NEW PORT RICHEY
While steak simmered in a pan on the stove on a recent Friday night, Lauren Rivera slipped out to the back yard through the sliding screen door in the kitchen.
She noticed no-see-ums. Watched her children play. Ten-year-old Lily laughed. Caitlyn, also 10, had her curly brown hair pulled up in a bun and held back by a black plastic headband. Lucas' black and blue sneakers slipped off the 12-year-old's feet while he hugged the football and ran across the yard.
"Throw it," said Rivera, 41. "Don't hog it!"
She smiled. This, she said, is her family. She chose it when she and her husband, John, 38, adopted a pair of siblings in 2007.
"I was scared silly," she said. But when she learned two children she knew needed a home, she wanted to help.
In the summer of 2006, Rivera, — a stay-at-home mom, wife and student of social work at the University of South Florida — heard about the Heart Gallery of Pinellas and Pasco through a friend. The gallery is a traveling exhibit of photos of foster kids in a special needs category: They're older kids, sibling groups or children with disabilities. All of them need families.
One afternoon, Rivera scrolled through a list of kids on the Heart Gallery's website. She froze when she recognized two of them.
"Oh my God," she said. "I know these children."
The little girl had gone to preschool with Rivera's biological daughter, Lily. Rivera had briefly taught the boy in preschool. Immediately, Rivera said, she wondered: "How can I get them?"
When her husband, an auto insurance adjuster, got home from work that night, she told him she had an idea.
"She is serious," John Rivera said he realized. "How are we going to afford two more kids?" But he, who was a legal orphan at 16 and later adopted by a friend's parents, understood. "Life is not fair to everybody."
So Rivera called the Heart Gallery. The children still needed a family. Though they hadn't planned for it, the Riveras wanted to give them one.
• • •
The Riveras started a 10-week class for prospective adoptive parents. In the sixth week of class, the instructor had news for them. The children they chose were already matched to another family. But sometimes, the instructor told them, matches fall through.
"You go home not knowing what to hope," Rivera said.
She wanted the kids to have a permanent home. But she wanted to be the one to give it to them.
"You feel guilty. You feel selfish," she said. "I was devastated."
She and John kept going to the classes. If the children's match worked out, they would probably choose other children. The night of the couple's final class, an adoption coordinator approached them. The first match had fallen through. The new match? The Riveras.
"(We were) excited and relieved," John Rivera said. "They would be safe with us."
Next came a background check and a home study, an in-depth assessment of the home environment, health, relationships and parenting styles. After that came the disclosure meeting, during which "they tell you all the scary things," Lauren Rivera said. "Both their parents were addicts."
Both parents had mental illnesses. The mother was in jail. Rivera also learned both kids had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, post traumatic stress disorder and attachment disorders.
"You're dizzy with information after a two-, three-hour meeting," she said. "You walk out of the room and they say, 'So, do you want to meet them?' "
The Riveras said yes.
• • •
"We met them at a Denny's in St. Petersburg," Lauren Rivera said. "I brought markers and we had sundaes."
Six months had passed since she saw their Heart Gallery photos. They were cute and tiny, she said. Quickly, the boy and the girl, then 8 and 6, clicked with the Riveras. On the weekends that followed, they visited each other. They bonded and talked about adoption.
"I remember we were in the car and we explained that their last name would change," Rivera said. "They asked if they could change their first names, too."
She said yes.
"I vetoed Anakin Skywalker," Rivera said. So the children chose Lucas and Caitlyn. And on May 21, 2007, they moved in.
"When (adoptive children) first move in, there's this honeymoon period where everyone's really well behaved. Most families say it lasts a week to a month," Rivera said. "I think I got about four hours."
Quickly, Rivera saw the past affect the present. They aren't bad children, she said. "Something bad happened to them."
Academically, Caitlyn struggled and Lucas hated school. His parents held him back a year when, after the adoption, he was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. At home, both children needed structure.
"We had to start at five o'clock just to get them in bed by eight," Rivera said. "Every night, somebody would be in tears. Somebody missed somebody. Somebody got their feelings hurt. Somebody kicked somebody else in the face."
Since the adoption, both have made progress. All three of the Riveras' kids are honor roll students. All three take piano lessons. Sometimes, through an attorney, Rivera sends pictures to the children's biological mother.
"I want her to know that they're always going to be okay," Rivera said. "She's their birth mother. That's not going to change no matter what piece of paper I have."
But the children's lives have changed for good.
• • •
Rivera doesn't knock foster parents, she said. But there are reasons kids need permanent homes. For some, she said, the Heart Gallery makes that possible.
"The Heart Gallery's mission is to find loving, adoptive families for children in foster care," said Kristin Brett, executive director of the Heart Gallery of Pinellas and Pasco.
The gallery launched in June 2006, she said. As of the end of 2010, it has featured 262 children. Eighty-six have been adopted and 26 are currently in the process of adoption.
"If you're in foster care, you don't know where you're going to be living one month to the next," Rivera said. "If you (reach 18), where do you go for Christmas? Who do you invite to your wedding? Families don't end at 18."
Adopted kids get permanency, she said. In her home, they get Harry Potter books. Modeling clay. A bunny, a gecko and a tarantula. Football. Good food.
"My mom makes great steak sandwiches," Caitlyn said as she slid onto her seat at the dining room table.
Rivera shut off the burner and carried dinner to the table. The family tried tangelos. Laughed a lot. Talked fishing.
"Daddy, will you help me with my line next time we fish?" Caitlyn asked.
He said yes.
Arleen Spenceley can be reached at (727) 869-6235 or email@example.com.