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By Marino Eccher, Published July 22 2013

Longtime Minnesota foster dad says kids 'worth saving'

LAKEVILLE, Minn. – Give him your troubled and your troublemakers, the ones on the fast track to no good. The ones with drug problems and rap sheets. The ones nobody else seems to want.

For 37 years, Bill Feidt has taken them all.

Feidt has ferried them to probation hearings, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and even the dentist.

He’s taken them in for a few months or a few years. He’s taken them in at 1 a.m. when they’re acting up somewhere else. He’s put them to work on his Lakeville hobby farm and called them “sir,” even when they call him four-letter words.

He’s seen them off to college, to the Marines – and if things went wrong, to prison, from where they send letters and call him collect. He’s one of the few people who will answer.

Soon, he’ll see the last ones off.

The 72-year-old Feidt is retiring this summer after nearly four decades as a foster parent. Those who know him describe him as even-handed, compassionate, fair and tough, wise from experience – and, most of all, irreplaceable.

Feidt isn’t sure about all of that, calling himself just one piece of a much larger support system. But he’s sure about the philosophy that’s guided him along the way.

“God don’t make trash,” Feidt said. “These kids are worth something, and they’re worth saving.”

Savior needed saving

Decades ago – before he became the most sought-after foster parent in Dakota County, before his hobby farm in rural Lakeville became a sanctuary for wayward boys – Bill Feidt needed saving.

He was “a misguided guided missile” from south Minneapolis, as he puts it. He was intimately familiar with the judicial system. As an adult, he sold cars; as a teenager, he stole them.

His home life was stable enough but plagued by alcohol issues. At 18, he joined the Marines Corps Reserves at the nudging of the court system.

It instilled in him a sense of discipline and routine he had lacked.

But it didn’t derail his own burgeoning alcohol abuse. After five years in the military, “I was still out performing,” he said. “I had a full-time job, I was paying taxes, I was being a human being, but my behavior was still a little dippy.”

He found himself in and out of rehab more than once. Finally, at age 32, while climbing a flight of stairs in yet another treatment facility during yet another low point, “I had this epiphany,” he said.

“It occurred to me,” he said, “that when I was looking in the mirror, I might have been looking at the problem.”

That was the last time.

A few clean years later, Feidt was sitting in a new house in Lakeville, looking out the window onto a generous yard. It seemed like an awful lot of space and comfort.

He and his wife found themselves thinking: “We had a lot more to give.”

Kids keep coming

The first boy came from Scott County. His home was as broken as it could be: His father was dead and his mother was in prison for killing him.

The boy showed up with a horse in tow. It was one of his last worldly possessions. The child and the horse, Feidt recalls, “were a package.”

Feidt had called the county saying he had extra room in his home. It was just before his daughter Laura was born. He asked if they might have an adolescent he and his wife could take in.

Before anything was arranged, Feidt disclosed his history with alcoholism and ongoing recovery.

“I was kind of thinking that would cause them some apprehension,” he said. Instead, “it seemed to accelerate things.”

That was in 1976. Feidt “thought it would be one kid.”

It wasn’t.

There was another, and another and another.

Over the decades, they’ve reached a few hundred – Feidt lost track of the exact count. He’s licensed for four at a time and is usually full or close to it. Right now, he has three teens staying with him.

Few alternatives

Some of them, like the first, are placed with him via county social services because their home lives are unstable, unsafe or broken down. Many others come from the juvenile court system, often as an alternative to a more severe step such as juvenile detention.

Stays range from a few days for boys on short-term placement to a few years.

“He was taking these really difficult, challenging kids, and he was able to manage them,” said Matt Bauer, community corrections manager for Dakota County.

They are often adolescents who hadn’t been successful managing their behavior in even the most structured programs, Bauer said. Many of them have a history of clashing with adults and are on probation for offenses ranging from drug issues to robbery.

But prosecutors don’t always want to simply lock them up.

Karen Henke, a prosecutor in Dakota County who handles juvenile cases, has sent many teens to Feidt.

His home is “one of our few alternatives to placement in a juvenile detention center,” she said. And if they can’t make it in his home, “that says something.”

