Navigating Adoption

Presented by AdoptUSKids

Episode 6

“The Last Firsts”

Featuring adoptive parents Chris and Gigi and their daughter Maci, with Kamilah Bunn, CEO of the National Adoption Association, and Bob Herne, National Project Director at AdoptUSKids, with host April Dinwoodie.

Hear Chris, Gigi, and Maci discuss their journey to becoming a family. Experts discuss the rewards of adoption for both youth and adopted families, the current world of adoption, and how to learn more.

Transcript

[background music]

April Dinwoodie: Welcome to Navigating Adoption: Presented by AdoptUSKids and brought to you by the US Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families and the Ad Council. When people think of adoption, initially, they might think of adopting a baby or a young child because of all those first milestone moments, walking, talking, riding a bike. But at any age, there are milestone moments and we’ll learn in this episode, The Last First.

Chris: Maci was the first one to go to college. Maci was also our first child to get a job. Maci was the first child to buy a car. First child to go to prom.

April: Hi, I’m April Dinwoodie, your host. Today, we’ll hear from the Kean family. Maci, who was adopted from foster care when she was 17, and her parents, Chris and Gigi. Soon, we’ll discover how a high school’s theatre production of Singin’ in the Rain quite literally set the stage for this family to come together and enjoy all those last firsts.

First, a little backstory on the players. Gigi and Chris knew Maci, but only from a distance. Gigi worked at the high school Maci attended, and Chris had been volunteering his time building sets for the high school’s drama department. Now here’s Gigi to tell us more.

Gigi: I want to say it was almost like her story reached us before she got there. There was this young lady who lost her mom at the age of 11 and she had already lost her dad when she was a toddler. You should see, she’s so vibrant and so smart and so talented. She already had that reputation, but I didn’t really see her any differently from anyone else. Until one night, during her junior year, Maci and our now middle daughter, Carolyn, were involved in the same theatre production, Singin’ in the Rain.

I had signed up to bring a meal for all the kids, the cast, and crew. Chris had been there periodically to help out with the building of the set. When I went there to drop the food off, Maci was always very willing to talk to adults. She was like, “Oh, hey, Ms. Kean.” Then she gave me an update on what was going on with her life and her classes. That conversation is what changed our lives forever, all of the lives of the five of us.

[music]

April: That’s the night Maci told Gigi that she had officially changed her permanency plan to APPLA, which stands for Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement. Meaning that Maci believed that she would not find an adoptive family and decided to remain in the care of the agency until she aged out of the foster care system.

Gigi: Then when I asked her what APPLA was, she said, “Well, that’s like extended foster care. After I age out of the system, if I do certain things, like if I’m in school full-time or working full-time, they’ll continue to provide some assistance.” Then I asked her why she had made that decision. She said, “Well, I just have to be realistic about my life and I just have to start focusing on how am I going to survive after high school graduation.” Then she said, “Who would want a 17-year-old anyway?”

It was those specific words that just– Maci can tell us later, but I don’t remember really anything that happened after those words because they just became an out-of-body experience.

April: Maci revealed her short-term post-high school plan, which consisted of getting herself into college, and basically living on the college campus for the next few years. Hearing this left Gigi speechless.

Gigi: Other than that conversation with her, and basically, I had already in my mind decided, “I need to adopt this kid and how am I going to make it happen?” For a week, I struggled, didn’t know really what to say or do, but I knew I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t eating. When I don’t eat, something is seriously wrong. After that, I said, “Okay, I have to talk to Chris.” Then he got home. I lead him to the back porch.

Then he was really scared because he thought, “Okay, now whatever she’s about to tell me is really bad because the kids can’t hear it,” because Carolyn and Christopher were obviously home. He just said like a full-on joke, “Okay, who are we adopting now?” Really that’s only because of my profession because I’m a teacher but, of course, to me, that question did not come across as a joke at all. I started to cry, and I choked on my words, my thoughts, my everything. All I could get out was one word, and that word was “Maci”.

