In a few months from now, as temperatures fall and skies turn grey, many of us will recall memories of these summer months. In this Huffington Post Gay Voices RaiseAChild.US “Let Love Define Family™” series installment, RaiseAChild.US Founder and CEO, Rich Valenza, shares memories of an extraordinary family vacation and one extraordinary family.
On one of those cozy afternoons when El Nino rains promise to soak the west coast, I will have many fond memories of this summer to replay in my mind. I will think about the sunny days and starry nights that my family enjoyed together on the R Family Vacation at Wonder Valley Ranch located just west of the Sequoia National Forest. I will remember the young team of camp counselors that warmly welcomed my family with complete acceptance and respect. I will do my best to remember all of the other LGBT parents and their children that we met, laughed with and befriended. But there is one woman and her family of seven sons that are synonymous, in my mind, with the love and comfort that my family feels when we go on R Family Vacations.
Stephanie White is a single mom from San Diego who adopted seven special needs boys from the foster care system. It is easy to find Stephanie and her boys at most any R Family Vacation because they are usually at the center of everything. You cannot help being drawn to them. If her kind heart isn’t immediately visible, you can’t miss the crowds that gather around her to enjoy her gift of storytelling and her contagious laugh. While her sons range in age from 15 to 38, one or all of her five youngest are usually at the center of any and all clusters of kids. To Stephanie’s boys, every kid is a friend. It’s Stephanie’s sons who are first to encourage other children to challenge themselves and push through fears whether they are high up on the rock-climbing wall, learning steps to a line dance, or up to bat at a softball game.
There is a special place in Stephanie’s heart for each of her adopted sons. When you ask her, she can easily rattle off the birthdates, ages and best attributes of each son.
Stephanie White: I met Manuel in October 2003. He was listed as adoptable by the state. As soon as I met him, I fell in love with him. So he came home with us and he became my fourth son. The following spring I went back to the state and I said I’m interested in more kids. While looking through a photo book, I saw one photo that surprised and startled me. I stopped, looked more closely and said, "Oh, wow, these boys look a lot like my son Manuel." The county employee said they were his birth brothers, Arturo age 9 and Fernando 7. I said, "I would like to meet them." But the worker stated that the boys were in a foster home and were considered too old to be adopted.
Rich Valenza: Wait! What?
Stephanie: Yes! Can you believe that they were listed as unadoptable because they were 7 and 9? I was really interested and pushed to meet them. On our second meeting I told Arturo and Fernando that their brother Manuel was already living with me and that I was planning on adopting them too. They were so excited!
There were 13 children in this family so the state worked on getting the kids together a couple of times a year to all see each other. The next visit with Fernando and Arturo, we took Manuel. It was really cute, I think he was 18 months old the last time they had seen him, so when he got out of the car seat they yelled, "Hey look, Manuel can walk!" Then a minute later, "Hey, Manuel can talk!" They were so impressed that their brother could walk and talk. They were so excited to be together again and see each other. Then when I said, "Would you like to join our family?" all three brothers were just overjoyed.
As Stephanie finished filling me in her son, Fernando, approached. At 19, Fernando has grown to be a handsome and exceptionally kind young man that earns the attention of most of the teenage girls, and his sports abilities earn the respect of most all of the boys on vacation here at the ranch. Stephanie nods and whispers.
Stephanie: I want you to talk with Fernando. He is my son that is remarkably in touch with his emotions and feelings.
Fernando sits between us.
Rich: You know, Fernando, in my book your mom is a very special person. An amazing woman. I wonder how you feel about your mom?
Fernando White: I feel the same way actually. I’m very grateful that she found us. I was always wondering when a family was going to get me. And my brother too.
Rich: Which brother are you referring to?
Fernando: Arturo. Over there by the lake.
Fernando looked back at me. Paused, and his eyes were suddenly full. He leaned forward in his chair and looked down at his feet.
Fernando: I really wanted a family because all around me I saw kids with their moms and dads. I wanted that same feeling. I wanted to be loved. To be noticed. To feel like I exist. I really love my mom with all my heart.
A tear fell to his shoe. Then another.
Fernando: She found me.
His emotion made it difficult for me to breathe.
Rich: What is it like growing up in such a large family that Stephanie created?
Fernando: It is so amazing.
Rich: I have said to your mom that she’s raised seven boys that are very polite and very well-mannered. You’re all good boys and I wondered how she did that. What do you think she taught you? Or do you think it was inside you the whole time?
Fernando looks up with a grin.
Fernando: No. It’s all my mom. She’s very caring and loving toward us, and toward other people.
Rich: And accepting. When I see you around the ranch, you invite every kid in and befriend them quickly. That’s a good quality.
Fernando: Every kid here I think of as another brother or sister. Even their parents, I think of them as my aunt or uncle.
Rich: So now that your mom wants to go back and foster and adopt one or maybe two more kids, how do you feel?
Fernando: I feel grateful that she wants to do that again. That finally some other kids will have a big loving family. I feel awesome that I will have more brothers. I don’t know how she is going to handle it. I think she is going for the age of 12 or something like that. Going through it with another teenager. I don’t know how she will handle it cause she went through a lot with me. So it will be fun for her. Plus, I think she needs more of that now that we all are growing up. I am 19 now and I think she needs another son to love and to experience again all the stuff that I went through with her. All the fun moments. All of the advice she has shared with me.
Rich: So, no girls? No sisters? Only boys and brothers?
Fernando: To be honest, I think my mom is one who gets boys better than girls. She would need to ask for help from all of her gay friends with a girl.
We all laugh.
Rich: Given your family experience with Stephanie as your mom and six other brothers, do you envision having a family for yourself in your future? And what do you think that family would look like?
Fernando: Well, I’m not planning on having seven sons or anything!
His smile is bright.
Fernando: I wish I could but what I see for myself is having a wife or husband, because I am bi. Maybe just one or two kids. But yes. I would like to have a family like hers. To have all the experience that she taught me so that I could teach my own kids.
Rich: And so you came in to this family that Stephanie created with two brothers and gained four other brothers. Will that bond carry forward?
Fernando: Yes. I definitely hope so. I really love my brothers so much. Even though they can be a pain in the butt, and get on my nerves a lot. We still love each other. A lot. No matter what we say or do. No matter where we live. I will always have a special place for my brothers in my heart.
Stephanie speaks up.
Stephanie: If you have kids, will you adopt kids or will you have your own kids?
Fernando: Oh, yes! I have been planning on adopting because there are plenty of other kids out there that need a loving family.
I feel a smile come over my face.
I thank Fernando and he is off to the paintball course with friends who are waiting. Stephanie leans toward me and winks.
Stephanie: I knew the answer to that last question. But I thought you would like his answer.
RaiseAChild.US is the nationwide leader in the recruitment and support of LGBT and all prospective parents interested in building families through fostering and adoption to meet the needs of the 400,000 children in the foster care system. RaiseAChild.US recruits, educates, and nurtures supportive relationships equally with all prospective foster and adoptive parents while partnering with agencies to improve the process of advancing foster children to safe, loving and permanent homes. For information about how you can become a foster or adoptive parent, please visit www.RaiseAChild.US.