Breaking Barriers

July 17, 2003

It isn't easy for women to be in construction, according to Nancy Blanchard, a woman who 10 years ago plunged headfirst into the construction world. She had some idea of what it was like to be at a disadvantage in the world from years of experience working in human services. She, her husband, Jim, and three biological children, Mary, Ann and Jay, tended to the needs of many foster children who found a refuge from a sometimes hostile world in the Blanchard home in Lakeville, Minn.

It isn't easy for women to be in construction, according to Nancy Blanchard, a woman who 10 years ago plunged headfirst into the construction world. She had some idea of what it was like to be at a disadvantage in the world from years of experience working in human services. She, her husband, Jim, and three biological children, Mary, Ann and Jay, tended to the needs of many foster children who found a refuge from a sometimes hostile world in the Blanchard home in Lakeville, Minn.

Blanchard was selected for her work with foster children as the recipient of the second annual SGC/ATSSA Member Humanitarian Award.

She was nominated by her son Jay, who described her in his nominating letter as someone who "inspires, shares her strength with and motivates those around her to conquer their most daunting obstacles."

Blanchard believes she has gained more than she has given. "I was extremely touched by the letter," she told Roads & Bridges. "I think it in some ways sums up what I've done, but it's certainly never anything that I would ever say."

Over the course of 35 years as foster parents, Blanchard and her husband opened their home to more than 160 children who needed help.

Blanchard's community service started when her children were young. She started the first Girl Scout troop in Lakeville in 1965, the same year she became a licensed foster care home. In 1970 she founded the Dakota County Foster Parent Association. In 1978 she and Jim were named Foster Parents of the Year. In 1994 Nancy was named Minnesota Mother of the Year. She was a member of both the National Foster Parent Association and the Minnesota Foster Parent Association from 1968 until 2000.

In 1985 she founded Foster Share to fill a need for proper training of foster parents and human services professionals in the effects of foster care on natural children. She served as president of the organization until 1996.

She was the co-founder in 1995 of the Minnesota chapter of the Association of Women Contractors. She was the co-founder in 1974 of the Professional Association of Treatment Homes, a nonprofit special-needs treatment foster care program.

Sibling rivalry

She and her son developed workshops to help foster parents cope with the effects of bringing foster children into a home with biological children.

"We started doing it at a time when that was just a brand-new issue," said Blanchard. "Before this time people hadn't even thought about what effects having foster children have on the family.

"That was really exciting for us and we kind of started a movement. Today people are looking at it. The foster care agency that I was a co-founder of today has offices in five states and has on any given day a thousand kids in placement. It's really such a joy to be able to think that I had a part of starting an agency that today is making life better for a thousand kids a day.

"I think that a successful foster parent is a family who is not rigid, who is very flexible, who can look at success in very small increments and also realize that there will be some kids who you can't help, that it's not a good match, and maybe some other family can."

Blanchard's biological children grew up in a home with foster children from the time they were very young, so the Blanchards had plenty of experience. And the Blanchard natural children made sacrifices. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and most often it is the foster child that gets the grease.

The Blanchard natural children may have missed their parents at a fifth-grade softball game, but they gained in other ways.

"They gained tremendous communication skills," said Blanchard. "I watch them in groups of people and I'm simply amazed at their ability to communicate."

By the time Nancy and Jay Blanchard gave up doing workshops and started a traffic control company, they were tired of traveling almost every weekend and other people were doing the same thing so the need was not as acute as when they started.

Presidential committee

Blanchard's latest accomplishment is a simple name change. She sits on the President's Committee on Mental Retardation but perhaps not for long under that name. At the committee's most recent meeting, the members voted to change the name to the "President's Committee for Persons with Intellectual Disabilities."

"People in the MR [mental retardation] community feel that that's a very stigmatizing name. They felt that 'intellectual disabilities' was a much better name, plus in Europe they're using it a lot and some organizations now are using it. ARC went from 'the Association of Retarded Citizens' to just plain 'the Arc.' So the trend is to move away from using the word 'mental retardation.'"

The committee has submitted the name change to the White House, but it has not yet been officially approved.

The main task of the committee is to produce an annual report on the state of events in the intellectual disabilities community. Blanchard thinks opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities have never been better. "You can always make progress in any field, but I think people with intellectual disabilities are certainly more accepted in our communities. Of course, part of that is the general trend to move people out of institutions. So we're getting a lot more people with disabilities into the communities."

Another goal of Blanchard and some of her colleagues on the president's committee is to make their annual report shorter so more people will actually read it. Some of the reports are 300 or 400 pages long.

"We would like it to be a much shorter report," Blanchard continued. Much of the report is taken up with statistics and data that do not change much from year to year. "And so we'd like to make it shorter and maybe a different size, maybe have a CD to go along with it so if somebody really wanted to look at the real nuts and bolts of the report they could look at it on a CD."

Change happens slowly in the federal bureaucracy, but Blanchard is typically optimistic. "Whether we're going to be able to get the Washington people to agree to a change, I don't know. We're going to give it a good shot."

A new challenge

Change often happens more quickly in private industry, which is what happened to Nancy Blanchard about 10 years ago when she and her son decided to stop traveling the country conducting workshops on the effects of foster children on natural children and start a business.

"We knew we could work together, and my husband had retired, and we kind of needed a little extra income, and I didn't want to be home doing nothing, and he was home, he could take care of the kids, so my son and I decided we'd find a business."

Nancy and Jay looked at everything, including popcorn stands, but decided on traffic control.

"One day he came home and he said to me, 'I think we should do traffic control.' And I said, 'Yeah, right.'" She resisted for a while but decided to go ahead after attending an American Traffic Safety Services Association convention where she took a class about communication in construction and thought her communication skills could transfer to the traffic control business. What they came up with was Safety Signs Inc. in Lakeville.

Blanchard thinks of herself and her son as entrepreneurs, but she said starting a business in traffic control was a humbling experience. At that time, Blanchard had already started two businesses, so she knew how to run a business. It was the traffic control part she had to learn.

"I had to get certified as a traffic control supervisor. I also got certified as a pavement marker," she said. "These were things that I never in my lifetime ever thought I would do. Plus men are not overly crazy about women in construction, and I was president of this company, and it was really hard. But after a couple of years, when I got to know people, and I was on one of the committees for the Associated General Contractors of America and president of the Association of Women Contractors, I got around so I got to meet people. Once you have face-to-face with people, you can work through most anything."

Safety Signs is a subcontractor setting up work zones all over Minnesota. The company also installs a variety of signs, such as stop signs and street signs, and does pavement marking.

A couple of advantages the Blanchards had in starting their traffic control business were that Jay's wife, Sue, is a certified public accountant and helped prevent Safety Signs from spending more than it made and that Nancy and Jay declined to take a salary from the company for the first three years.

The president's committee keeps Blanchard pretty busy. She also does some public relations work for Safety Signs. But she recently retired from the company that she and her son founded 10 years ago.

Blanchard's three natural children are now grown and on their own but not far from home. They all live within about 15 minutes of their parents. The eldest daughter is now a state representative. Jay is a project manager at Safety Signs. Another daughter is a stay-at-home mom who is president of the church women's organization. Blanchard's two adopted boys with disabilities still live at home.

"But when you look at their disabilities, they've done great things," Blanchard said. "They probably have impacted more lives than I have, and than any of us have. Both of them have such good spirits about them, and they just plug along and don't feel sorry for themselves and just do the best they can do. We're really grateful."

What Blanchard thinks she's gained more than anything is the joy and the many wonderful memories of sharing her foster kids' lives.

About The Author: Allen Zeyher is associate editor of Roads & Bridges.