The Peter Pan Boys, people in the system called them, four stair-step brothers who needed a home together. Together being the key word. Ray Mull and his wife met them at an adoption event. Mull was an only child who always wanted a big family. Good thing their own only child Stefani agreed, since it was Stefani who a small boy named Jacob attached himself to that day and would not let go. They didn't pick Jacob and his brothers, the parents would later joke. Jacob picked Stefani.
Fast-forward, and there they sat Friday in a massive courtroom at the Hillsborough County Courthouse: the parents; Stefani, 18; and brothers James, Justin, Jerry and the aforementioned Jacob. With dozens of others, they waited their turn to be deemed an official family on National Adoption Day.
I ask Jerry, 10 and freckled, what he thinks of all this. "Cool," he says.
And Jake, 7 and missing a front tooth: "I get to have parents," he says.
This was a different sort of day for a place that deals daily with abuse and neglect and children who linger in foster care. Thirty-two sons and daughters would be made official on the word of a judge. Make that judges, because they take turns. Days like this don't come often enough.
It was a long road to here. Ray and his wife, Lisa Cooley, met one group of siblings only to have the case fall through, then met others who weren't the right fit.
Meanwhile the boys — now 15, 13, 10 and 7 — were sometimes separated and stayed places that didn't work out either.
"Four boys?" people say to the hopeful parents now. "Are you insane?"
But they will tell you which one likes books and horror movies, who loves Star Wars, which ones are sports nuts, how they all love to watch wrestling together, Dad included.
And the youngest? "Jake is just Jake," they will tell you, a boy who wakes up in the morning singing, about school, about Elvis, about whatever his dreams brought him.
As they wait, a mom adopts four little ones. Grandparents who helped raise grandchildren make it official, grandfather and daughter wiping away tears when the judge says "What a happy day this is." A family with three daughters tells me they agreed they wanted a son and brother and met Isaiah. His file says Isaiah spent 10 of his 12 years in the system. Now he has a home, not to mention sisters.
On this day, stern-faced bailiffs find themselves applauding. Circuit Judge Tracy Sheehan, tough as any, pronounces a family whole with a catch in her voice.
When their case is called, the parents and Stefani and the boys raise their right hands and listen to the judge and answer the questions. Finally, they are officially a family.
Then, a surprise: They are given the beautiful framed portrait of the four smiling boys together, one that was part of he Heart Gallery, a photo display of up-for-adoption kids you can see at www.heartgallerytampabay.org. In this picture you can see how they got the name Peter Pan boys: It's in the tilt of their eyes, their identical smiles, their hope.
Afterward there are pictures, and cake, and then a boy who wakes up singing got to go home with his brothers, not to mention the rest of his family.