While their childhood experiences prepared them for parenthood, Rich and Jason Avila-Winburn waited to find each other before becoming fathers. In this Huffington Post Gay Voices RaiseAChild.US “Let Love Define Family®” series installment, contributing writer Beth Hallstrom shares their story of love and family.
New dads Rich and Jason Avila-Winburn of Los Angeles, California, will say their successful foster-to-adoption journey was the product of good luck -- but how they created their family is more a testament to hard work, diligence and the life-long dream of fatherhood.
Rich, 48, a graphic artist, and 49-year-old Jason, who is the principal of a special education elementary and middle school, celebrated the adoption of their son, Jackson Paul, on Aug. 10. Jackson will turn two on Oct. 25, which will also be Rich and Jason's first wedding anniversary.
They were married in a small, outdoor ceremony after being together for six years. Jackson, wearing a tweed and plaid ensemble like his dads, was the ring bearer.
"He learned to walk just a week before the wedding," Rich said. "He had a little help but we got him down the aisle. It was a perfect day."
Rich and Jason met seven years ago when Jason joined a friend, who also invited Rich and the man he was dating at the time along, for a drink. The connection was immediate and intense.
"They didn't last long together after we met," Jason said with a chuckle.
Both men said they always knew they wanted a family, yet their stories are quite different from one another.
Jason explained, "I grew up in a large family. There were always kids running around, sleepovers, and games at our house. I loved being around other kids and I love being around them now. That's why I always wanted to be a teacher.
"But, as I got older, fatherhood seemed to become less and less of a reality."
Rich's yearning for children was born of his deep sense of responsibility to his sister and mother after his father had a devastating stroke when Rich was a young teen.
"I was 13 and my sister was 11. When he had his stroke, the father I knew had forever changed and I felt I had to step in and be like a dad to my sister," Rich said. "My sister appreciates it now -- but she sure didn't back then -- but I always felt that responsibility.
"By the time I was in my 30s, and after my sister having two kids, I knew it was time to have my own kid. But, as a single gay man, I wasn’t sure how I was going to make it happen. Then, I met Jason, who shares my love and want for family and I knew that he was the person that I wanted to create a family with," Rich continued.
A family crisis hurtled Rich and Jason from the discussion phase to beginning their foster parent certification with Penny Lane Centers two years ago after it appeared Jason’s mother would be raising a third child born to her granddaughter.
Jason recalled, "Nine years ago, when my niece was a teenager, she became pregnant and my Mom let her move in. My niece ended up leaving the baby and, at age 60, my Mom was raising her great-granddaughter. Three years later, the same thing happened and my Mom began to raise that baby, too.
"Then, two years ago, my niece became pregnant for the third time and I realized my Mom could not raise another child. She is so dedicated to our family, she would never let the baby go into the system so I talked to Rich and we decided to adopt the child. We began our certification so we could step in immediately when the baby was born,"
Sadly, Jason’s niece miscarried her baby, but, he said, they completed the training because, "We knew, regardless of what happened, that it was time to start our family."
Penny Lane staff told Rich and Jason that, since they wanted to adopt an infant, their wait could be six months, a year or even longer.
"So, six days later, they called and told us about a five-month old. The paint was barely dry on the new nursery walls. I called Rich at home to tell him and, five hours later, our son, our little angel, was on our doorstep," Jason said.
Jackson came to foster care after his young birth parents realized they could not care for him, Rich said. Born prematurely, Jackson spent the first two months of his life in the hospital with numerous health problems.
"It was bittersweet when he arrived. All he had was a onesie, a pair of socks and a bottle of formula. But, the next day, he had everything that rocked, rolled, played music and bounced that Target sells. We turned our house into Disneyland," Rich recalled.
Rich and Jason credit Rich's Mom with helping them survive the chaotic first week with Jackson and laud their agency, Penny Lane Centers, for supporting them throughout their foster-to-adoption process.
"They were just awesome. The entire staff made us feel very supported and taken care of. Our caseworkers, the director, they all showed up on adoption day in court. That meant the world to us," Rich said.
Finding the correct agency is high on Rich and Jason's list of keys to a successful adoption, along with building a support system early in the process and being involved every step of the way.
"It's also extremely important to keep a sense of humor," Jason advised.
"It's a huge emotional investment," Rich continued. "It will test you as an individual, a couple and as a family. Life as you know it is no longer. Everything will change 100 percent, but it's the most wonderful transformation… you become a family. We can't imagine our life without our son, Jackson."
While Rich and Jason say they were lucky and that everything fell into place during Jackson's adoption, they also stress that, "We followed all the rules and made it a point to be emotionally prepared for all the possibilities of the process," according to Jason.
One step they took was petitioning the family court to be granted de facto parent status for Jackson, giving them expanded rights while he was still in foster care.
"Foster parents have very little say regarding major decisions for the child such as medical and educational decisions. That's why it's so important for people to be able to deal with it when things don't turn out the way they want it to. As de facto parents, we could speak in court on Jackson's behalf and that led to being granted educational and medical rights.
"If you want to be a foster or adoptive parent, our advice is to be completely involved from the very beginning. Don't sit back and wait for answers," Jason said.
Now that Jackson is a toddler, Rich and Jason, who are called Daddy and Papa, respectively, said its time to expand their family.
"In fact, we just recently notified Penny Lane that we are ready for another child and possibly two more. We're hoping for another toddler or young child so that Jackson will have siblings that he can grow up with," Jason said.
Whatever the future brings to the Avila-Winburn family, Rich and Jason know their dreams of fatherhood will continue to come true.
"We are so looking forward to the person Jackson -- and his siblings -- is going to be as he grows up. We are so excited about the future of our family," Rich added.
Have you considered building a family through fostering, adopting or weekend hosting? RaiseAChild.US would like to help you. Visit us at www.RaiseAChild.US and RSVP to join us for free, fun and educational RaiseAChild.US events throughout Southern California:
Tues., Dec. 1st 6:30PM to 8:30 p.m. Andaz West Hollywood Hotel
Wed., Dec. 2nd 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. The Prado at Balboa Park, San Diego
Thur., Dec. 3rd 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. The Art Theatre of Long Beach
Sun., Dec. 6th 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.,. Museum of Art History in Lancaster, CA
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 415,000 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. Take the next step to parenthood at www.RaiseAChild.US.