On a sticky summer afternoon, on his way to a business meeting in Tampa, Rick Kelly stopped by his parents' crowded house.
He heard all the kids squealing in the back yard. Stepped around the flowers someone had chalked on the driveway. He opened the front door and a boy he had never seen stared up at him.
"Who are you?" the boy demanded. His front teeth had been knocked sideways. Brown bangs were chopped above his sky blue eyes.
Rick was used to seeing new faces at his parents' house. In 40 years, Candy and Jon White have taken in more than 400 foster children. Some, needing a place in an emergency, stay only a night. Others get folded into the Whites' sprawling family. Like Rick.
He told the boy his name.
"I'm Christian," the kid said. "I'm three-and-one-half years old."
"That's great," Rick remembers saying. "I'm 44."
The boy studied Rick's wide shoulders, took in his dark goatee and shaved head. When Rick strode into the kitchen, the boy followed. Rick was talking to his mom when he felt skinny arms wrap around his knees.
He looked down. "Do you have a pool?" asked the boy, holding tight.
"Yep," said Rick.
The boy grinned his crooked smile. "Then I'm coming home with you."
• • •
All through his meeting, Rick thought about the boy. The next day, driving back to his house in Cape Coral, he called his mom.
He was just curious, he told her. What was Christian's story?
The boy had been found toddling around the parking lot of a cheap motel, his bare feet bloodied by broken glass. His mother was in a motel room with one of her boyfriends. She had been in and out of jail for shoplifting and drugs. She had six children, all under 10.
One of the boyfriends had punched Christian in the mouth and broken his baby teeth. Christian had just turned 3 when the state sent him into foster care and Rick's parents got him. He had never heard of Halloween, Rick's mom said. But his birth mother had taught him something: When he heard sirens, he screamed, "Hide! It's the cops!"
He's a very angry little boy, Rick's mom told him. He has endless energy — and doesn't like to listen.
He's a lot like you were.
Raising children is the White family business, the way pianomaking is for the Steinways. Jon, the campus engineer at St. Petersburg College, and Candy, a career mom, started taking in kids in 1970 and never stopped. They have had four of their own, adopted four more and fostered a small army. Family photos spanning four decades fill every wall in their home.
Rick had a rough go of it before he joined their family. His mother had four kids by the time he was 6, all by different dads, none of whom hung around. Her boyfriends beat Rick and burned him with cigarettes. When he was 7 and living in Orlando, his mom gave him a note and put him on a Greyhound bus to St. Petersburg. He was only in first grade, but he could read a little. In the note, his mom threatened suicide.
His grandparents in Gulfport kept him for a few years. When they couldn't handle him anymore, they gave him to the Whites, who had been Rick's Sunday School teachers. He was 14, skipping school and already drinking.
"Rick was really rough around the edges. He had learned to fend for himself," said Jon. "When he came to us, it was a challenge for me and for him."
Jon taught Rick to throw curveballs and coached the first baseball team Rick played on. He's the only man Rick has ever called Dad.
Most of the Whites' other children eventually went into the kid business; in all they have adopted or fostered more than 40 children. But not Rick. After high school, while the others were getting married and having babies or collecting babies, Rick joined the Marines and worked in Korea, Japan, Australia. He was a cop in California, then owned a security business. He married three times.
He never saw himself as a father. If you grew up without a dad, how can you be one?
Then one day a little boy grabbed him by the legs and wouldn't let go.
• • •
When he met Christian that summer of 2005, Rick was living in Cape Coral with his third wife. The marriage was falling apart. Every few weeks, he drove across the state to see the boy with the broken smile. He took Christian kayaking, taught him to hit baseballs, made him sit still through supper.
"The boy's a fighter. I understand that," Rick said. "When he growled at me, I growled back."
That spring, while the Whites' other foster children played on Little League teams, Rick watched from the bleachers with Christian, explaining the game. The boy climbed on him like a jungle gym, grabbing his ears, drumming on his shiny head. Rick kept talking.
One day, he got word that a teacher was going to adopt Christian. It was 2007, two years after Rick's parents had taken him in. Christian had just turned 5.
"I was so happy for him, to finally find a permanent family," Rick said.
In the driveway of his parents' house, he hugged Christian goodbye. "Have a great life," he said. "Be good."
"No, you be good," said the boy.
• • •
Four months later, Rick's sister begged him to come to church with her. She had something to tell him. Something she needed to pray about.
"They sent Christian back," Wendy whispered.
"What?" Rick couldn't believe it. How can you promise a little boy you'll be his mom and dad, then send him away?
They said Christian was too wild. He had ADD. And he was depressed.
Wendy started sobbing. "Mom's trying to get him back," she said. "You know this happened for a reason. You know that's your son."
