Not flesh of my flesh
Nor bone of my bone,
But still miraculously my own.
Never forget for a single minute,
You didn’t grow under my heart,
But in it.
~Fleur Conkling Heyliger
It is a sentiment echoed around the world of adoption. Regardless of the path that brought them together, the bond shared by adoptive parents and their children is as unbreakable as any other.
But there is another factor in that family bond: siblings. With greater frequency, adoptive parents already have biological children but wish to give more children better lives. Some of them are motivated by tragedy; others simply want to expand their families. Yet, they have all faced challenges unique to bio-adoptive families. And while those challenges can test the resolve of the most solid family and faith, they often lead to immeasurable rewards.
Three area families who have both biological and adopted children shared their stories with us. From around the corner to across the globe, these children came to their new families seeking comfort. What they found was everything from piggyback rides from a big brother to sibling rivalry at the dinner table. They learned about sharing rooms, sharing parents and sharing memories.
What they found was family.
Three years ago, Mike and Tonya Walsh were glued to their television screen watching footage from a massive earthquake in Haiti. As the weeks passed and more images of the devastation were broadcast, Tonya felt a particular sadness for the children who were suffering in the wake of this natural disaster.
“We had never talked about adopting,” she said. “One day we were watching the news and I said to Mike, ‘You wouldn’t want to adopt a child from Haiti, would you?’ And he said that he had actually been praying for two weeks to God for an answer, and that is what God had told him.”
The Walshes already had a blended family with four teenage children from previous marriages. The process of combining different upbringings and outlooks on life helped prepare them for a future they couldn’t even imagine at the time.
“You’ve raised your kids and you think you both did a good job at it, but there are differences,” Mike said. “You’re merging those differences together, and it takes a lot of patience. But love will get you through it if you have a strong relationship.”
Mike and Tonya approached their teens to talk about adopting a child. After some discussion — requests included adopting a boy to balance the gender count, and the desire to not have a newborn in the house — everyone was on board.
The wait for a child from Haiti, however, was several years. After looking into other options, a picture of a 3-year-old boy changed the course of their lives.
“We were at a standstill. Then a friend of mine who had adopted from China sent me a really long email about boys she knew in China who needed homes. Ethan’s story and his face just stuck with us, and we thought, ‘He’s the one!’”
Categorized as a “special-needs” child by China, Ethan needed only minor surgery to correct a case of hypospadias (a birth defect of the urethra). But that classification resulted in a quicker adoption process; the Walshes brought their new son home to the United States just nine months after they found him.
Today Ethan is an outgoing, healthy 6-year-old student at Queen of Peace Catholic Academy, who, in his mother’s words, has never met a stranger. The other children — 17-year-old Cameron, 18-year-old twins Michael and Madeline and 19-year-old Maloy — lovingly compete with their chatty brother to get a word in during dinner conversations.
Both parents say that having a solid family foundation in place was crucial to everyone’s transition.
“When it comes to a blended family, it helps to have good kids to begin with, and we were very blessed to have four really good kids already,” Mike said. “Ethan has been the catalyst for really binding us all together.”
The Walsh family has had its share of adjustments. Previously a house of teens and adults, it was a big change to once again have a young child who needs more attention. The Walshes have also brought elements of Chinese culture into their lives to ensure that Ethan knows about his heritage. They have attended Chinese New Year celebrations, and items from the region are proudly displayed in their home. Ethan also works with a Chinese tutor once a week in addition to taking Mandarin classes at school.
They have learned to gracefully handle some awkward questions from well-meaning friends or strangers. “People won’t necessarily think when they say something. A lot of times they will say, ‘How did you get a boy from China? What was wrong with him?’” Tonya said.
Yet for all of these changes, the Walshes have kept many aspects of their life as they were before Ethan’s arrival. They insist on a close-knit family existence that includes eating dinner together every night, and they have relied on their solid marriage to get them through the difficulty of raising a child who has never before known the love of a family.
Both parents agree that faith has played a huge role every step of the way, from making the choice to parent through adoption to maintaining a happy family life.
“We just trusted God,” Mike said, “that this is what we were supposed to do.”
In the early 1960s, Joan and Ralph Glaeser and their four sons were living a full and happy life in Gainesville. However, the couple felt they had even more love to give.
