On Saturday, my thirty three year old son, Luis, moved downstairs into an apartment that we created for him. From the inside, it’s a real apartment – kitchen, living room with dining area, two bedrooms, and a bathroom. But from the outside, it’s not real as it’s part of my house: both his front door and his back door open into my house, not into the street.
Nonetheless, it is a perfect solution for a very real problem. Luis has a very slow growing brain tumor. He was first operated on when he was eleven – before I met him. He lost that part of his brain that controls peripheral vision, but gained overall in that all of his long term and very serious seizures dramatically ended. But they couldn’t get the entire tumor out without risking him losing more function.
When he was twelve, he was referred to my agency, Family Focus Adoption Services, as he needed an adoptive home. We tried a number of families, but nobody would take him. Perhaps because this cancerous brain tumor was practically guaranteed to kill him by the time he was twenty. Ultimately, I made the decision to adopt him and he moved in twenty years ago last week.
His tumor began to grow again and he had to be operated on again – a fourteen hour surgery – when he was twenty. But he didn’t die. Soon after that, he graduated from his high school special education placement. He couldn’t easily find a job, so he went to work at McDonald’s on the weekends. Shortly thereafter, he miraculously secured a position as a part time janitor at the local school district. This was his dream job. As some dream of Harvard, Luis dreamed of this. He is now in his thirteenth year on each job. In the meantime, he also managed to get himself NYS certified (outside only) as a volunteer firefighter, a huge point of pride – deservedly so – for him.
The purpose of Luis moving into his “own place” is for him to develop even more independence, especially from me. It is the heavy weight of all parents of handicapped kids, to worry about what will happen to their grown kids when we are gone. Reading about the recent abuse that goes on in these adult NYS group homes terrifies us. So I want Luis to buy his own food, plan his own meals, cook his own dinners. I want him to walk from room to room without seeing me. I want him to decide whether he likes living by himself or not. All before I die (nothing planned on that – just covering.)
Luis is incredibly happy; incredibly proud; incredibly excited. He chose his own paint colors and insisted on doing the actual painting himself (ruining the rugs, of course). I took him food shopping and he liked buying what he wanted and not the things I would buy. And so on and so forth.
So why do I tell this story here? Luis was adopted through Family Focus. When I met him he was living in the locked “ward” of an institution with about 40 other boys. Twenty of them were profoundly disabled. But the other twenty were Luis’ peers. I have often wondered, as I have watched Luis blossom over the years, what happened to those boys.
Luis got the life he’s gotten over the past two decades because of the personal approach that Family Focus takes. When he was visiting those possible homes all those years ago, it wasn’t whatever staff member was on duty who drove him back and forth. We don’t work like that. It was me, the same person every single time.
The model that Family Focus has been working on developing over the past twenty-five years is not the model that other agencies that work with foster children use. Family Focus is not a business whose particular “widget” is adoptive homes for foster kids. Rather, we are a community of people – a community of like-minded people – who recognize that the foster kids who cannot go back to their original families, and then are not adopted by their foster parents, are a special group of extremely betrayed kids. And the services that they need, above all else, must always contribute to their healing. And that means personal connections of exactly the type we would want for our own kids. That’s what Luis got and that’s why Luis is where he is today: downstairs in his own apartment.
Family Focus has just celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary. Keeping it alive and healthy for the next twenty-five, as the original staff move on into retirement is our primary goal. And that requires a funding plan. The traditional funding plan of fee-for-service is never sufficient, but for an agency like ours with creative and inventive services, sometimes decided upon very quickly, it is extraordinarily insufficient.
The alternative of finding permanent sponsors usually means looking to folks with big money. But that is not only far more difficult than one might imagine, but generally folks with big money live in an entirely different world than do our kids, and the families who adopt them. It is too often a cultural mismatch, causing difficulties on both ends.
So, what they – we – have decided to do is to look for regular people who “get” our kids and the need for the personal connections. We decided to create a “club” for these folks who will commit to supporting Family Focus to the tune of an automatic $25/month. Monthly, as another of my sons pointed out, it is not enough money to pay any other bill he has, but annually it can add up to enough money to support the agency’s creative work and pass it down to the upcoming generations.
The club is called the “Chocolate Milk Club” in recognition of the power of chocolate milk as an adoption metaphor for our population of kids: a real adoption can no more end than one can remove the chocolate from the milk, once combined.
We are proud of this club and we have high hopes for its long-term success.
I am writing about it on the blog for the obvious reason of looking for new members. But for the less obvious reason of the respect I have for the people who read this blog or even subscribe to it. There is no reason to read it – and there have been 8,723 “hits” from 32 different countries on the blog from the time it started eighteen months ago until this morning – unless you are one of those who “get” it. And if you do get it, the Chocolate Milk Club is a very real way for you to join in our work. I am already writing monthly updates about that work to send to all our members. The links throughout this posting will give you more information. Otherwise, go to www.familyfocusadoption.org, I will be reminding my readers of this club each posting: it’s that important.
Luis is only one of the four kids whom I have met, and adopted, because of and through Family Focus. Each has his own incredible story. But then doesn’t everybody? Isn’t that the reason why it must always stay personal? Doesn’t each one of us know that in our guts?
Please join us.