ADOPTION IS CHANGING LIVES IN LAKELAND
photography by Tiffani Jones
Growing up, everywhere we went, my family was the subject of intense looks and prolonged stares. In restaurants, the grocery store, and other public places, my five siblings and I would trail behind our parents like mismatched ducklings. My older sister and I, both dark haired and fair skinned, would often be carrying one of our light-haired youngest siblings on our hip, while our middle brothers, one Hispanic and one Italian, trailed behind us. Waitresses, cashiers, and other strangers would curiously ask one of our parents, “Are these all your children?” to which we would reply, “Yes!
And we’re all adopted!” We would then happily relay the story of our different histories to the interested party. Even as small children we were proud of our family — different, unconditional, and loving.
From the first moment of our adoptions, our parents imparted to us the stories of our untraditional histories. Two of my siblings were adopted at birth, brought home from the hospital by our adopted parents. The rest of us spent varying amounts of time in foster care before being adopted. I was in foster care for only seven weeks, but one of my siblings was in foster care for years before becoming part of our family. As our family grew, each new child certainly brought a new set of challenges, but our ever-changing family dynamic taught my siblings the irreplaceable values of inclusion and acceptance. From an early age we understood that we could love people who looked and acted differently from us. We knew we were all loved and that everyone is deserving of love.
Every adoption story is different. My story is one of love and sacrifice. At 19, my biological mother had already been married and divorced once. She had another daughter who lived with our mom’s parent, and she was no longer in contact with my biological father. Knowing she couldn’t care for me the way she wanted to, my mother made a difficult decision and gave me up for adoption. I am thankful for that decision, because the love and acceptance that I learned and lived because of adoption is something that has shaped my life.
Our city is teeming with Lakelanders who are living stories similar to mine —stories full of love, acceptance, and healing for parents and children. Not all of them are stories as simple as mine; some are fraught with tears and suffering. But all are seasoned with patience, acceptance, hard work, and love.
NATHAN AND LORI PUHR
“We had always talked about adoption. When we started trying to have kids, we figured, ‘Why put it off? Why not do it now?’” Nathan Puhr explains to me. Over the phone I can hear Lenora, their eight-month-old daughter laughing and playing in the background. Lenora and I have remarkably similar stories. Young loving mothers who want more for their children than they can give them, coupled with adoptive parents ready to nurture and care for their new baby. The difference in our stories is that I’m hearing Lenora’s story from her adoptive parents’ side.
“We were so hesitant to say something, even to our families,” Lori says. “We got to be at the hospital the whole time Lenora’s mom was in labor, but we didn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up.”
You see, before being matched with Lenora, Nathan and Lori had been matched with another child, but the match fell through. Even though they were at the hospital for Lenora’s birth, and Lori was the first to hold her, the Puhrs didn’t let anyone know they were parents until the paperwork had been signed and they were on the way home with their new daughter.
“We called everyone on our way home from the hospital. I was so excited and overwhelmed, we got lost driving home,” Nathan laughs.
They’re incredibly thankful for the generosity and care that Lenora’s birth parents and family showed toward them during the sometimes complicated process. Lori maintains communication with Lenora’s birth mom and sends her regular updates. Adoption stories don’t often work this openly; many are closed, mostly to protect children and families. The Puhrs’ story is one filled with grace and plenty of love from both sides. The bond that Nathan and Lori have made with Lenora is undeniable.
“It’s amazing how well Lenora fits into our family,” Lori says. “Small things that look like Nathan or little moments that look like me. It’s really amazing. Even our pets were excited when we brought her home. They were in the windows waiting for us. They knew something was happening. My parents are obsessed with her. I talk to people about adoption all the time. I want people to see what adoption can look like. [It’s not] always what you see in movies. I want people to see how beautiful growing your family through adoption can be.”
Last year, 99 children were adopted in Polk County, according to statistics from the Department of Children and Families website (dcf.state.fl.us). This year, as of the end of February, 22 children have been adopted. As of February 2016, there are still 388 children in Polk County hoping to be adopted.
The tangible and intangible benefits of adoption are endless for the adopted child, the biological parents, and the adoptive family. Initial adjustments can be challenging, but providing a stable, loving home and a feeling of permanence can change the course of a child’s life forever. At four years old, my brother was adopted. At the time, he had memories and habits he’d formed through his experiences living on the street with his biological mom. It took a lot of hard work, love, and dedication by my parents to help him to adjust to a stable life. Over time, though, his bad habits faded and he grew to be a well-adjusted, successful man.
AS OF FEBRUARY 2016 THERE ARE STILL 388 CHILDREN IN POLK COUNTY HOPING TO BE ADOPTED.
Locally, the greatest need is homes for youth ages 12 to 15 as well as for sibling groups (heartlandforchildren.org). Lack of permanence in a child’s life can cause major problems for their future. Children who age out of foster care without permanent families have an increased risk of homelessness, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, and struggle with employment. Less than two percent of them will earn a bachelor’s degree (childwelfare.gov).
There is something wonderful to be said for people who welcome others into their homes with open arms. Their lives are an example of love and acceptance to the people around them. When identifying potential adoptive families, agencies look for people who demonstrate patience,
consistency, and flexibility to children.
The state of Florida also provides support for adopted children and families. There are classes and support groups available for children and families, and children adopted through foster care are eligible for scholarships, help with healthcare, and even assistance paying for things like childcare and extracurricular activities. In some cases, the state may also help with adoption related expenses. You never know who you’re opening your home to when you chose to foster or adopt a child. Famous talents like Steve Jobs, John Lennon, and Marilyn Monroe were all adopted. However, you can be assured that by providing a home for a child, adoptive families are giving them a place where they can feel loved and safe, and ultimately a real chance at a better future.
WANT MORE INFORMATION ABOUT ADOPTION?
If you would like more information about the benefits of adoption or how you can become an adoptive parent, the following sites are a great place to start.
Heartland for Children
Florida Baptist Children’s Homes
Catholic Charities of Central Florida
THE METZ FAMILY
“I love getting to watch the boys turn into their own people without any preconceived ideas of who they should be because of who Chris and I are.”
Courtney and Chris Metz are parents to Coen and Cyrus, two precious little boys. The Metzs always wanted to adopt but hoped to have a child biologically first. After multiple miscarriages they decided to start the adoption process, and after two years they adopted Coen, a curly-headed, friendly little boy who loves playing with his friends, dancing, and eating. They were connected to Cohen’s birth mom by a friend who knew they were trying to adopt.
“We always get comments on Coen’s hair. I’ve been asked if my husband is black,” Courtney says. “Most people are trying to figure us out. People will say things like, ‘God bless you for giving them a life,’ like we made a huge sacrifice to save our boys. That’s a really quick way to make me feel uncomfortable and hear me talk about their birth moms and how they made all the hard choices. “
After adopting Coen, Courtney and Chris decided to adopt again. And, after one failed match, they were matched with Cyrus, who turned six months old this May. “We are pretty much a normal family, except I didn’t give birth and our kids don’t look like us. These two boys are absolute gifts in our lives. I could never repay that gift in a million lifetimes with a million dollars.”