NEW PORT RICHEY
As her husband spoke to the crowded courtroom, Lori Mitchell stood next to him with their adopted children and thought, "I can't believe were are here."
An event in honor of National Adoption Month was held Friday at the West Pasco courthouse where 25 children were adopted. Lori, 52, and her husband, Eric, 49, were asked to be there to tell their story: parents to three biological children, four adopted children and, since 2001, more than 200 foster children.
This was not the life they expected.
In 2001, the couple felt like they were done raising young children. Their kids were 15, 17 and 19. They dreamed of going on a cruise. But Amanda, the youngest, wanted a little sister.
"How about a puppy instead?" Lori asked her.
But Amanda was insistent. She moved furniture to make room for a crib. Eric, a manager for Sweetbay Supermarket, was also a youth minister at Trinity Baptist church. He and Lori, who then worked transporting mental health patients, talked about fostering and decided to go to a meeting for prospective parents, but were still unsure.
At the end of their first meeting, the organizer asked who could bring food to the next meeting. Eric shot his hand up.
Lori asked what he was doing.
But they went to the next meeting. And the next. And then the classes were done; they signed up and, on their first day, they got called to take two children — a six-month-old with a possible skull fracture and a toddler with a chest infection. Both needed X-rays. So they took them to the hospital and home and it began.
At first, Lori, who quit her job to be a stay-at-home mom, and Eric weren't sure what the kids should call them. But then everything became clear — their purpose and mission — with a 4-year-old girl who took Eric's hand and said: "Can I call you daddy? I don't have a daddy."
Now all children who stay call them mom and dad. Some of these children have never been told they were loved, never been tucked in or read a bedtime story. The Mitchells do all of those things, right away. Routine is important in their house. Right now, they have nine children — their four adopted children and five foster children, the youngest 4 and the eldest 13. They eat dinner together at the table every night and they talk about their day. Whoever is in their house is part of the family and the family acts as a team. They do dishes and laundry and cook together.
Each night, the family decides if, as a whole, they have been good — if they have treated others with kindness, been helpful — and if so, they get to pick one treat from the "sweet tree," a Christmas tree laden with ingredients Lori will make into a treat for the next night, graham cracker crumbs for a cheesecake, marshmallows for popcorn balls, M&Ms for cookies. They read together, usually the same book, each child taking a turn out loud.
The Mitchells want the children to experience the simple, comforting traditions of family; going to the beach, carving pumpkins, painting Easter eggs. For St. Patrick's Day, the kids wake up to find they've been visited by a leprechaun, furniture turned upside down, the milk and sugar turned green, tiny footprints left on the floor. A bed fairy makes surprise visits, giving gifts to those whose beds are made.
For birthdays, each child gets to pick his or her own cake — they've had every kind, giant cookie cakes and ice cream cakes, traditional chocolate and special lemon and raspberry. They do everything together, piling into their huge van, going to church and festivals and the theater if they can get discount tickets. When Eric gets home from work, if there is still daylight left, he plays with them in their yard.
They live in Pilot Country Estates, a neighborhood with a small airport north of Land O'Lakes. They don't care about planes, but they bought it because the house was big and it had a pool for the kids and a large yard where they could build a jungle gym. The kids wanted pets, so they have a dog and a rabbit and chickens. Their neighbor has cows, which delights the children.
Sometimes the foster children are there for a night and sometimes for years, but the goal is no matter how short their stay, they experience a loving, stable home. The Mitchells hope to break the cycle, that when these children are grown, they want a loving, stable home for themselves and their children. The Mitchells aren't perfect. They are human and bicker, like many couples, but afterward they talk about it with the children, agreeing to disagree.
They build relationships with the biological parents and work with them to get back on track. Previous foster children and their parents often spend holidays with them. They baby-sit the children for the biological parents whenever needed.
They couldn't let go
They never planned to adopt. Their first was Angelina, whom they got at two days old. She is now 9. Last year, they adopted Ashanti, 13, Isabella, 9, and Hailey, 4. They just couldn't let them go.
They wish they could adopt more, but then they wouldn't be able to foster as many children. It's difficult and hard to say goodbye to the children. It hurts. But that comes with caring. Lori and Eric say being foster parents is the most rewarding and challenging thing they've done.
"You never know what God is going to do," Eric told the crowd. Lori, by his side, felt thankful. Both plan to be foster parents for as long as they feel called to do so and, right now, they can't imagine life any other way.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6229.