Back in 1996 Jaci and Eric Hasemeyer were just your typical nuclear family -- two parents, three children, and three dogs. But one day, the Hasemeyer family's definition of typical changed with a chance encounter. At the time, Jaci Hasemeyer was an elementary-school physical-education teacher. During gym period she was handing out coupons to a local skating rink as a reward to her students for showing good sportsmanship. A fifth-grade boy lingered after class and returned his coupon to her, explaining that since he was a foster child living in a group home no one would be able to take him to the rink so it would be wasted on him. Until that moment the plight of kids in his situation had never been on Jaci's radar.
"My heart just broke," she recalls. The backstory was as sad as she feared: "It turned out that this 10-year-old boy's father had abandoned him and his mom was in jail on drug charges. I couldn't stop thinking that we had to do something to help kids like him."
After doing some research she found that his story was far from uncommon. It was just something most people didn't think about. Jaci's husband, Eric, and their three biological kids -- 6, 7, and 8 at the time -- all agreed that their family would become part of the solution. And so, after getting in touch with a local agency, the Hasemeyers began the process of becoming a foster, and then an adoptive, family themselves.
Two years later the first children arrived, two sisters, ages 4 and 9, and a half brother who was 18 months. Since that day, more than 30 kids have lived in the Hasemeyer home, and as of press time they've personally adopted nine of them. "Some kids stick around for three days until a relative can be found to take care of them, some for three weeks, some for six months to a year until the parents get things together, and for the rest of the kids: a lifetime," says Jaci. "Our philosophy has always been that if a child is not returned to her parents or relatives or moved elsewhere by the court, then our home would be their final stop, their 'forever home.' "
Incredibly, the Hasemeyers' generous concept of home spread even beyond the lives of all those kids. In 2001, not long after Jaci and Eric began opening their home, four other couples who were close friends of the Hasemeyers were inspired to do the same. This prompted Jaci and Eric to formalize a role they already found themselves playing: starting a support group for foster and adoptive families (and those considering taking the plunge) in the community. The need turned out to be so great that Eric quit his job as a stockbroker and went back to school to get a master's in counseling.
After he got his degree, he opened a center to help families who want to foster and adopt as well as women who need to give up their children. As part of their mission to get others to participate, Krista Hasemeyer, the couple's oldest daughter, came up with the Walk Your Talk Walk, an event that raises awareness of the needs of foster children. In the first year, 2006, 40 people showed up, mostly friends of the Hasemeyers, and they raised $1,500 for foster and adoptive kids in the area. In 2009, the annual Walk Your Talk Walk drew more than 1,000 people and collected $30,000, and the concept was replicated in churches throughout Orange and Los Angeles counties.
Although the Hasemeyers are not planning on any new additions, they hope their story will encourage others to become foster and adoptive parents. "Each evening when we look around the dinner table, we come face-to-face with the good that comes of adoption," says Jaci. "Our kids have added so much to our family, and the simplest message is that everyone can make a difference in the life of a child."
After a long struggle with secondary infertility prevented Roger Anich, a CPA, and Kathleen, a labor-and-delivery nurse, from expanding their family biologically, they decided to explore fostering and adopting, so Kathleen -- who knew Jaci from church -- joined the Hasemeyers' support group. The family got siblings, a baby boy and a 15-month-old girl, through the local foster system. But after a year and a half with the Anichs, those kids were permanently placed with relatives.
Even though this can be a desirable outcome for the children, it was completely heartbreaking for the Anichs and a painful reminder of one of the emotional risks of fostering. "It was devastating to give them up. It still feels like a death in our family," says Kathleen. A few months later, though, the couple received a 3-year-old foster child with a heart condition. After five months, during which the Anichs bonded and fell in love with the little girl and saw her through open-heart surgery, she was also placed with a biological relative. Heartbroken, the Anichs applied to adopt internationally. "The experience of being foster parents opened our hearts to the fact that there are kids who need loving homes," says Kathleen.
In 2005 the Anichs flew to China to pick up their daughter Hannah when she was just a year old. Last year, the Anichs traveled to Taiwan to adopt their son Josiah, who had just turned 6. "Hannah and Josiah have completed our family. They are the missing pieces we longed for and they've brought us so much closer," says Kathleen. "It has enlightened our older children and sparked their desire to make a real difference in the lives of orphans. They've given us so much more than we can give them."
Jamie and George Pulido had been married for four years and all they thought about was starting a family. Finally, Jamie became pregnant with their first child, a son who was born prematurely and didn't survive. They were completely devastated. "The tragedy made us do a great deal of soulsearching," says Jamie.
They had considered adoption when they were having trouble conceiving in the first place, but this time it just seemed meant to be. "Here we were, longing to be parents but with no baby to love. That made us think of all of the children in the reverse situation, with no parents to care for them." As teachers, the Pulidos had seen many foster children come through their classrooms, so they decided to adopt from the local foster-care system.
When they met the Hasemeyers, in the summer of 2007 at a church barbecue, the Pulidos were nearly through the adoption process and were anxiously waiting for placement. The Hasemeyers were able to offer encouragement as well as give them practical advice on how the system works. "Jaci and Eric were an inspiration," says Jamie. "They're a huge support to us to this day."
The couple put trying for a biological child on hold in order to complete the requirements for adoption, and in November of 2007, the Pulidos received a sibling set -- Adrian and Angelina, then 4 and 2. The adoption was finalized in August of 2008. "The biggest obstacle we faced wasn't the adoption part, it was going from having no children to being the parents of two toddlers," says Jamie. "We didn't get that gradual break-in process most people go through. We went straight into disciplining and bonding simultaneously."
The months went by, and the Pulidos saw Adrian and Angelina transformed, from insecure, anxious kids to confident, joyful, and loving children. Adrian has emerged as sweet, warmhearted, and eager to help anyone at any time, and Angelina is sharp, funny, and makes everyone laugh. And because life often doesn't operate according to plan, the Pulidos soon got another surprise -- they learned Jamie was pregnant. Baby Alexa joined the family in January of 2009. Angelina and Adrian are amazing big siblings, and there's no one better than those two at getting Alexa to smile. "Everything is better than we could have imagined. Our lives couldn't be more blessed," says Jamie.
If you're considering foster parenting or adoption, these resources will help you get started.
National Foster Parent Association A clearinghouse for everything from pre-service training info to financial requirements, www.nfpainc.org.
Fosterparents.com This online community is a great place to meet other foster-care and adoptive parents for support, advice, or chats.
Another Mother, by Sarah Gerstenzang A Brooklyn foster mom's insightful look at the legal and emotional issues, $28.
Adoptive Families magazine Inspiring stories and expert tips for raising happy adopted or fostered children (adoptivefamilies.com)
Originally published in the May 2010 issue of Parents magazine.