[music]

April: During this conversation on the patio, Chris was perhaps the tiniest bit relieved he hadn’t done anything wrong, but more importantly, he was onboard with adopting Maci. With that decision made, Chris and Gigi set out to discover where to begin the process.

Chris: There was a lot that we had to get more information on. Coincidentally, the drama teacher at the high school that Maci was attending, and Gigi worked at at the time, was a foster parent and also in the process of adopting a child. At the next rehearsal, Gigi and I went to speak to him, and he started the connection with the local agency here in the county where we live in Florida, so we could begin the process. Not so much begin the process, but learn what the process was.

Again, because we knew she was due to age out of the system, and we understood there’s a time constraint and we can’t wait for pieces to fall into place. We need to action stuff immediately.

[music]

April: After a lifetime of sharing her experiences and the disappointment that ultimately followed, how did Maci feel about this turn of events?

Maci: Surprised. Not only have I been expressing my story and telling everybody my situation, there had also been situations where people have wanted to try to step in and say they wanted to help out or whatnot, but never follow through it. For someone to come to me and say, “Hey, we’re interested in adopting you, how do you feel about it?” I was very hesitant at first. I said, “I’m like 75% sure.” There was a part of me that was like, “Yes, sure, why not,” but then there was the other part was like, “I don’t know, I’m not really sure if this is something that I would really want to do.” Just because maybe subconsciously, I was thinking, “I don’t want to be hurt again,” or just to have another failure.

[music]

April: Maci, Chris, and Gigi met with Maci’s theatre director. He had a really good understanding of what Maci might be going through during this time because he was a foster parent and he had worked with high school students for many years.

Maci: It’s very common for kids of my age or my peers, especially when you’re a teenager, to just want to be alone and have your own plan and go out in the, I guess real world, if you want to say that, on your own. The theatre director at my high school, he’s a foster parent himself. He knew a lot about the system, and he knew my story, of course. Basically, by the end of the conversation, he just made me realize that this is something that I should do, or I should try to open my heart to. At that point in time, I was very much like, “What do I have to lose?” I just went on with it.

[music]

April: That conversation started in October, Singin’ in the Rain opened in November. Soon after that, Maci moved in with the Keans. But before her new family became official, Maci recalls a surprising everyday moment that is forever etched into her mind and her heart.

Maci: There was a time where we had an outing, it was an unsupervised visit. I think it was the same day where we had gone to the Everglades. It was just some fun touristy, family stuff. We had some extra time on our hands and my dad was like, “Oh, well, is there anything that you want to do? Do you want us to just drop you off?” Obviously, I didn’t want to be dropped off. I had a great time with them, but I was just like, “Well, do you guys have anything that you guys need to do?”

He was like, “Well, I do have to go to the grocery store and pick up some groceries for dinner after we drop you off.” I had said, “So let’s go.” [chuckles] I actually had more fun in that time more than I did when we went on our outing to the touristy part because it was a sense of normalcy, where I’m just literally walking down in the aisles with my sister and my mom. I really, really enjoyed that. That’s something that I never knew I needed.

[music]

April: Chris and Gigi are actively involved in the adoption community and speak on a quarterly basis to the graduating class of hopeful adoptive families. Here’s one of their favorite topics.

Chris: One of the things we do actually speak about when we do advocacy work is firsts, because when the majority of people think of adoption, they think of adopting a baby, a toddler, and having those the first word, the first step. In Maci’s case, since she joined our family late, so to speak, we had always expected that Carolyn was going to be our first child to go to college but in this case, Maci was the first one to go to college. Maci was also our first child to get a job. Maci was the first child to buy a car, first child to go to prom.

She does a lot of painting and she took a semester abroad in Italy to study art. That was a new talent to our family that she brought. That’s something that to keep in mind that we always do stress, that there are always firsts in every child’s life.