Rick thought about fatherhood. What did it mean? What would it take? Could he do it?
A dad, he decided, should be someone to look up to. Someone who shows you how to build things. Someone to play baseball with.
Dads don't hit you. They protect you and love you, no matter what.
Finally, he asked his own dad what he thought. "I've watched you work with Christian," Jon said. "You don't do everything the way I would, but he seems to respond to you."
• • •
Rick's friends kept asking, "You sure you want to do this?"
He was 46 then, soon to be single again, changing careers for the fifth time. Why would he want to take on a troubled boy by himself — a kid someone else already had tried and rejected?
"Because he picked me," Rick said. "Because I've already traveled the world, had all these adventures, done my thing. Because now it's time to do something to give back."
And he will never be alone, raising Christian. He has his parents and grandparents, eight brothers and sisters. The boy already knows more than two dozen foster aunts and uncles and cousins.
"Mostly I want to do this," Rick said, "because I understand him."
Next came background checks, home inspections, financial statements. Interviews with employers and neighbors and relatives. It helped, Rick said, to have a family of foster parents as references.
He was finishing months of classes when he met Norma, a dark-eyed insurance adjustor. She didn't have children.
"I told her what I was doing, trying to get Christian. I told her, that boy is my first priority," Rick said. "I said, 'There's plenty of room for you beside me, if you want to come along for the ride.' "
Last year, Rick rented a five-bedroom house in Seminole, so he could qualify to become a Pinellas County foster parent. He commutes an hour each day, each way, to Venice, where he manages a transport company.
In July, he got cleared to take Christian home on weekends.
He set up a double bed in the big room beside the pool, plugged in a new Spider-Man night light. He and Norma combed thrift stores and filled the closet with sports-themed shirts. Rick lined Christian's baseball trophies on the windowsill and bought him a Rays towel.
In March, on his 7th birthday, Christian got a surprise. His new caseworker showed up at his party at Rick's parents' house.
"Do you know why I'm here?" she asked.
Christian cowered behind Rick. The woman pulled out a pile of papers. "Rick wants to adopt you and be your daddy. You can go live with him all the time now. Is that okay?"
Christian looked up at Rick, then nodded at the caseworker.
When he finally spoke, it was just a whisper. "Hey Daddy, now can we have cake?"
• • •
Everyone noticed the change. The more time Christian spent with Rick, the calmer he became. He started doing better in first grade, at Bear Creek Elementary, began acting out less. His batting average soared.
"He seems so much more content these last few months. Not nearly as wild and unresponsive," said Scott Prestero, who has coached Christian's Gulfport Little League team for three years.
"Since he went to live with Rick, he started listening. And he looks at me when I talk to him. He never used to do that."
• • •
Every evening after work, Rick makes the long drive to his parents' house and picks up Christian. He's also fostering a baby now, one of his parents' wards, a smiley guy who just turned 1. Rick decided Christian should have a little brother.
Most nights, while Rick grills hot dogs, boils macaroni and makes a bottle, he turns on the Rays game. Between fixing dinner, bathing the baby and putting him to bed, and getting Christian to shower and brush his teeth and put on pajamas, he manages to catch only a few plays.
But with Christian's prompting, he often ponders mysteries of the universe: "Why do pitchers always spit?" "What's inside a baseball?" "When I grow up and play in the MLB and make lots of money, what kind of boat do you want me to buy you?"
• • •
On a sticky afternoon 10 days before Father's Day, Rick Kelly stood behind his son in front of his crowded closet. He showed Christian how to button the tiny cuffs of his new lime dress shirt, how to tuck it into his underwear to keep it from creeping up. "That's how we do it in the Marines."
"When do I get adopted?" asked Christian.
"Now," Rick said. "We've got to go. You sure look handsome."
Christian was wearing a black suit and clip-on tie. Norma had trimmed his bangs. His broken baby teeth — the last evidence of the abuse he suffered — had finally fallen out. His permanent teeth were coming in. He grinned at himself in the mirror, then followed Rick out the door.
At the courthouse, everyone was waiting. When Christian ran off the escalator, four cousins, ages 8 to 16, surrounded him. All of them had been adopted in the same building, brought into the same family.
Rick's parents were there, of course. And his grandparents, who are in their 80s. Six of his brothers and sisters. Teenagers and toddlers and babies of all ethnicities, with all sorts of special needs. A total of 29 relatives packed the long hall.
As they filed into the courtroom, Rick's 3-year-old niece tugged at his slacks. "Why are you adopting Christian?" she asked.
"Because he needs a daddy," Rick said.
His sister Wendy bent and whispered to the girl, "Because Rick needs a little boy."
Lane DeGregory can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8825.