The unusual visitors to the George E. Edgecomb Courthouse faced front, their eyes gleaming, their fur lustrous, their ribbons neatly tied and on full display.
The teddy bears were going home.
Each of the newly-adopted 19 children participating in National Adoption Day would soon come to claim a cuddly new friend and join their forever families.
Representatives from the Junior League of Tampa, Eckerd Community Alternatives and the Children's Board Heart Gallery of Tampa Bay hosted a special music-themed ceremony called Adoption Rocks on Tuesday. Families, friends, children, caseworkers and supporters came to celebrate the finalization of the adoptions, some of which had taken years to become official.
Some sat quietly, nervously jiggling knees or pouring orange juice for the kids; many of them were just excited to have cake for breakfast.
The jubilant cacophony swelled as people from all walks of life shouted greetings and pulled each other into hugs. They had all been on a long journey together, completing their families with children who once believed they would never have a home to call their own.
November has been designated as National Adoption Awareness Month, a time to increase the focus on the more than 425,000 children nationwide who reside in foster care. Every year, more than 23,000 of them age out of the system before they can be adopted. National Adoption Day has helped find permanent homes for almost 60,000 children in sixteen years.
"So many people say the kids are so blessed to have us as their mom and dad, but it's not them who are blessed, it's us," said Carey Thurman.
Thurman's adopted children have teamed with another blended family, the Mitchells, to form Heart of the Heroes, a Christian-based family band who performs at churches and community events to spread awareness about fostering.
The group performed throughout the Adoption Rocks celebration, the passion for their cause evident in their young voices. The Mitchells and Thurmans have fostered 350 children between them.
"I love seeing all of these kids," said Carissa, 17, who sings and plays guitar. "Who knows how long they've been going around looking for a family, and today they found one. It's wonderful."
Diamond Joglar, 15, also spoke at the ceremony. The teenager, adopted at the 2015 event by parents Manuel and Deven Joglar, replied, "What's that?" when asked for her Christmas list last year.
Her first year with her new family also included her quinceanera, a Latin American celebration of a girl's transition from child to young woman. She marked the occasion with a traditional father-daughter dance.
"It doesn't feel like it's been just one year," said Deven Joglar. "It feels like she's always been with us; she's just our daughter."
With Diamond's encouragement, the Joglars are planning to add an adopted brother to their family.
"It doesn't matter how many kids you adopt; I know I'll still be your favorite," she teased.
Teenagers often endure more difficulties getting adopted than younger children. Eckerd executive director Jody Grutza said that of the 60 children currently available for adoption in Hillsborough county, 41 of them are between the ages of 13-17.
"Teenagers are tough; they go through their phases," said Grutza. "A lot of folks don't consider that they need forever homes too. Keep your hearts open to it."
Inside the courtroom, Judge Laura E. Ward smiled warmly as she finalized the adoption of 3-year-old Layla with her parents, Eric and Jennifer Adams, who had fostered Layla since she was just 2 months old.
"We've had her for two years, so we're just happy she can't be taken away now," said Jennifer. "It was love at first sight."
Jennifer's cropped purple hair reflected the light in the room as she nodded her head, agreeing to care for Layla forever. Fellow Adams adoptee Mackenzie, in a green dress that matched her new sister's, helped hold the smartphone as other family members watched the ceremony via Skype.
Ward spoke to each child on her docket individually, asking their names and whether they wanted to be adopted.
When she officially declared Layla part of the Adams family, happy tears and ear-to-ear smiles abounded from everyone in attendance, even the generally stoic court officers.
In her father's arms, Layla clutched at her new teddy, ready to take him home for good.
Contact Libby Baldwin at [email protected] Follow her @LibBaldwin.