. We would do it all over again.”

Anderson is associate editor for The Central Minnesota Catholic, magazine of the Diocese of St. Cloud.