Sunday, January 21, 2018
News Roundup

Foster teen finds her forever family with New Tampa couple

TAMPA

Shyanne sat down at the courtroom table and smoothed a few errant locks of auburn hair. She smiled and reached for a tissue.

"This feels like a dream," the 17-year-old said. "I'm going to cry already."

Andy and Kathy Sekela sat on either side of her Monday morning in the Hillsborough County Courthouse. Just a few more formalities, and Circuit Judge Katherine Essrig would officially pronounce Shyanne and the New Tampa couple a family.

The Sekelas have been married for about 20 years. Because of Kathy's health issues, they decided to adopt, and first began the process 12 years ago in Orlando. But then Andy got a new job in Virginia, so they put adoption on hold until he was more established at work.

His new job brought them back to Florida in July 2012. They got settled here again, and after six months, started the process again.

"We were meant to be with Shyanne," Kathy said in the courthouse lobby after the adoption was finalized. "It all led up to this."

The Sekelas first came to know Shyanne through her video with the Children's Board Heart Gallery of Tampa Bay, which holds its annual fundraiser to benefit foster children seeking adoptive parents Thursday. The organization puts together videos of kids in foster care, most of them older children, talking about their hobbies, and hopes and dreams.

Shyanne's positive attitude despite years in the foster care system inspired them, Andy said.

"She talked about what family meant to her, and it meant always having somebody who has your back and supports you and loves you no matter what," Andy said.

The Sekelas were going through the 10-week adoptive parent training sessions at the time, but they started asking about Shyanne.

"We were just … ," Kathy said, looking for the right word. "We had that feeling for her."

The couple wasn't thinking about adopting a teen 12 years ago. How much good could they really do, Andy wondered, for a child who was nearly an adult?

"The reality is quite the opposite," he said. The training sessions with the Heart Gallery taught him that kids on the cusp of 18 are expected to have the life skills to get jobs and live independently, he said. But kids in foster care often haven't had consistent role models to teach them how.

Teens in foster care get a bad reputation for being damaged beyond repair, said Jesse Miller, director of Heart Gallery of Tampa Bay. But they are their own best advocates, she said. Videos like the one that introduced the Sekelas to Shyanne help them tell their own stories.

"This particular population used to be hidden in the shadows. They live right here," Miller said. "When you see them and meet them, you see how hopeful and resilient they are."

Shyanne was in and out of foster homes since the age of 4. She never really felt safe, she said.

Things almost worked out once. Shyanne was adopted and lived with a family for three years. But the couple divorced and Shyanne was pulled from the home. She wasn't sure it would work out with the Sekelas, but once they started spending time together, she felt reassured they wouldn't leave. She's been living with them since October.

"They've changed my life completely," Shyanne said. She used to get into trouble, she said. She'd get into fights with other kids at the group homes or foster homes she lived in.

But since being with the Sekelas, things have been good. She's been good, she said.

"You're a good person," Kathy is quick to tell her. Sometimes it's just about circumstances, she said.

"We've gotten into a couple arguments," Shyanne said. It's small things like completing chores, easily fixed. That's what families do, her new mother points out.

Sometimes they argue about her future, and how she spends her time since she got her GED in October. But they're working on that, too. She's going to start volunteering, Andy said, to learn what it's like to be responsible and stick to a schedule, before she gets a job.

"At the end of the day we all love each other," Shyanne said. "That's what matters."

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