Retreat instead of prison

Feidt and his wife divorced in 1988. He sold the house and took a break for a few years. But when he bought a new house – again in rural Lakeville, again with more room than he needed – he looked out the window and again decided he had more to give. He got in touch with Dakota County and started taking in boys again.

The home, at first glance, looks like the home of any other 72-year-old grandfather who retired in the countryside. It’s a hobby farm on 10 acres, with a chicken coop in the yard, a minivan out front and a news report on the stock market playing on the television in the background.

But there’s also a pair of walkie-talkies, a camera system to keep an eye on blind spots and a motion detector that tells Feidt if someone is coming or going from the property.

He had the last feature installed after he awoke one night to a disturbance outside and came down to find what looked like an impromptu gang gathering underway in his driveway.

“They were coming out here to extricate one of my adolescents,” he said. “I said to myself, ‘I think this is probably the last time I’m going to come walking out that door and not know exactly what I’m walking into.’ “

In spite of the extra security, the house is more like a retreat than a prison.

“It’s just a very peaceful setting,” said Ashley Stevens, a Dakota County social worker who’s worked with Feidt. “It’s a serene environment.”

Feidt thought so too, giving rise to the farm’s nickname: Serenity Hill.

The farm setting lends itself well to the kinds of routines – chores, family meals, reasonable bedtimes – that at-risk teens need.

As an added bonus, “kids don’t know where the heck they are,” said Greg Sexton, a county probation officer and longtime friend of Feidt’s.

The occasional rescue attempt notwithstanding, “it makes it harder to run away or have other kids come over with weed or do other stupid stuff,” he said.

‘Kid whisperer’

For Zack Brown, anything that made it harder to get into trouble was probably a good thing.

The Inver Grove Heights 18-year-old had struggled with drugs, trouble at home and running afoul of the law. He came to Feidt through the courts.

When he heard Feidt had a military background, he was apprehensive that he might be going head-to-head with a certified tough guy.

Instead, he found Feidt to be friendly, well-mannered and relatable. He talked openly about his alcoholism and staying sober. He called him “partner,” spoke to him like an adult and listened to what he had to say.

“He’s kind of the kid whisperer,” said Laura Feidt-Westrude, Bill’s daughter. “He doesn’t speak to them as their superior. He speaks their language.”

Feidt put Brown to work around the hobby farm, letting him drive the lawn mower when things went well and sending him out to clean up after the horses when they didn’t.

It was the logical extension of one of Feidt’s many favorite sayings: “Sh–-y behavior deserves sh–-y jobs.” But Feidt always shoveled with him to remind him they were in it together.

When Brown really pushed Feidt’s buttons, he met “Freddy” – Feidt’s nickname for his stern, scary side.

“He’d always say ‘don’t piss me off or you’ll see Freddy,’ ” Brown said. “I only saw him once, and it wasn’t good.”

At one point, after Brown kept getting kicked out of treatment, Feidt told him he was completing the next one or he wasn’t coming back.

But his goal wasn’t to shout or threaten Brown into submission. Instead, it was to catch him when he was doing well, said Ashley Stevens, Brown’s social worker.

“He’s a great cheerleader for the kids,” she said.

After Brown got his first medallion from Alcoholics Anonymous, Feidt gave him a marble. He told Brown if he ever relapsed, he was to take the marble, throw it as far as he could and shout “I’ve lost my marbles!” at the top of his voice.

“He always said this: He’s got real simple solutions for complex problems,” Brown said. “He’s got real intelligent ways of making you do the right thing.”

Brown was in and out of Feidt’s home for three years. While there, he found he liked working on the heavy machinery. Feidt encouraged him to make a career out of it. This fall, he’ll enroll in Dakota County Technical College to study diesel mechanics.

Getting Brown and other teens to that point isn’t a one-person job. The list of people Feidt credits for his successes includes teachers, social workers, school bus drivers who put up with rowdy youngsters, local doctors and dentists who treat his teens despite imperfect insurance, local employers who give them jobs despite imperfect resumes.

“This isn’t a one-man Mecca,” he said. “I’m not the Lone Ranger out here.”

“He’s not a miracle worker,” said Tom Bergstrom, a Dakota County foster care licensing worker. “He doesn’t turn around every kid, but he gives every one of them a fair shake.”