I was 28 years old and living in Austin, Texas, when I got the news: I was going to have a foster sister.
A family friend had told my parents about Maribel’s plight. At 18, she was the oldest of four siblings (two boys and two girls) from Colombia whose parents had died, leaving them orphans. That friend and his wife had adopted the other three children. But because Maribel had been a second mother to them since their actual mother had died, the family was concerned there might be role confusion if they adopted all four siblings. But they hoped Maribel could live close enough to the Twin Cities to visit them often. My parents lived in Fargo and had just become empty-nesters, with the last of their seven children headed off to college, so it looked like it could be a good fit.
Dad and Mom listened, prayed about it and said, “We’ll gladly take her into our home.”
I was back for a visit when Maribel arrived at the Minneapolis airport from Bogotá. She spoke very little English, so with my stumbling Spanish I served as translator during the four-hour drive to Fargo. It became clear immediately that she was kind, respectful and deeply committed to her Catholic faith.
It would not take long to discover Maribel had another trait — incredible determination. She started attending classes for English as a second language in the evening and auditing some classes at Shanley, the Catholic high school just blocks from our home. Maribel obtained her GED and then began taking classes at North Dakota State University, graduating five years later. She met her future husband, Tom, in her junior year, and they married a year after graduating. Today, they have four beautiful children — two in college and two in high school. They are a beloved part of the rapidly expanding Ruff family.
I spoke with Maribel by phone the other day, asking her if it would be OK for me to write this column, and offering to change her name and other details for anonymity. She laughed and said, “Oh no, you don’t need to worry about that. I don’t mind if people know.”
I asked her to reflect on the chapters of her life. She recalled that, after the death of her mother, the four children had spent a year in a state-run orphanage. “It was not a very happy time and we didn’t experience people caring very much about us, until we met a saintly lady named Mary McCormick. She was a widow from Milwaukee who had come to Colombia and fallen in love with the poor. Mary became known as a kind of Mother Teresa of Bogotá. She found the adoptive family for my brothers and sister and let me stay with her for a year until I was 18, when I could come to the U.S. as an adult.”
When I asked Maribel about being taken into our home by Mom and Dad, she said, “It meant the world to me. I grew up with nothing. I was amazed to experience Mom and Dad — and everyone else — treating me with such respect as a member of the family. It really strengthened my faith that there is goodness in people, goodness in the world.”
I titled this column “Maribel comes home.” Clearly I mean “home” in the sense of belonging, of having a family that loves you. But there is a secondary twist here, as well, one that makes me smile. After living out east for many years, Tom and Maribel Ebeling and their family have moved to Eau Claire, where Tom has taken a new job in his field of plastics engineering. They have joined Immaculate Conception Parish.
And so I invite you to join me, on behalf of the diocese, in saying: Welcome home!
Director of the Office for Ministries and Social Concerns