Behind the boy with a dream is a mother making it happen
The doorbell and phone were constantly ringing, and backpacks piled up everywhere. There was a buzz. An excitement. A headline read Airdrie Boy’s Initiative is Outstanding Success. Everyone was catching onto Stephen McPhee, the five-year-old boy with autism that had a dream to help children in need. But behind the boy with a dream was a mother determined to make that dream come true. That mother is Nancy McPhee. And that mother has lived a life that surprises most.
Nancy helps co-run Stephen’s Backpacks for Children in Need Society – the charity born in 2007 out of Stephen’s idea to give backpacks to kids without their own. But as well as that, she has been a foster mother to 20 children, is currently caring for five, and is continually nursing her husband, James McPhee, throughout his battle with cancer.
“They see her as some unbelievable person that just won’t stop,” James said.
As I approached the front steps of the McPhee’s modest Airdrie home, I could see little silhouettes moving behind the blinds. Birdhouses hung in the tree and figurine angels stood tall in the windowsill. Nancy greeted me with a hug and offered me a drink.
“I was so shocked when you asked me to do this,” she said, in denial that her life was anything special. But I begged to differ. Sitting in the living room with our peppermint teas cozy in our hands, I asked about her childhood.
“My childhood was very strict,” she began. Her father was in the air force and ran the house like he ran his job. If you came home with A’s he would ask where the A+ was. If you couldn’t do something perfect he would insist that you stop. And it wasn’t just emotional abuse. It became physical too.
“If it had happened today he would be in prison for the way he treated us,” she told me. At the age as young as four, Nancy remembers thinking she would never live like that when she grew up. And she doesn’t.
Propelled into a life of loving
I watched Nancy laugh as she recalled the story behind meeting her husband, tear up as she spoke about the transformation in one of the girls she has fostered for over 10 years, and speak to her children with kind words and constant I love yous.
“She is one of the few people that believes the cup is half full rather than half empty,” James said.
Nancy’s mother was a large reason her abusive childhood turned around. Although she was under the thumb of her husband for 17 years, they divorced when Nancy was 11, and she was able to bloom. With no support from him after the divorce, a dollar-an-hour job at the children’s clothing store, Junior Swank, and three children, Nancy watched her mom push through and love throughout.
A rough childhood and a mother that oozed philanthropy collided to create a girl with keen senses towards inequality and a heart filled with compassion.
“I really started to see the real holes in our society. That it wasn’t fair. There were the rich and the poor and the people that didn’t have houses, and that really bothered me,” Nancy said.
Years later, while she was the marketing director at the Learning Disabilities Association of Alberta, Nancy went to one of their camps. As she was meeting the children, she noticed something.
“Why are these kids so angry?” she asked the staff.
They told her about foster care. Most of the children had been taken away from their parents and put into the system. They came from broken families and some of the homes they were put into weren’t healthy either. Nancy frowned.
“Why would kids be unhappy going into a home if you show them love?” she thought. “It just doesn’t make any sense.” That day burned a place in the back of Nancy’s memory and resurfaced a few years later when Nancy began to have health problems.
The doctors thought she had cancer in her ovaries and had to preform a hysterectomy. “That was really hard for me because I had a great love for children and I was only ever naturally able to have one,” Nancy said. But although it was tough, the situation gave life to the idea of fostering.
Open doors, open hearts
Stephen was their first placement, and although they had originally decided not to adopt, they fell in love and folded right away. Then after him more came. Twenty children followed Stephen. Some abused, some with disorders, some angry, but all broken in some way.
“I looked at them like sparrows. Like little sparrows with broken wings,” Nancy said. “You just brought in these little birds, found out where the wing was broken, and tried to fix it.”
Nancy’s childhood, although very hard, prepared her for this.
“You always remember the feelings of loneliness or loss or abuse or hurt, and then when you see it in others it’s like radar. You can just detect it so easily, and you can remember how it felt, and how you would have wanted to be treated,” she said.
Then, as their fostering journey continued, Stephen’s Backpacks Society started to sprout.
It started in December 2006 when Nancy and James were discussing a picture on the front of the newspaper. The picture was of a homeless man on the side of the street. The cold winter day was visible in the snow that fell. Stephen heard them talking and asked, “Are there kids on the street?” When his mom said yes he exclaimed, “We have to help them!”
