Mother of the Year

Mary Geist is on duty 24 hours a day. With 11 children in the house, it would be hard to expect less from an Oak Harbor woman who has just been named Mother of the Year.

Deaconess Children’s Services, an Everett-based agency that provides child abuse and neglect prevention programs, chose Geist as the outstanding mother for 2006, just in time for Mother’s Day.

Not surprising, say those who know here on Whidbey Island.

“I think she’s a saint,” said Nancy Berner, a retired pediatric nurse who helps with the children.

“Mary is surrounded by children who love her. She is consistent, loving and firm. She’s organized, keeps everything immaculate and on top of that she’s a gourmet cook,” Berner said.

Not only is Geist a staunch advocate for the children with special needs in her care, she started the ball rolling to develop a park where kids in wheelchairs and other limitations can play. The renaissance of Ridgewood Park on NE 11th Avenue is scheduled to begin May 18

“This was Mary’s dream and I think it was a wonderful dream,” said Nancy Fey, who heads a committee of local Soroptimists, part of the team making the park a reality.

Geist has a track record of standing up for kids’ rights.

She home-schools the ten children she has adopted, and the eleventh for whom she is guardian. She believes it’s in their best interest because of the diversity of their health problems, which include a rare genetic disorder, autism, cerebral palsy and chronic asthma.

“I can’t fight enough battles to suit all the needs for the kids and the school system,” she said.

The dining room at the family home called Wisteria House is set up like a school room, with teaching materials and older-style computers kept in shape by a volunteer technician.

“When the sun shines I can’t fight the instinct and we go outside,” she said. “Fortunately, Whidbey Island gives us enough overcast days that we don’t get behind in our school work.”

Get Geist talking, and she will tell the history of each one of the little blessings who joined her family.

She’s lived on Whidbey and in Texas, raised two boys of her own, was married and divorced. She started volunteering with a foster child and adoption program while living on South Whidbey. She adopted Josh and Lexi 10 years ago. They were followed by eight more adoptions during a five-year stint living in Texas.

The adoptions are all “open,” which means the parents are welcome to participate in the care of their child.

“It takes a lot of love to put a child up for adoption when the alternative is a so-so life,” Geist said.

Geist embraces the children and the challenges presented each day. But she is quick to point out the family wouldn’t be successful if it were not for a network of supporters from church and from the community who provide essentials such as dental care and fresh milk and sometimes special treats. But one pressing need is a computerized “talk” program that would enable the child with cerebral palsy to speak, she said.

Naturally, Geist is proud of her brood. They have all exceeded the expectations set out for them when they were born and their health problems identified.

Geist is concerned about the needs of other children facing mental and physical challenges, or both. That’s how the idea of a park evolved, even though none of her youngsters currently use wheelchairs or walkers. However, some new playmates only steps from the house would be fun.

For visiting children’s caregivers, the park would provide a chance to relax, to socialize with other adults and maybe give each other support.

Geist embarked on the idea of a special-needs park a couple of years ago. Capt. Stephen Black, then commanding officer at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, threw his shoulder behind the project to initially get it rolling, she said.

The City pledged money and the Oak Harbor Soroptimists got involved. Then Mary and the children suffered a series of illnesses and she had to reduce her involvement. No worry. The park idea had gained momentum.

Fey said there’s no specially equipped park for children with physical limitations north of Seattle.

The city is buying most of the equipment and Navy volunteers will handle installation.

The Soroptimists are helping pay for equipment, for building an access path and for the expensive ground cover that will allow wheelchairs to travel unhampered.

Plans call for work to be finished May 20 and then invitations will be sent out for a big opening and ribbon cutting so children can test the park’s amenities.

“Mary’s heart is for caring for children. She’s done a miraculous job,” Fey said. “Soroptimists help Mary with projects because we really endorse what she’s doing.”

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