A Heart Bigger
Than Texas

by J. Christian Davenport '96

Until now, all that most members of the Colby community knew about "Red" is that he worked in the Spa and smiled a lot. And while they may have surmised that his nickname refers to his bright red hair, most of them didn't even know his real name--Ernest Paradis. And they certainly didn't know that when "Red" is not at Colby, he runs a foster home for four mentally retarded and physically limited children out of his Waterville home with his wife, Barbara.

But anonymity is okay with Paradis. "I don't do this for attention," he said. "I do this because I've always liked to help people."

He has helped Joe (not his real name), at 17 the eldest of the four children in the Paradis home, for 10 years. Abandoned by his parents as a child, Joe became a ward of the state. Paradis recalls reading a newspaper article that said "they needed a home for this little fella. So I thought, `We have a nice big home, why don't we take him in?'"

Nine months later, after being evaluated by the state, Frank became the newest member of the Paradis family. Since then the Paradis couple has taken in and cared for three other children, ages 13, 14 and 17, all of whom are confined to wheelchairs. The couple has two grown children of their own who live elsewhere.

Paradis wakes at 5:30 a.m., three hours before coming to work at Colby, to get the children ready for school. All four of the foster children are in "mainstreaming" programs in the Waterville public school system, where they are placed in normal classroom settings. Paradis and his wife care for the children's basic needs, washing and feeding them, brushing their teeth and putting them to bed. Paradis has made his home wheel-chair accessible by building a ramp into the house.

"It's a full-time undertaking," said Kevin Brown, a social worker at the Levinson Center in Bangor, an intermediate care facility for mentally retarded children. "If people decide to do this, they have to devote their lives to the child's care."

But the most important thing Paradis and his wife do for their foster children is love them. "They do as much for me as I do for them," said Paradis. "It's a real joy to work with them. And you can see it in their faces. When you show your love you can see them bubbling over. . . . They grow on you, and you fall in love with them as if they were your own after a short while. They all love to be hugged and rocked. They just want to be loved and played with like regular kids, like all of us."

At a time in his life when many of his peers are thinking about retirement, Paradis, 61, is working as hard as ever. Last spring he and his wife took their first vacation away from the children in 10 years.

And yet with all he has done, after all the work and effort he has invested in them, and all the love he has given, Paradis feels guilty that he has not done enough. His dream, he says, is to build a park for special-needs children on his land with rides that would be wheelchair accessible. Since he hasn't taken the initiative yet, "I have a guilt trip about it," he said.

But Vikki Choate, a state social worker who has worked with the Paradis foster home for more than five years, feels Paradis and his wife are incredible providers. "Red's heart is bigger than Texas," she said. "These children require almost total care. It's a phenomenal responsibility, and they've met it every step of the way. Those children are literally members of the family. They are not 'foster kids.'"

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