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NFL player Lehan, local teen discuss how growing up in foster homes impacted their lives in similar ways

WILLMAR -- Mike Lehan sheepishly admits that he was "a little demon" at times when he was a kid.

In the same breath, the 26-year-old professional football player said that if it hadn't been for people like Mark Malam of Willmar, he wouldn't be what he is today -- blessed.

Lehan, who spent three years as a cornerback for the Cleveland Browns and said he expects to sign a contract today with the Miami Dolphins, told Kandiyohi County foster parents Monday night that "99 percent" of his success in life is because of the "unwavering love" of foster parents and friends, like Malam and his family.

"They were there for me," Lehan said, and they "accepted me as I was."

That acceptance helped lead the University of Minnesota graduate to a career in football and a busy schedule of working with teens that were adopted or are in foster care.

Lehan was adopted at three months by a Hopkins family, abandoned by his adoptive mother when he was 14 and given a new home with foster parents in the Twin Cities.

When he was 8 years old he became good friends with Malam and his family, who have continued to make him part of their family.

Lehan has spent the last few years in Cleveland meeting with those who are in that same boat he once was. He provides them time, a listening ear and even Christmas gifts. He intends to do something similar when he moves to Miami.

Despite the hard knocks life dealt him, Lehan said "God has truly blessed me" and the "least I can do is to give something back."

Lehan shared his story at a foster care appreciation dinner put on by Kandiyohi County Family Services.

So did Ally Roberts, a 17-year-old Willmar High School senior, who said she has a lot in common with Lehan.

For one thing, they're both good friends with Malam, his wife, Amy, and their two children.

Roberts has also spent time in at least 15 different foster homes. And, she said, because of the good people that have cared for her over the years she intends to have the same kind of success in life that Lehan has.

Foster parents may not be aware of the power they have to positively affect kids' lives, said Roberts, who came into the Kandiyohi County foster care system in 1997.

"Most people don't know I'm in foster care," said Roberts, a vibrant young woman who has excelled in music, speech communication, sports and will graduate with honors next month.

She said she owes everything she is today to her foster families, especially a family who took her to church. "I would not be who I am without finding Christ," said Roberts

Her current foster family, Dale and Vonnie Swanson, are Malam's in-laws. That's how she got to know Lehan. "I could end up like him," said Roberts, quickly adding, "Well, not a football player," but a success story. "I intend to be one," Roberts said.

Lehan's and Robert's stories merged Monday before a group of foster parents who are also giving kids a chance for success.

"It takes a special person to open their house to strangers" and a "heart to know that it's needed," Lehan said.

When all is said and done at the end of life, Lehan said what's important is not how much money he has or how nice his car is, but how many kids can be helped. What really "sticks with kids" is love and support, he said.

Larry Kleindl, Kandiyohi County Family Services Director, said foster families "make a difference every day" in kids' lives.

There are currently 41 foster families that are overseen by Kandiyohi County Family Services. There are currently 58 children in foster care.

More foster families are needed in the county to provide respite and full-time care, said Corrine Torkelson, family service supervisor.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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