A few days later, Stephen returned with the idea to make “pack packs” for the children (at the time he struggled to pronounce his b’s). Normally children with autism don’t show empathy, and so Nancy immediately knew this was special. She went out right away and bought 15 backpacks, and their family delivered them to Inn From the Cold in Calgary that evening.
Community Catches on and backpacks take-off
The following year Anne Beaty at the Airdrie Echo heard about Stephen and sat down with the family for an interview. During it, she asked Stephen how many backpacks he would like to make the following year. Confident and without delay he said, “150!” Nancy was shocked – and a little doubtful.
“I just about fell off the chair!” she said as she re-enacted how surprised she was.
But the backpacks started flooding in – 275 in total. “I thought we were going to have to move out of the house there was so many backpacks,” she laughed.
The huge response urged Stephen to dream bigger, and Stephen dreaming bigger urged Nancy to make it happen.
“She is 100 per cent behind her son. She really believes in his dream and it is important to her to have his dream happen,” Marianne Symons, program coordinator at Calgary Healthy Families Collaborative said. Symons met Nancy when Stephen’s Backpacks Society donated to their collaborative from 2012 – 2014.
So each year the backpacks multiplied, and each year the McPhee’s reached to farther places. “It became a full time job,” Nancy said. James sold his business and the two started working full time on the backpacks. Last year, with the help of 500 volunteers, 300 corporate sponsors and 30 schools, they were able to donate 4,050 backpacks across Alberta and Saskatchewan.
The backpacks really have an impact on families that struggle financially.
“If you only have three kids in the picture and you have $18,000 to pay rent, buy clothes, buy food, and buy incidentals, it doesn’t go very far. And so a backpack becomes a luxury,” Symons explained. Because of this, Stephen’s Backpacks Society has been greatly accepted by many organizations helping families get back on their feet.
And although he is 15 this year, that first December wasn’t a one-off for Stephen. As he grew up, his passion grew as well. And his passion to help began to reflect his mother’s.
When I asked Stephen what he thought about his mom he paused for a bit and then said, “She makes me feel like I got my big heart from her.”
Maybe this collision of compassion and giving can be passed on. Nancy’s mother once paved the way, but now the responsibility has been handed to her. Stephen is walking in Nancy’s footsteps, and everyday, she works to clear the path. But some of the debris are not small.
Goodbyes never feel good
The McPhee’s are currently preparing themselves for a hard goodbye. In July, three of their foster children are going back home. When it was just Nancy and I in the room she hushed her voiced and told me about the situation.
“This is the hardest part of fostering,” she started. Nancy has mothered Jonah, Patrick and Alison for most of their lives – their names have been changed in this story for protection.
When the boys were brought to their home they were hungry and scarred. There were gashes on their heads from bits of wood, and bruises on their hearts from being abandoned.
When Alison came she was severely regressed. A few minutes after our conversation she walked into the room, and as Nancy pulled her in for a hug she said, “This little one – she couldn’t talk. She was drinking out of a baby bottle – and that was just one year ago.” Nancy was told that Alison had learning disabilities and couldn’t hear, but after living with the McPhee’s for just shy of two years, none of those stand true.
“Look at you now!” Nancy exclaimed in the proud falsetto that only a mom can get away with, “You are talking. You are toilet trained. You are just an amazing little girl.”
And then on top of the stress of losing the children, James has been in and out of the hospital for the last 10 years with 5 different kinds of reoccurring cancers.
“Every minute you think oh my god. I just couldn’t imagine my world without him,” Nancy said. “But the backpacks are a light … it’s not just a light to homeless kids, it’s a light to us as we go through this very dark journey of cancer.”
The superhero’s secret sauce
In the midst of the chaos, two things motivate Nancy to keep going: her faith and her legacy. “It’s not how important I will be but that my life will live on,” she said.
Despite all the challenges, Nancy works tirelessly for Stephen’s Backpacks Society. And not only does she put her heart and soul into the charity, she is constantly caring for the people in her home, and doing everything with actions that showcase compassion and love.
No wonder most are surprised.
“I think honestly … our journey is one that people don’t understand,” Nancy said to me. “It doesn’t really bother me but I just wish that if people understood that if everybody pitched in a little bit, it would be great.”
Thumbnail image courtesy of Stephen’s Backpacks Society
The editor responsible for this article is Jodi Brak, firstname.lastname@example.org