At different points during their 11-year marriage, Amanda and Erik Schierer have taken in family and friends going through a rough patch or two.
So they thought nothing of it last year when a pregnant friend needed a place to stay.
Five months after giving birth, the Schierer's houseguest moved out.
It turns out, the woman didn't want to be a mother. She terminated her parental rights, giving the Schierers the gift of parenthood.
But adopting baby Lucas proved bittersweet. The pair were thrilled about their son but anxious about how to pay the thousands of dollars it would cost to make him officially theirs.
And because they were not licensed foster parents, the Schierers had to move fast or Lucas could fall into the child welfare system.
"My 'gotcha' moment is when I knew he was going to be leaving me and I wasn't happy," Amanda Schierer said. "I was going to fight because he was mine."
Their jobs — Amanda is a billings analyst for a healthcare system; Erik, at the time, was a long-distance truck driver — made for a comfortable living but seemingly put adoption out of reach.
The cost of adoption in the U.S. can range from $2,500 for a foster care adoption to up to $40,000 for an adoption through a private agency, according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, a federally-funded adoption information service.
Such costs can be staggering and make adoption prohibitive for middle-class families. Brian and Holly Festa, a Riverview couple profiled in the Tampa Bay Times earlier this month, have taken to fundraising.
For the Schirers, there's Gift of Adoption, a nonprofit organization that awards families grant money to help with adoption costs.
It has given more than 1,800 adopting families $5.4 million dollars since its founding in 1996. Now in its 20th year, the organization boasts several chapters around the country, including Arizona, Connecticut and Florida.
The process begins with prospective parents completing an online application. After submitting income documentation and completing a home study, a team evaluates the family and makes a recommendation.
Factors like an applicant's marital status, gender, race, creed, national origin, religion, age, or sexual orientation is not part of the review process, according to the organization's website.
Some applications receive a higher priority than others, such as if a family already has taken in a sibling of the adoptive child or if the child has special needs.
The average grant is between $4,000 and $7,500. The money can be used to pay attorney or agency fees or, in the Schierers' case, cover living expenses for two months after Erik quit his job to look for employment that would keep him closer to home.
"We took a huge loss but we've wanted this for 11 years," she said.
Loreen Spencer is the president of the Gift of Adoption's Florida chapter.
Early in their marriage, Loreen and her husband Marc learned that having children of their own wasn't probable. The couple decided to adopt.
Relying in part on an $8,000 reimbursement from Marc's employer, Bank of America, the Spencers were able to cover the costs. It was a welcomed bonus given that they received only six hours notice that they were to become parents.
After bringing their daughter into their family, they were looking for a way to help other couples who wanted to adopt when they learned about Gift of Adoption.
The pair helped establish the Florida chapter in 2002.
Based in Tampa, Loreen Spencer estimates the chapter has dispensed about $750,000 to adopting families since its inception.
With just two percent of families completing the adoption processes, the goal is to make adoption a reality for many deserving families that otherwise are turned off because of the expense, she said.
"Money is the greatest obstacle to adoption," she said. "We try to fill that void that separates needy children from families that can't afford that cost."
After 14 years, the Florida chapter is poised to help create more families as awareness about Gift of Adoption increases, Spencer said.
Because many Gift of Adoption recipients live in the area, it's not uncommon to encounter the families on a daily basis at the park or grocery store, Spencer said.
"It's a wonderful feeling," she said. "We're so fortunate because we can meet the families because they're in our community."
Contact Kenya Woodard at [email protected]
National Adoption Awareness Month | Last in a Series