DADE CITY — Charley arrived in Shanna and Josh Brady’s lives without many firsts in her short 15-month life.
Barely 25 pounds, the toddler hardly ate, didn’t walk, babbled sounds but had no words.
Over the next two years, the foster parents enjoyed the experience of the little girl’s first wobbly steps, which soon morphed into a whirlwind of Frozen-themed activity. Food therapy dissolved into a tot hauling a jar of peanut butter and a spoon, demanding scoop after scoop.
As for talking, well, Josh won the debut "Dada."
Last week, the Land O’ Lakes family celebrated its most meaningful first of all.
After 753 days in the system of court hearings, home visits and permission slips to do simple things like take a trip together, they celebrated the removal of "foster" from their role.
Josh and Shanna, who longed for a child but couldn’t have one of their own, adopted Charley just in time for Mother’s Day.
"Knowing now we are going to keep her forever is just incredible," said Shanna, a Pasco County elementary school teacher. "She’s our gift from God."
The couple, married for eight years, had been trying to start a family for the past five.
"We got the news about four years ago we were going to have troubles on that journey," Shanna recalled.
Just as they got their first referral to a fertility clinic, they also got an unexpected ping on Facebook.
It came from one of Shanna’s former teaching colleagues. They had talked once or twice about their love of children and desire for family, but hadn’t kept in touch.
"Out of the blue, she sent me a message," Shanna said. "She wrote, ‘You’re going to think I’m crazy, but do you want to take a 1-year-old girl?’"
The colleague knew someone whose family member was about to lose parental rights to Charley, who had already been in five foster homes and needed some stability.
"We absolutely said yes," Shanna said. "We had no idea what we were saying yes to."
Eighteen days later, they were picking up the little girl they had never seen before. From all they had heard, Charley only cried and had "issues," shared Josh, a Pasco County Sheriff’s deputy. But they quickly learned it didn’t have to be that way.
Once in the car, Josh said, "she looked at me, I looked at her, and she gave me a big, huge smile. I just started bawling. It was only an hour, but I knew she was going to be ours."
The path wasn’t always easy.
The couple spent several days each week taking Charley to various therapy sessions, while also working through the legal maze.
Their first year together, they spent holidays in hospitals, tending to Charley’s needs. She had fluid near her brain (still being monitored), a raging staph infection (cured) and an extra toe on her left foot (removed to help her walk better).
After a while, life improved.
"We started getting dismissed from all the therapists" as Charley outgrew many of her developmental delays, Shanna said. "She’s thriving."
Even then, the worry lingered that their time together might not last. Charley’s biological father fought the termination of parental rights, leading to monthly hearings and court visits while awaiting a final verdict.
The possibility of seeing the little girl leave led Josh and Shanna back to a fertility clinic. They last visited a few weeks ago.
And it brought devastating news: They learned they would need a "miracle" to have a baby.
But that same week — on April 13 — fate again intervened.
"We got the call," Shanna said. "The case manager said, ‘Are you sitting down? You are going to adopt her. It’s going to be in two or three weeks.’"
They were stunned then, and, heading to the Pasco County Courthouse in Dade City on May 11, still amazed by the suddenness of the news.
The "overwhelming joy" energized Josh, Shanna and the dozens of family members and friends who celebrated the adoption. Relatives came from as far as New Hampshire. One friend arrived from Holland.
"I would not have missed this day," said Sarah Johansson, Josh’s aunt, who flew in from Massachusetts at 1 a.m. to attend. "She was meant to be theirs."
Johansson, like everyone else in the room, wore a black T-shirt with the phrase "Charley’s Village" on the front. Josh and Shanna’s shirts said, "It takes a village to raise a Charley," while the 3-year-old sported her own shirt with the response, "I [heart] my village."
Even Judge Lynn Tepper wore one, to the cheers of what she said was the biggest turnout for an adoption ever in her courtroom.
"It’s good timing, with Mother’s Day coming," said Tepper, who oversaw the case for 24 months, 23 days. "Especially for a family that has wanted a child for so long."
Josh and Shanna sat at a table, Charley between them blowing on a party horn and playing to the crowd, as Tepper brought the hearing to order.
They answered the legal questions required to formalize the adoption. Then came the big one: Tell the court in your own words why you want to adopt Charley.
Shanna went first. Tears welling in her eyes as she spoke of how Charley taught her about loving someone deeply.
"My prayer for you is that you will always know how much we wanted you," she said, facing the little girl.
Josh said he imagined that being a dad would be special, but he discovered it was even better. He promised Charley he’d be there for her always.
"Welcome to our family," he said. "Thank you for letting me be your daddy."
The onlookers passed tissues. Tepper said she needed to hear no more.
"It is my pleasure, once I sign this thing, to make it official that … these are now your forever mom and dad," she told Charley, as the room erupted into cheers.
The couple, who so badly wanted a child, said the trek that started on Facebook and ended with the adoption was worth every moment.
"This little girl needed us, and she found us," Shanna said. "We’re so lucky. She’s absolutely changed our lives."
And "no, no, no," the journey is not over, Shana added. "It’s just beginning."
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected]