Mario Martell Thornton had to make a choice.
After living nearly his entire life in foster care, he was going to turn 18 on Tuesday. That meant his few belongings had to be packed and ready to move from his foster home by 2 p.m. that day, when he officially aged out of the state's care.
Unless, that is, he wanted to be adopted by a seemingly nice family he had met just two weeks earlier.
"It was a little scary and weird at first because it was all happening so fast, but then I got to know them and really liked them," Thornton said. "I knew I wanted a family. That's all I've ever wanted my whole life. "
So at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, he came to Circuit Judge Katherine G. Essrig's courtroom and was officially adopted by Mike and Maria Cooke in front of their friends and family — faces he was just beginning to learn. As far as his adoption recruiter Misty Hubbard knows, he's the first 18-year-old to be adopted out of Eckerd Kids, a nonprofit that works with foster children.
As they posed inside the courtroom for their first official family photo, Mario had to be reminded to put his arms around his new family, which includes 1-year-old Kylie, 3-year-old James and the absent 21-year-old Jeremy, who is stationed at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina in the Army and has yet to meet Mario.
But when Essrig ruled the adoption final and his name officially changed to Mario Martell Thornton Cooke, no hyphen, Mario instantly pulled Maria in for a hug. She kissed him on the cheek and whispered something that made him smile.
It was that smile, with straight pearly white teeth and dimples, that brought them together.
Maria saw it for the first time about a year ago in an online video Mario made with the Children's Board Heart Gallery of Tampa Bay when he was 14. He hoped it would attract a family.
With his sheepish smile and soft voice, he describes his passion for football and gospel, country and rap music. He says it's easy for him to make friends — his seventh-grade classmates called him "Hulk" because of his large, muscular frame — and he does well in school.
With some prompting from his interviewer, he even shows off his rap skills, the lyrics revealing just a few details about his biological family, which includes two brothers and two sisters.
"See I'm in this world and my momma thinks I'm nothing, she's getting beat by my dad but she thinks she loves him, but I know that the Lord can change her, Satan's over there laughing trying to play her, I'm over here fighting with my mom's savior. Please help God, cause the devil's trying to take her," he says.
The video, posted on Facebook, has been viewed more than 60,000 times.
"I just knew as soon as I saw him," said Maria, who has dreamed of adopting a child since she was a young girl. "His smile and his welcoming attitude and his positivity despite the circumstances was so inspiring."
The Cookes were so moved by Mario's video they began taking classes at Eckerd to become certified to adopt a child, hopefully one like him. During their training, a relative placed Kylie up for adoption and, though they felt led to adopt a teenager, the couple decided to raise the baby as their own. Kylie's adoption was finalized in August and the couple immediately began inquiring about Mario.
Mario was given a book of photos of the family to see if he was interested in meeting them. He had met with two potential families before, but he never felt a connection to either, he said.
In his 18 years, Mario has lived in more than 30 foster homes and two group homes. He moved from the foster care system in Minneapolis to programs in New York, Tennessee and, eventually Tampa, where he's in 11th grade at Wharton High and met his girlfriend of 10 months.
He met the family for the first time at a Gator's Dockside, then at a Tampa Bay Rays game and at their church, Element, in Tampa.
"I was happy that what I had fallen in with was exactly who he was. I was a little bit worried I had built him up in my head but that wasn't the case at all," Maria said.
Mario's decision to opt for adoption is unusual for people his age. Though state law allows teens the option of staying in foster care until they turn 21 as long as they are still in school, officials say most simply want to be on their own.
But Mario said he couldn't be happier with his new family. They're funny and kind and have a strong faith. They're into Star Wars, which is kind of nerdy but cool, he said. They're going to take him to Walt Disney World for the first time.
And they threw him a surprise birthday party Tuesday after his adoption.
Contact Anastasia Dawson at email@example.com or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.