April: Maci shares advice based on her lived experiences as a former foster youth and as a teenager in today’s world, while Chris imparts his thoughts on why forming a supportive family unit is everything.

Maci: I think in terms for the kids’ perspective, I guess the one thing I would say for them is that nothing that happened in your life was your fault. I think that is something that we– I’m going to say we as a collective because I was one of them, we have been conditioned to think that way. That everything that happened in our lives was our fault and that we were placed in our position because it was our fault. I think that’s something that’s very important to understand and that’s something that we need to break that stigma, especially being a teenager itself is hard.

Whether or not you were in the system or not, being a teenager in today’s society, you have that reputation of being a rebel, of not wanting to comply with society, or whatever you want to say. There’s a lot of stigmas about teenagers on top of the fact that when you go through very hard circumstances in your life, it’s extremely difficult to feel hopeful, to feel worthy. Especially when you’re a teenager, that’s the time period when you start thinking about what the rest of your life is going to be like. That’s when your dreams are big, or they should be, and you have all these aspirations. When you’re a teenager in the foster care system, it feels like it’s unreachable. I think that’s something that we need to work on that we need to tell these teenagers that they are loved and that they are worthy of having love.

Chris: If someone’s listening to this podcast, then you’re already thinking about adoption. If you’ve already started thinking about it, then to use a well-worn slogan, “just do it.” Just take the next step, find out what you got to do. Is it going to be easy? No. Do you need to prepare and plan? Yes. The mantra we used was “prepare for the worst, hope for the best.” That’s what we did and here we are now Maci’s graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree. She’s starting a master’s degree program. It’s not because of anything I did, or Gigi did, or Maci did individually. It’s what we did collectively as a family.

[background music]

April: As we come to the final episode of Navigating Adoption, it’s so wonderful to have back with us, Bob Herne and Kamilah Bunn. Bob Herne is the National Project director for AdoptUSKids and Kamilah Bunn is the CEO of the National Adoption Association. Welcome back, Bob and Kamilah.

Bob Herne: Thank you so much for having us.

Kamilah Bunn: Thank you April, so great to be here.

April: As we think about all that we’ve discussed and learned and shared, I want to first start with why family is so important to both of you?

Bob: I don’t think I’d be where I was in my life without the support and guidance of family. We all need to have at least one person who can provide us that love, safety, and unconditional commitment in order for any of us to thrive. I think the greatest achievement that you can have happen in your life is to offer that to somebody else, to be that person that offers that love, safety, and unconditional commitment, no matter what happens.

Kamilah: When we think about the young people that we serve in foster care, I hope listeners will think about themselves as well, and imagine not having someone in your life that you can depend on, that you can contact and can support you. Whether it be whatever dilemma or drama you’re going through, or whether just to say, “Hey, you’re doing all right,” or just to congratulate you on an achievement.

April: When you think about the moments in life that are critically important, especially for teens, what are some of those moments and those times, and those milestones that are particularly important for teens to have family that is supporting them?

Bob: Teens say that they need support for their wins. When something great happens for them, they want to be able to go and celebrate that and have that recognized, and have them recognized, and to cheer them on for that. Those are things like getting a good grade. A teacher saying, “I think you have an aptitude,” and to celebrate those accomplishments with people who really care about you and are genuine, is really important. Then, of course, any time that we suffer a defeat, the first breakup, the first time trying to figure out how I’m going to drive this car, anything that’s scary, having that support of families who knows that they’re going to be with you regardless of the outcome is just really key.

April: Directly connected to this idea of addition versus subtraction, there are real losses and real grief that is attached to not being parented by the family that you’re connected to, your family of origin, your birth family. Explain to our listeners if they haven’t already understood this, what are the most important pieces of understanding grief and loss in adoption for teens?

Kamilah: It’s so important that parents who are considering starting on this journey understand that our children in foster care are grieving the loss of living with their first families, as you said, April. They may be grieving the loss of seeing other children in their neighborhood, their first neighborhood, and our children are resilient. They are incredibly resilient, but there should also be real awareness that our children have experienced many losses. As we shared earlier, to the extent possible, adoptive parents should be seeking ways for ways to help our children cope with the separation, grief, and loss that they’ve experienced.

