Specializing in special needs
Ask Jorge and Lisa Alvarez about their experiences as foster and adoptive parents, and two words keep coming up: rewarding and love.
In more than 14 years, the couple has opened their Miami home to 102 foster children, many of whom have significant medical needs. Adoption through the foster care system brought the couple their daughter, Natasha, age 14, and their son, Desi, age 7. Their “heart daughter,” Vanessa, joined the family as a teenager and now lives nearby. Because Vanessa was older, she and the family mutually agreed not to pursue adoption, but they have remained very close.
A long wait for parenthood
When they married in 1993, Jorge and Lisa were ready to start a family, but they faced challenges with fertility. After five years of increasingly costly medical treatments, the couple looked into adoption.
Two years passed as Jorge and Lisa waited for an adoptive child. Their mentor encouraged them to consider adopting through the foster care system.
Once licensed as foster parents, Jorge and Lisa cared for their first foster child, a little boy with fetal alcohol syndrome, who was later adopted by his aunt. The couple discovered that they loved being foster parents—and realized that they were now even more ready to adopt.
Discovering a daughter
“One evening, we were at a meeting at the home of our foster care mentor, Trudy,” Lisa said. “I heard a baby crying, so I went to check on the infants in her nursery. I locked eyes with a little African-American baby girl who was just two months old. She smiled at me, and my heart melted.”
A few months later, Trudy needed respite care for her foster children as she recovered from an ankle injury. Jorge and Lisa began caring for a little girl, Natasha, and quickly bonded with her. “We prayed and wished on every star that we would be able to adopt her, and our wishes came true,” Lisa said. Natasha is now 14. “Because of the nature of our family, she has experienced a lot more than the typical 14-year-old,” Jorge said. “She is great with the kids and very affectionate.”
For the next few years, the couple focused primarily on raising Natasha, but they kept in close contact with Trudy and continued to attend mentoring meetings. One day, Trudy approached Lisa about two infants that needed a foster family. After renewing their foster care licenses, Jorge and Lisa took both babies into their home.
“That was 102 kids ago,” Lisa said.
Becoming medical foster parents
In 2007, Lisa met a friend who cared for children full-time, as a medical foster parent. Although Lisa had continued to work outside the home while raising Natasha, she realized that she was ready to make a change. (Her boss encouraged her to keep working one day a week, and she has continued to enjoy Friday evenings at her job.)
After training and licensing, she and Jorge waited for their first placement. The news came quickly: a baby boy would soon be released from the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). He had been born with numerous medical conditions—including hydrocephalus, lung disease and seizure disorder—and needed a foster family.
“We first met Desi in the NICU,” Lisa said. “I remember the first night he was discharged, taking him outside and showing him the sky and stars.”
After caring for Desi for a year and a half, Lisa and Jorge learned that he was eligible for adoption and would soon be photographed for Miami Heart Gallery, a website that helps place special needs children with adoptive families.
The couple looked at each other and realized that they didn’t want to let Desi go. He became part of the Alvarez family in 2009, as their adoptive son.
Desi is unlikely ever to walk or talk, and cannot eat by mouth. When he sees his family, his eyes light up, he holds out his arms, and he vocalizes his joy in his own way—loudly. “He is happiness,” Jorge said.
(Very) busy and rewarding
Jorge and Lisa are straightforward about the work involved in caring for their son, and for foster children with special medical needs. Right now, the family includes three foster children with significant medical needs.
Days are filled with therapy appointments and medical visits. Trips to the emergency room are common. There are heart-stopping moments, such as the recent time when a child stopped breathing—and Lisa successfully revived her through mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
Because the children need 24-hour care, Medicaid provides a nurse each night so that Jorge and Lisa are able to sleep. The couple also takes a weeklong vacation together every year.
In addition to loving kids, both Jorge and Lisa have a sense of mission about being foster parents. Jorge first came to the United States from Cuba in the 1960s on a Peter Pan flight. He experienced a long period of separation from his mother—including spending time in foster care—and was finally reunited with her. Lisa’s commitment is spiritual in nature: part of her desire to give back after receiving so much joy from her own adoptive children.
Even with the hard work involved, foster parenting has been full of rewards for Jorge and Lisa. Children with challenging medical conditions become healthier, blossoming through kindness and nurturing care.
Many children move on to forever homes—reunited with their birth parents or matched with loving adoptive families. The Alvarezes have forged friendships with a number of the birth parents and adoptive parents, gathering together for pool parties and holiday celebrations.
Words to live by
What advice do these parenting veterans have for individuals and couples considering adoption from the foster care system?
Jorge: “If you’re looking for meaning in your life, you’ll find it when you care for foster children.”
Lisa: “Try opening your heart and home to a child in need. The child will thrive with your one-to-one attention and love—and he or she could become your forever child!”