Toni Whisenhunt and her best friend were busy making beds at St. Luke’s Extended Care Home. It was 1988 and her friend was getting married on Valentine’s Day.
“Oh my gosh. Have you seen the new nurse?” her friend gushed. “You need to go meet him. You need a date for my wedding.”
As Toni went to get more bedding she saw the new nurse, Chuck Foster, and flashed him a quick grin.
“She gave me this megawatt smile,” he recalled. It was enough for him to ask around about her and to find out where her locker was.
The memory still makes Toni smile.
“He slipped a note in my locker and asked to have dinner with him at Cavanaugh’s Inn at the Park,” she said.
She agreed, but since he worked nights and she worked days, it took awhile before they were able to make a date. Meanwhile, they took to leaving notes in each other’s lockers.
Chuck was already smitten by her smile and their evening at Cavanaugh’s only strengthened his attraction.
“I wanted to impress her with a fancy steak dinner,” he said. “She ordered a grilled cheese sandwich.”
Not long after, he took her to Clarkston, Washington, to meet his family. They went to a Chinese restaurant. Once again, Toni opted for grilled cheese.
In their South Hill living room, Toni laughed.
“I didn’t know if they’d have food I liked, and I figured they couldn’t mess up grilled cheese!”
Their romance flourished. Within a month, Chuck had given her a promise ring.
“I thought he was adorable,” Toni said. “Plus, he was so smart. You could ask him anything.”
Chuck was a self-educated man. As a teen in Riverside, California, he didn’t care for the public schools. He made a deal with his mother he’d go to the library every day. He earned his GED, scoring extremely high despite not taking any of the prep classes.
When his family moved to Clarkston, he enrolled in the nursing program at Walla Walla Community College’s Clarkston campus and became a licensed practical nurse.
Likewise, Toni was highly self-motivated. She worked full-time at a nursing home while attending school full-time. She became a certified nursing assistant through a program at Spokane Skills Center, now Newtech Skills Center.
The couple moved in together in May 1988, had their son, Adam, in February 1989, and married May 20, 1989.
Chuck was indeed Toni’s date when she was maid of honor in her friend’s wedding and that friend served as maid of honor in their wedding.
One month after they married the Fosters opened an adult family home in their rental house on 29th Avenue.
Toni was skeptical that they could make a go of it. The classified ad Chuck took out in the newspaper cost as much as their rent.
“I’ve always had to say, ‘Trust me, trust me,’” Chuck said. “And she does – that’s what works!”
They quickly moved to a larger home in the Comstock neighborhood and soon had six patients in their care. Their neighbors weren’t happy about the Fosters’ adult family home, and began meeting to discuss ways to get the home closed. Thankfully, another neighbor told them what was going on.
“She told us we were perfectly within our legal rights to operate the home. She was so sweet and kind to us,” Toni said.
That neighbor knew the law well. She happened to be Christine Gregoire, who would later become Washington’s governor.
Still, in 1992 the Fosters decided to purchase a home in a different South Hill neighborhood. That’s where they raised and homeschooled their son, who is also a CNA.
“He’s a more compassionate person for having grown up in an adult family home,” Toni said.
He’s also the father of their two grandchildren.
Because the couple chose to be caregivers, instead of hiring a staff, they’ve only had two vacations in 30 years. Toni’s sister covered for them both times.
On their fifth anniversary, they got their delayed honeymoon and traveled to Victoria, British Columbia. They were surprised by a parade passing beneath their hotel room window.
“We didn’t know our anniversary was Victoria Day,” said Toni, laughing.
Their second getaway was to attend a nephew’s wedding in Oceanside, California.
“It’s a 24/7 job and it can be emotionally draining,” Toni said.
Often their patients are near the end of their lives, and saying goodbye comes with the territory.
Currently, they limit their patients to three.
They’re careful to give each other time away from home. Chuck runs errands, and last year Toni, who has type O negative blood, began donating plasma twice a week.
“She comes home and tells me about all the new friends she’s made, and she gives away the money she makes from donating,” Chuck said.
Chuck, 54, said he feels like he won the lottery when he married her.
“She’s an angel,” he said. “I still love her smile, and she’s the kindest person I’ve ever met.”
Toni, 49, grew thoughtful when contemplating their life together.
“You have to be willing to fall in love with the person over and over again as they evolve and change. If one of you is in love, you anchor the other until they fall back in love again,” she said. “It’s not one love story. It’s multiple love stories.”
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