Bob: When you can join with the youth and help them through that, and show them how you’ve worked through some of that, is a great opportunity to strengthen the attachment.

April: What are some of the important supports and services and communities that are available for families that have chosen this path?

Bob: This is a lifetime journey and process, and it’s important to have your support pieces there. Not just for the family, but also for the youth, and so meeting other families who have adopted from foster care because they will have a sense of understanding and empathy that other families might not. Also for the youth, it gives them an opportunity to be with other youth who have experienced something similar.

Kamilah: I think the only thing I would add is just that there are financial supports as well. There’s an adoption tax credit. There’s an adoption subsidy that varies state by state, based on the needs of the child. There’s a lot of support out there, and I definitely agree with what Bob said about really finding those natural community supports within your network as well.

April: What are some of the questions that parents who might be considering adoption of a teen through foster care should be asking themselves as they start this journey?

Bob: The first question is why they talk themselves out of it. So many people begin to hesitate because they don’t think they’re good enough. What we want to say is you are good enough that, it’s the challenges that you’ve had in your life that you’ve been able to overcome that make you such a great resource to a child because you’re going to have that empathy. You’re going to have that understanding. People are always surprised over the diversity of adoptive families. You can be older, you can be younger, you can be currently raising your children, you can be empty nesters or perhaps you have yet to parent. We’re really looking for that wide range. We’re looking for people from different backgrounds, socio-economic, geographic, cultural, religious. The one common denominator between these families is that they all have rooms in their hearts and homes to provide for a child.

April: How about you, Kamilah?

Kamilah: Yes, I think the diversity does surprise people. I think that we have some amazing families who are coming forward because they want to commit to provide another young person with a sense of belonging.

Bob: What really surprised them was they didn’t realize how much they had actually gotten out of the experience. That’s why we changed our tagline to ‘you can’t imagine the rewards’. What we hear over and over again, is how it actually strengthened their family, how it gave them an appreciation of how important family was.

April: What are the first steps someone can take?

Bob: We recommend, sign up for local orientation to learn more about how you can assist the children and youth who are currently living in your local foster care system. If you’re not sure how, take a moment and go to adoptuskids.org, there’s lots of information there and you can visit the national photolisting, you can also visit your state federal listing. You can get an idea of who the children and youth are who are waiting, and you can also find the local resource in your community.

April: Just hope people are inspired and encouraged to take that first step to gather more information, to educate yourself on the young people who are waiting to be adopted, particularly those who are especially in need like our teens. Just really come to an orientation, or attend one via Zoom, whatever might be happening at your state at that time, visit our website. One really low barrier to entry would be just to start a chat with one of our foster care and adoption specialists at our website.

Just put in some questions that you might have, or contact one of our foster care and adoption specialists. We cannot wait to hear from you and to help you on your journey.

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It’s been an honor to be in conversation with both of you as we talk about navigating adoption, and really what this means for our teens and families today. I want to thank you both for your work, for your words of advice and wisdom, for your knowledge, and for your commitment to young people today, especially those that are experiencing foster care. It’s been really a joy to be part of these conversations in helping to show people that this is a lifelong journey, and how to give these families tools to navigate along that journey.

Now I want to come back to the Keans and talk a bit about coming together as a family and about those last firsts. It’s different in some ways when there’s foster care and adoption. Maci, how did you come to that conclusion that “I’m not going to go for independent living, I’m going to shift gears in a big way and become attached to a family.”

Maci: I don’t know, I think it was just something inside of me just had decided why not? I had nothing to lose. I was very hesitant at first because of all the pain that I had already gone through. I don’t know, it just seemed right. It seemed like the right moment. I’m glad that I went with my gut and made that decision to say yes. I think that was my brain telling me like, “This is what you want. This is what it means. This is something that needs to happen that you’ve never had.”

