By Mark Gauert
City & Shore Magazine
For anyone who’s ever wondered what it would be like to adopt a child, 40-year-old Chris and 35-year-old Nicole Rodriguez have more than a few stories to tell. The Broward couple, who adopted four children after fostering 12 and providing respite care for three, spoke about their experiences at ChildNet’s recent Care for Kids Luncheon at the Pier 66 in Fort Lauderdale. The Broward agency, which protects abused, abandoned and neglected children in the community, and supports children in foster care – is in dire need of more foster parents, like the Rodríguezes. So what’s it like to become a foster parent? How does it change a family – and create one through adoption? Read on. Chris’ poignant description below was met with a standing ovation.
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“Nicole, my wife, and I met about 12 years ago, and several years into our relationship, we decided we were ready to start a family. We tried for about two years but we were unsuccessful. During a by-chance lunch with my sister and a friend of hers, the idea of fostering-to-adopt came up. I remember Nicole’s eyes lighting up when she realized that being a foster parent was a possibility.
“I have to admit [Nicole’s] mind was made up way before mine. I wanted a family, I just wasn’t sure this was the route I wanted to take. When I was growing up I always loved children [and] I would get excited whenever a baby was born in our family. I always knew I wanted a house full of kids someday. I always envisioned myself walking into my house, tripping over one of my kids’ toys, which, looking back, I realized sounded much better in my mind than the reality. Anyone here who’s ever stepped on a Lego will understand.
“Less than a week after our lunch, Nicole and I were introduced to a wonderful woman named Wendy Smith [ChildNet’s Director of Foster Home Recruitment & Quality]. Wendy took time out of her day to explain the process to us – and she’s been there for us as a sounding board through our entire experience. Our family is forever grateful for her.
“By the time our [fostering prep] classes were over, we realized we wanted to help as many kids as we could. If we were blessed with the opportunity to adopt, that would be a bonus; but there were children who needed our help, and we were ready to roll up our sleeves and do all that we could.
“We were initially licensed to take two placements, and were planning on taking only one child at first. The same call that informed us our license was approved [also] told us about our first placement. A little girl that had been dropped off at day care by a relative that didn’t come back for her.
“A little less than a week later, we received our second placement: A quiet, scared little boy who was removed [from his previous environment] due to domestic violence. He was only a few days away from his first birthday.
“We thought we would be unable to take in any more children because we saw we had reached the preliminary limit on our license, but I was wrong. About three weeks later, we got a call about a 16-day-old baby girl named Sarah that was being held at BSO because there was no room in the facility, and no room available in foster homes.
“We were new parents; we’d gone from zero kids to two kids within a week’s time frame. And now, less than a month from having been licensed, we were being asked to consider taking on a third child.
“That’s what it’s like to be a foster parent. There just aren’t enough of us. The need is so incredibly great that those of us willing to open our homes and stretching ourselves out so much as possible in an effort to accommodate the incredible need to place these children in loving, safe spaces.
“For people like us, it was easier. Nicole worked a part-time job, our toddlers received day care, and we were able to get help with the expensive formulas. Unfortunately for many others who take older children it’s not always easy, and that’s where ChildNet comes in. They raise money to help families provide extra services to these children, like dance lessons, or something as simple as eyeglasses. They help with child-care costs, for parents who are willing to take newborns but can’t take time off from work to care for them, until they’re old enough for day-care. For families that take teens, ChildNet helps provide them additional monies needed to purchase prom tickets, or senior-class photos or field trips. Their desire is to help us provide normalcy for these children so they don’t feel so different – so isolated for something that’s not their fault.
“All 12 of the children who came through our home, whether they stayed for a day, a week, a month or more, taught us something about ourselves that we didn’t know. They showed us love that we didn’t know existed.
“Our first placement spent an entire year with us, and in that year she blossomed. Through hard work, and tough love, her parents were finally reunified with their daughter. I will never forget the day we did the final drop off – she was so happy to have us and her parents in the same space. That smile, that little twinkle in her eye, it made our heartbreak worth it. We drove away with tears in our eyes, but we smiled knowing that she was right where she belonged. Every year on the anniversary of her departure, her picture pops up. [And] I smile.
“Our second placement was actually our first reunification [with a family member] – and it was difficult, as most people’s first reunifications are. But in the end we knew it was the right thing. He was such a sweet, loving little boy. It was weeks before I allowed any of the children to sleep in his room.
“Our third placement, Sarah, would spend 21 months with us before she banged the gavel down on the judge’s desk and became our daughter forever. She’s smart, funny and kind with just the right amount of sass. She’s four going on 14 and, to be honest, if who she is now is any indication of who she’s going to be as a teenager, we are in for quite a ride.
“Our ninth placement, Bianca, was born at 26 weeks gestation; she weighed a pound and seven ounces. She was released from the [Neonatal Intensive Care Unit] after 75 days, and at four pounds she fit into baby doll clothes. We know because we had to put them on her. She was such a fighter. We called her our little peanut. She defied all the odds. And now, at three years old, she’s excelling and doing amazing. We are so proud of her, and all of her accomplishments. This Sunday we celebrate her second ‘forever-day’ anniversary.
“Our 11th placement, Chandler, came to us at 10 and a half months with a smile that could light up even the darkest rooms. A few weeks after the decision was made for us to adopt Chandler, we received a phone call from Chandler’s child advocate. She told us that his birth mother was pregnant and asked if we would take the baby. There was no way we could say no. We believe that siblings belong together, if at all possible. And seeing as though babies take 40 weeks to get here, we thought we would have at least a few months.
We were wrong. Our placement, Jaxon, was born about six weeks after we were asked if we’d consider a fourth placement. He was the victim of an extremely traumatic birth and to be honest, no one thought he would survive. We visited him nearly every day, while he fought for his life in the [Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital]. Little by little he began to improve, and we were able to bring him home two months and a week after he was born. Jaxon is a warrior. Due to his traumatic birth, he suffers from chronic kidney disease, but you would never know it. He eats and drinks more than our other three children combined. And he thoroughly enjoys keeping everyone else in the house on their toes.
“Chandler would go on to be adopted on National Adoption Day, with both his biological brothers [and other family members] in attendance. Jaxon’s adoption followed about six months or so later. These boys share such an incredible bond – they have no idea they’re related biologically, but, somehow, it’s like they just know.
“We don’t stress biology in our home, though. You don’t need to be biologically related to be a family. We’re a family by heart. And that is all that matters.
“Our life is exactly what you’d expect in a family with four toddlers, each four and under. It’s messy. And loud. Chaotic. But full of love and beauty in ways that I can’t accurately describe. And my wife, Nicole, is an incredible mother, and we couldn’t do it without you.
“People tell us all the time how lucky our kids are to have us, but we’re the lucky ones. These children saved us in ways we’re still discovering. Being a foster parent and subsequently an adoptive parent has and continues to be one of the greatest honors of our lives.
“I never miss an opportunity to encourage people to be the change, and today is no exception. Is fostering hard? Absolutely.
“One promise I can make you, though, is that your pain and struggle will never be greater than that of the child in your care. The good you will do will forever outweigh the bad you feel, even if you can’t see that at the time.
“There’s no time like the present to make a difference in a child’s life. If you have room in your home and in your heart, you’re already 2/3 of the way there.”