“Children are the world’s most valuable resource and and its best hope for the future.” -John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Children first, child centered, child focused are terms seen everywhere today. They are used so often and so freely that the meaning has become diluted. Too often, it’s a phrase adults use for their own self-aggrandizement rather than reflecting any true sense of caring for the children in question.
And then there are the people who don’t talk about being “child centered.” Who don’t choose to broadcast the life choices they make on behalf of a child. These are the too-often unsung heroes that can be found throughout the foster-care system-people who are truly making a difference in a child’s life and for all the right reasons. People who put the child’s welfare first and foremost, no matter what.
Phyllis and Lenny are two of those people. They had a grandson, Zach, born to a daughter who suffered from a mental illness. Because of her disorder, she was a danger to the child, and he had to be removed from her care. Here’s where his story becomes better than so many we see: At age six months, he was taken into the loving home of foster-parent Deb, and was subsequently adopted by her. Deb was under no obligation to establish a relationship between the child and his birth family, nor were Phyllis and Lenny obligated to establish ties with their grandson. All three adults knew, however, that such a relationship would be in the best interest of the child, and all three did everything they could to make that happen.
When Zach was ten months old and settled into a routine of care, Deb’s worker phoned his maternal grandparents and invited them for a visit. (The identity of the biological father remains unknown.) Phyllis remembers every moment of that first meeting eleven years ago. It took place at a McDonald’s in Connecticut. She and Lenny made the trip from New York and were so excited. After that first get-together, the relationship between grandparents and foster family began to grow. The families visited at Phyllis and Lenny’s home a few times over the next year and at Zach’s other grandmother’s home in Fairfield. A year later, once the adoption was finalized, an invitation was extended to Zach’s second birthday party, and soon enough Phyllis and Lenny were visiting monthly.
Phyllis is quick to sing Deb’s praises. She feels so fortunate that her grandson was placed into such a caring home and had been adopted. That wasn’t the only adoption to take place, however: Phyllis proudly refers to Deb as her adopted daughter. She is so grateful that Deb not only allowed but actively encouraged her and Lenny to build an extended family for Zach.
Like any proud grandmother, Phyllis talks freely about her grandchild and how much she enjoys spending time with him. She was not always able to speak about him, however. For the first five years of Zach’s life, Phyllis was in the unusual position of having to keep her grandson a secret. She couldn’t tell her close friends, extended family, or her neighbors that she was in contact with him. Zach’s biological mother had never stopped searching for her son, and, though she might have been well-meaning, her mental illness made it imperative that Zach be kept from her. As much as Phyllis loves her daughter, she simply could not and would not risk the safety of her grandson.
It wasn’t until Zach turned five and his biological mom passed away that Phyllis was able to be open about her relationship with him. At their daughter’s funeral, Phyllis and Lenny stood together with Zach in front of friends and family for the first time.
While the tragic circumstances of Zach’s biological mother might well have torn some families apart, the adversity they endured appears only to have strengthened this extended family’s bonds. Zach has grown up with a loving mother and grandparents, and Deb’s other children, Zach’s siblings, have always looked upon Lenny and Phyllis as their grandparents, too.
Though Phyllis and Lenny have now moved from New York to Florida, they still maintain contact with their grandson and adopted grandchildren. Zach spends two weeks of every summer with them, and they travel north to visit with Zach and his family twice a year.
Phyllis considers herself fortunate. She is able to be part of her grandchildren’s lives, and, in Deb, she has a new “adopted” daughter whom she sees as remarkable in every way. Though she misses her dearly, she is also grateful that her biological daughter is in a better place and is no longer living a life of torment and emotional pain.
By always making decisions with an eye to what was best for him, Zach’s adopted mom and grandparents gave him a true gift: a sense of belonging and stability, and the knowledge that he is truly loved and will always have family members in whom he can place his trust. If only every child were blessed with such a gift.
**Update: In October 2010, Lenny and Phyllis were awarded an Angels in Adoption Award in Washington, D.C. by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. Unfortunately neither was able to be present to receive the award. Lenny passed away shortly before the award was presented and Phyllis, diagnosed with cancer, passed away shortly thereafter. Zach, Deb and the rest of their family miss their “angels in adoption” and always will.