It was a very meaningful process. It was very emotional. I think it was something that was meant for me in a way that I needed to get closure from the hardships that I had in my life. In a way, it was like, “This is all the stuff that you have gone through but now with this adoption, it’s going to be a happy thing. This is something that is a reward, a very rewarding experience.” Sorry, my mom is crying.

Gigi: April, what I like about your question is that I think it brings up a good point that people generally tend to think that adoptive parents are some different breed, and that you need all these special characteristics and I don’t know, situations in your life. That is just not true. You do need a stable lifestyle, and you need to be a good person. That’s really about it. We’re just normal people who chose to make this decision. I just really wish that more people would get to see that so that we would have more people who would perhaps think, “Maybe I could do that.”

April: How would you describe your feeling of hearing Maci say that she had more fun in a sense of belonging at the grocery store than at the family outing?

Gigi: I was very surprised. I think that it was such a huge lesson. It’s something that she’s talked about post-adoption for years. Of course, now I see it, all she wanted was to feel normal, and to feel like I can be part of this family and do normal things.

April: What were some other things, Maci, that were ways in which you felt you really were a part of the family and that you did belong some of the things that you maybe didn’t do in a group home with your community that you were doing in this family, this new family that made you feel like, “Okay, this is good, this works?”

Maci: I think one of the biggest things that we talk about was having pictures on the wall. That was something I never had. I think that walking into the house and seeing pictures of the family, of the four of them before I came in, of course, it’s lovely. It was like, ” I want to be up there.” Seeing my pictures up there. One of the things that my parents actually get praised on is that they acknowledge my life before them. Having baby pictures of me, having pictures of me when I was a little kid, when I was a little teenager, I think that is important to also talk about, especially because I got adopted when I was 17.

I had the first 17 years of my life before them. It’s not like I was born into the family and then my memories just completely erased, and I start from scratch all over again. I think it was extremely important to have those pictures up on the wall. Also just talking about my life before them as well is important. They talk about their lives as well and we share stories and learn about each other.

April: What ultimately drew you to Maci?

Gigi: I had a rough childhood. I think that I identified with Maci, I saw a lot of myself in her even before I ever considered adoption. That’s why she was one of the kids that I loved. I think I saw a lot of strength in her. She didn’t let her experiences define her. She was always such a good student. All those things were true about me when I was growing up. I think that is definitely what drew me to her. I think that’s also perhaps why, unlike a lot of people who knew Maci, I never felt sorry for her. I never saw her as broken. I never saw her as needing anything. I saw her as providing, and giving, and she had so much to share.

April: Chris, earlier you shared lots of wonderful last first. Are there any final thoughts you might impart?

Chris: There’s lots of firsts that come up when you bring a child to your family. Sometimes they’re good firsts, sometimes not so good firsts, but they’re still firsts. You may not hear the first word or see the first step, but there’s always a first to put in the book.

April: Thank you, Chris and Maci. If there is a hopeful message that you want to share with the youth currently in care or a parent who is looking to foster or adopt, what would that message be?

Maci: I’ll circle back to what I was saying earlier is that to be patient and to just be understanding, because like I have said that these kids, no matter what their circumstances are, they have already experienced a lot of pain and a lot of abandonment, a lot of unresolved issues. Whether or not they realize that or not. There are going to be a lot of times where they will struggle, and that is okay. It is okay to struggle, but it’s just a matter of having the support and understanding and the proper resources to help them, to guide them to a better place.

It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight, it is step by step. You have to praise them for every step that they take, and not to rush the process. I think that is something very important to understand.

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April: Maci, Gigi, and Chris, I want to thank you for sharing all of the ups and downs, the pain and the joy, and all those moments of last firsts. If you are interested in adopting a teen from foster care, AdoptUSKids has adoption specialists ready to guide you through that process right now. Learn more by visiting adoptuskids.org.

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