Hennepin Co. sisters create the ties that bind

Two Hennepin County sisters befriended a pair of little girls nearly three decades ago in a county volunteer program. They've never lost touch.

A lifelong relationship: Susan and Gayle Mattson, front, with Tara Focht, top left, and Debra Easterling.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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Sisters Gayle and Susan Mattson thought it might be rewarding to mentor a couple of little girls, so they signed up for a Hennepin County volunteer program called Friend-to-Child.

That was 28 years ago. Today those girls are young women who still talk or visit weekly with the Mattson sisters, although the conversations have changed from the trials of growing up to updates on their own kids.

"We were committed for a year and it just turned into a lifetime," said Susan Mattson, a receptionist who lives in Brooklyn Park. "Now we're involved with their families too."

To be sure, the enduring relationships that the Mattsons formed with their young charges -- Debra Easterling of Columbia Heights, now 35, and Tara Focht of Rush City, 33 -- don't happen with most Hennepin County volunteers, said Jackie Connolly, manager of the county's volunteer and community partnership program.

But it does show how volunteering can open the door to new possibilities. "There are those special people out there that have a tremendous amount to give and don't have an opportunity to give it, and can really impact someone's life," said Hilary Bearmon, who now assesses the mental health of children for the county but in 1982 was the case manager who lined up the girls with the Mattsons.

Back then the sisters, who have no children of their own, had been working with kids at Sunday school when a neighbor suggested they consider the county program.

They were matched with 5-year-old Tara and 7-year-old Debbie, each of whom had parents but were thought to need special mentoring in part because of deafness in their families.

"Susan was told I was an incorrigible child," said Focht, a medical technician and mother of three who is working toward becoming a registered nurse. "She felt that if she didn't take me, who else would?"

For a couple of hours each week, Susan and Gayle spent time with the girls. Sometimes it was a trip to the movies or a game of cards. They took the girls shopping and helped them with their homework.

Because the girls had parents who were deaf, both Mattsons took American Sign Language classes offered by the county.

Most of all, they were there to talk and listen.

Focht said her favorite memories are the last-minute conversations they'd have in the driveway before being dropped off at home.

No strings attached

"We just clicked," Focht said. "She had patience and tolerance and love for me, no strings attached. ... I would not be alive today if it was not for Susan."

Easterling, who also has three kids and wants to be a nursing assistant, said Gayle was "like a mom to me. ... She taught me about discipline and loving unconditionally."

She also taught her how to drive.

"Her favorite activity at the time was going out for pizza," said Gayle Mattson, a retired office worker who lives in Brooklyn Center. "I consider Debbie part of my family."

Easterling became deaf when she was 15 because of a disease affecting the cranial nerve. When she had to go in for surgery, Gayle took care of her children. And when Focht had her second child, she insisted that Susan be the godmother.

Connolly said the Friend-to-Child program that the Mattsons joined has evolved into the READY program (Relationships, Education and Activities Develop Youth), which matches adults with children for mentoring purposes. Kids in the program tend to be older and generally have more serious issues than kids did in the early 1980s, she said.

Both Focht and Easterling say they got the better part of the deal, but the Mattsons disagree. "To see them grow up to be the fine young women that they are -- they're a gift to us," Susan Mattson said.

For information on Hennepin County volunteer programs, go to www.co.hennepin.mn.us and click on "Jobs & Volunteering."

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455

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