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On Thanksgiving, quiet not the custom for tireless foster parents (w/video)

Mikalah Bryant, 9, hugs foster parent Pat Hoins, who was recently diagnosed with a form of cancer. Hoins and his wife, Linda, recently have adopted siblings Anakin, 12, Anastasia, 15, and Tony Piccirilli, 14, whose parents had died.
Mikalah Bryant, 9, hugs foster parent Pat Hoins, who was recently diagnosed with a form of cancer. Hoins and his wife, Linda, recently have adopted siblings Anakin, 12, Anastasia, 15, and Tony Piccirilli, 14, whose parents had died.
Published Nov. 27, 2014

BROOKSVILLE

Thanksgivings were supposed to be getting quieter for Pat and Linda Hoins.

They decided last spring to be "selfish" and stop taking in foster kids nearly every time they were asked, Pat Hoins said. They stuck a "For Sale" sign in front of their big house south of Brooksville and sold their 12-piece Broyhill dining room set on Craigslist.

"Like fools," Linda said, because since then almost nothing has worked out as planned.

First, there were the three children from Spring Hill she couldn't get out of her mind. They had lost their mother in a motorcycle accident and their father to cancer, and were sent to a group home in Ocala. The foster care agency called Linda to ask if she could take them and a few weeks later she called back and said "give me those kids."

After their adoption became final last month, and after Linda started planning to treat her children to one of her usual Thanksgivings — "with a ton of people, a ton of food … a ton of joy," she said — the big lump on Pat's left triceps was diagnosed as a sarcoma.

So last Thursday, the day Linda was supposed to pick up her turkey from Publix, she drove him to Moffitt Cancer Center for five days of chemotherapy.

"We're going to still have a big Thanksgiving. We're going to go on with life as normal and everybody's being positive," she said.

"We'll be fine. I say that trying not to cry. We'll be fine."

• • •

Twenty-five years ago, after watching the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade in Manhattan, Linda went to an Irish bar in Queens "to get my free corned beef and cabbage," she said.

She heard an Irish-accented voice behind her offer to buy her a drink, she said, "and we just never left each other's side."

Pat, 51, who grew up in Northern Ireland, saw it as a bonus when she told him she had four children.

"Instant father," he said.

He was almost as eager as she was to take on more children after they moved to Florida in 1992. Linda worked as a billing specialist at a mental health facility in Dade City. Seeing the foster children who were brought there for treatment "broke my heart," Linda, 61, said.

"Oh, God, the stories were tragic. I told Pat, 'I think we can do a better job than most of those people.' "

They have, said Rosey Moreno-Jones, a foster care recruiter with Kids Central, the nonprofit child welfare organization that covers Hernando and four other Central Florida counties.

"Linda is an angel. I don't know how else to describe her," Moreno-Jones said.

Linda serves as a mentor for foster parents and is the long-time president of the Foster Parent Association of Hernando County, which raises money to pay for items that the state's $17-per-day fostering stipend doesn't begin to cover: youth sports fees, graduation gowns, occasional trips to Busch Gardens.

Her specialty is hard-to-place children — teenagers in general, male teenagers, teenagers with medical or behavioral problems, big groups of brothers and sisters.

Over the years the Hoins have probably taken in more than 100 children, said Pat, a corrections officer at a state prison in Hernando County.

Many of these children have stayed for only a few days or weeks, but several more have become permanent members of the Hoins' family: two foster children who lived with them for more than a decade, five children whom they have adopted.

"A lot of people don't understand where I'm coming from, but they're every bit my kids," Linda said. "Whether they come from me or not, it's no different. Blood don't mean nothing to me."

• • •

It would seem like the perfect destination for their most recently adopted children — Anastasia Piccirilli, 15, and her younger brothers, Tony, 14, and Anakin, 12.

But at first, Anastasia said, it was hard not to think of it as just another disruption.

Their mother, Kristin, died in May 2012, after a car struck a motorcycle driven by their father, Anthony. He was diagnosed with cancer a few months later and the children had to watch his long struggle with the disease before he died April 6.

There was a brief stint with their grandmother, who tried to take over parenting duties before deciding her health wouldn't allow it. Then they were placed in a group home in Ocala — a home to which Kids Central has temporarily stopped sending children because of complaints about inadequate staffing.

There were roaches and children who couldn't be placed elsewhere because of serious behavioral issues, Anastasia said.

But the staff was caring and she and her brothers bonded with kids in another hard-to-place category: sibling groups.

"We all just started hanging out, and after a few weeks we got used to it," she said. "I didn't want to move."

It didn't help that Linda barked orders when they arrived in May, telling them to leave their shoes and clothes in their cubbies in the garage, Anastasia said.

"I thought she was going to be really mean. I went into my room and really didn't come out for two weeks."

• • •

Anastasia cried a lot during those first few weeks. So did her brothers. And when a grief counselor was sent to talk to Tony, he slammed his bedroom door in the man's face.

Most of the real therapy took place in Linda's red Chevrolet Cruze on the way to doctor's appointments and on shopping trips. It gave them time to talk, a place with no doors between them, no rooms to disappear into.

She encouraged them to remember good times with their parents — bowling with their mother, trips to the movies or comic book shops with their dad, who was such big Star Wars fan he named his youngest son after its hero.

She also encouraged them to recognize that these times were past. If that made the children sad, Linda said, she let them cry. If they were mad, she let them scream.

"Boy, they blew off some steam in that car," she said.

Tony has had the hardest time, Linda said, but Anastasia started coming around after a few weeks.

Anastasia said she doesn't remember when she and Linda — as she and her brothers still call her — first started talking about adoption.

But they both agree it was pretty soon and that everybody seemed to think it was a good idea.

"I never thought I'd adopt any more kids, but here I am," Linda said. "I guess I'm meant to have kids forever."

• • •

The stereotype about foster children and children adopted from tough circumstances is that they're nothing but trouble, Linda said, "nutso."

But their family is just like any other family, only bigger, she said. And last Thursday evening at their tidy, five-bedroom house that Pat built on a big wooded lot, the children behaved like any other children, only better.

Older ones went to the bus stop to meet younger ones, who handed Linda school papers to sign as soon as they walked in the door. Daughter Bella, 11, asked if she could practice her flute. Mikalah Bryant, a 9-year-old foster child, said she needed to study for a test on decimals.

Later on, they all quietly played video games or did homework or laughed as they sat at the kitchen counter and snacked.

And they gave Linda and Pat space to talk about cancer and Thanksgiving. His immune system would be wrecked from the chemo, they agreed, so maybe they would stage the big meal at her daughter's house a few miles away.

Linda, who isn't a regular churchgoer, talked about treatment — that the cancer hadn't spread, that the doctors were confident that they could contain it.

Pat goes to church every Sunday and believes there was a message in the near simultaneous appearance of the tumor and the final approval of the Piccirilli children's adoption.

"If God wanted me to die," he said, "he certainly wouldn't have allowed me to adopt three more kids."

Contact Dan DeWitt at dewitt@tampabay.com. Follow at @ddewitttimes.