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We have a window of now

Keith and Sally knew they could give more older kids a loving home through foster care adoption.

by Keith H., Adoptive Father

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My wife, Sally, and I were fairly young when we married and started our family—two boys and a girl. I had a job with rotating days off, which meant I was home with the kids one day each week. I remember playing table games and going for walks with the kids riding in a wagon. As teenagers, they’d invite friends over to eat spaghetti in the basement—the only place in the house where they’d all fit in one room. We didn’t do a lot of “special” things; it was just that we did things together.

In 2000, our youngest son, Travis, was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, and his doctors gave him less than a year to live. As Sally and I devoted ourselves to his care, we learned to be thankful for little things—sunrises, sunsets, and a good day. Travis surpassed the doctors’ expectations and lived another five and a half years, passing away at age 18.

With our other son and daughter grown and starting their own families, Sally and I found ourselves suddenly alone in the house. Counselors told us it’s not uncommon for couples to divorce after losing a child, so we made the decision to re-commit to each other and to our family.

We’d considered adoption and foster care before, and we knew families in our church who had done both. In time, we started talking about it again, not to “replace” the son we’d lost but to respond to a need we hadn’t noticed before—but had been there all along.

Needing a home

By 2011, we’d started the process to become licensed foster parents. Through a family friend, we learned about a family that was fostering two refugee girls from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Their brother had also been granted asylum and was in Bethany’s refugee youth program. He was in a transitional living situation, between aging out of foster care and being completely on his own. He was 18 and needed a place to call home.

So Paul came to live with us for nearly three years, and we considered him part of the family. Through Paul, we got to know some of the other boys in the program who were living on their own. They reminded us of the son we’d lost at 18. What would it have been like for Travis to live alone in a new country—learning a new language and culture and trying to find a job? Who would these young men call if they needed help? Who would they spend holidays with?

That’s why we decided to explore the foster-to-adopt program with older boys. We’d seen messages about adoption on TV, and we’d seen the need for older teens who needed a home. We figured we had some “good years” left, so, at 55 and 57, we called Bethany to ask if we were too old to adopt.

Bethany understood where we were coming from. We were not only experienced parents, but we were experienced child advocates. We’d done a lot of mediation for our son’s education and medical care, and we were not afraid of hard, emotional times.

Modeling commitment

We adopted TJ when he was 16 and Dominick when he was 15. Both had experienced the breakdown of their biological families, multiple foster care placements, and dissolved adoptions. Although both had given consent to this adoption, trust didn’t come easy for either of the boys. Not quite comfortable with “Mom and Dad,” they both stuck to calling us “Sally and Keith,” which we understood. They’d had lots of “moms and dads” in their lives before.

We spent a lot of time in the car together, on the way to school and doing driving training. Those were times when we could talk one-on-one. There’s not much eye contact in the car, so it’s safer to open up. I don’t know that either of them had experienced “normal” family life or knew what to expect when they came to live with us. But as we began to grow close, that’s when TJ began to pull away.

At 17, TJ told us he was moving out. He’d found several members of his biological family, and he decided to live with them. But things in their lives were still complicated. Several months later, we learned through a friend that he wanted to come back home, but he wasn’t sure if we’d allow it. I’d been firm with him about owning his decision to move out, although I’d also helped him move and asked him to please stay in touch with us.

When he moved back, we talked a lot about grace, family, and commitment—three areas where he didn’t have a lot of direct experience. Sally and I had been married 40 years at that point, and I told him we were committed. Neither of us was leaving if things got hard or if we found something better. And we were committed to him the same way. He enrolled in community college that fall and found a job in the same building where I worked, and we rode to work together each day for the next year.

Growing our family

Our family grew again when 14-year-old Anson came to us from Hong Kong. He had been living with a foster family in his country for eight years, and he attended a school for children with developmental disabilities to learn basic life skills. But once he’d turn 18, he’d no longer have access to educational services or care. The options for his future there were limited.

Sally and I had very little information about him, aside from an overview of his needs. With the other boys, we’d had many visits before they came to live with us. We’d spent Wednesday evenings together and gone fishing on Saturdays. With this international adoption, we only had a week.

I arrived in Hong Kong with my son-in-law, Jordan, on a Sunday and met Anson on Monday. We visited his school, his foster parents, and his neighborhood. By Wednesday, Anson was in our custody and preparing to fly with us to the other side of the world to become part of our family. A joyful kid, Anson attached to Sally and me relatively quickly.

Living together

In our full house, Sally is with the boys more than I am, and she takes the brunt of the hard days. She makes individualized schedules that keep the boys organized and give them needed structure. We also structure our evenings to guard our time together. The boys know we are available for them until 9 p.m., and then we need an uninterrupted hour just for us. Maintaining a strong relationship and working as a team is what makes this possible.

We still don’t do a lot of “special” things with the boys. Tuesday is movie night at the old theater in the next town. Admission is cheap, and they have free popcorn. On Saturdays, we all go out together for groceries. As we live, work, and play together as a family, the boys are learning skills that will be foundational for school, work, and relationships in their future.

Our extended family goes away on vacation together every few years. Last time, we went to Florida and rented a big house where we could spend time with all the kids and grandkids. It’s good for the boys to see us all together—seeing our good times together and seeing our dysfunctions—modeling what it means to be a family.

Understanding challenges

It has meant so much to have people in our lives investing in our boys. People in our church have stepped up as mentors to our boys, and we’ve seen them grow and develop in ways we can’t explain. One of the church youth leaders told me he’s reading books so he can learn how to better serve kids who have experienced trauma. That’s when you know you’re not alone.

Some of our best encouragers have been people who aren’t foster or adoptive parents themselves, but they’ve committed their time to be there for us. It’s important for us to have a circle of people who text us asking, “How is your week going?” and we know it’s safe to tell them when it’s been rough.

Dominick in particular has a lot of trauma in his past. His story isn’t like those of his peers at school, and we were prepared for a gradual healing process. One year, before the school year started, his teacher wrote him a letter saying, “I am looking forward to having you in my class.” That gesture spoke volumes. She understood his challenges and found a way to reach out to him. All of his teachers have been fantastic advocates, and he has come a long way.

Our family has been incredibly supportive too. Ryan and Amy, our son and daughter-in-law, had two biological children when they adopted three girls from Ethiopia. Their decision to adopt was pivotal for us; because of them, we realized we had the ability to do something more for children who need families.

Laura and Jordan, our daughter and son-in-law, live close by and are a big help. Laura is using a homeschooling program to teach Anson to read, and Jordan developed a special relationship with Anson on the trip to Hong Kong. He also spends time with TJ and Dominick, inviting them over to their house. Being that much younger, he relates to them in different ways.

Taking action

In my early sixties, I know I’m slowing down, but I’m more active than most men my age. Without these boys in my life, I’d be sitting on the couch. They not only keep us physically active but spiritually active as well. Before this experience, we were blind to the needs of older children who need families. Honestly, I think most people are. You hear about teens in foster care at 16 and 17 and think they’ll cope somehow. When it was our teen who needed help, we knew no teen deserves this. They need someone to call them on their birthday. They need someone they can talk to when they’re having a bad day.

This idea of loving others, helping others, and giving special care to those who don’t have fathers is woven throughout Scripture. At some point, we just need to be obedient. I’m at an age now where a lot of my friends are retiring. I keep coming back to this question: What are you going to do for the next 15 years of your life? We have a window of now to make a difference for these boys. As long as I have breath in me, I can do something.

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