“We both came from and enjoyed the feeling of large families,” Joan said. “Our first thought was the need for interim parents, so we decided to investigate foster care. The need was great, so it happened pretty fast.”
The Glaesers were granted their large family wishes several times over. Throughout the next 25 years they welcomed 76 foster children into their home, most of whom had special needs or other circumstances that made care or adoption difficult for them.
At any given time during those years, the Glaesers averaged 11 children in their home, including foster kids and their biological sons: Christopher, Mark, Greg and Mitch.
“Just go and watch re-runs of ‘The Brady Bunch’ and you will get a flavor of what it was like growing up,” Mitch said. “Never a dull moment with daily life lessons that many don’t get to be exposed to but only hear about. Every now and then, a neighbor kid would slip in and have dinner with us, and seeing a new face we would ask, ‘Are you new to the family or just visiting?’ Every answer was, ‘I would love to stay here, can I?’”
“Most of our foster kids stayed long-term due to their special needs,” Joan added, explaining that some of the children were with them long enough to get married while still living at the house. “They had medical needs, perhaps, that their natural family could not care for. But very often their natural families were involved, and they visited their children in our home.”
Then one day in 1969, 6-month-old Theresa came to the Glaeser house through the foster system. She was a biracial baby, and due to adoption practices at the time, the couple did not expect her to be placed on the state’s list of adoptable kids. But when she was listed as an eligible child the following year, the Glaesers could not bear to lose her, so they applied to adopt.
Cross-racial adoption was not generally considered by most at the time, but the Glaesers fought to change that. In fact, Theresa saw no greater advocates for her adoption than her four big brothers. Ranging in age from 7 to 15, the boys mobilized to make sure the girl they already considered a sister stayed with her family.
“The boys were extremely protective,” Joan said. “[The state] brought in a social worker who interviewed all of them, and they all got on their own little soapboxes and asked for that to be able to take place.”
Their efforts paid off, and in 1971 Theresa’s case became the first cross-racial adoption ever handled by the state of Florida. “Her race became an issue for our adoption, but that didn’t make things any different for us,” Joan said. “We adopted her because we loved her.”
“It’s wonderful to have a daughter,” said a smiling Ralph. “We had our first child — a
boy. Second, a boy. Third, a boy. Fourth, a boy. I wanted a girl!”
“My parents aren’t really known or given credit for being activists on equality and civil rights so far ahead of their time,” Mitch added. “Some people talk about it, and some live it. My parents live it. Therein lies the difference!”
The Glaesers continued as foster parents until 1988. Now married for 58 years, they enjoy time with their expanded family — including six grandchildren, not to mention countless more from their foster kids, who also consider them “Grandma and Grandpa.”
The joyful noises heard throughout the Glaeser household for many years have now transitioned into a resourceful family team. “We don’t call a taxi, a sitter, a tutor, an office temp or a counselor,” Joan said. “We call each other for a ‘shoulder’ or a ‘hand.’”
The Glaeser family has never seen a distinction between their biological, adopted or foster children; they are simply all part of their big and happy family. Life is good.
As the president and CEO of Partnership for Strong Families, Shawn Salamida understands the dynamics of adoptive families. But that understanding took root long before he entered the foster care field.
“I have seven adopted brothers and sisters; there were 11 of us kids total when I grew up,” he said. “All of the kids my parents adopted were hard-to-place kids from foster care or international adoptions. So we were a very diverse family. When I was growing up that’s what I lived with. It was all around me.”
So Shawn and his wife, Kathy, knew that even though they had four biological children, they would someday also adopt. Their initial plan was to wait until their children were in high school or beyond, but fate had another plan. On a trip to Tallahassee with his organization, Shawn met a young sister and brother in the foster system.
“We had a lot of discussion and a lot of prayer,” he said. “Sure enough, eventually it worked out that the kids were going to need an adoptive family, and there were no viable relatives or options. We figured that was a sign that the time was right for us.” In October of 2011 the siblings, a girl and a boy, were placed in the Salamida home and given new names they helped choose — Gerry for the boy; Kateri for the girl. The pair immediately charmed everyone.
“I came home from school and Kateri had the cutest reaction to how tall I was,” said the Salamidas’ 17-year-old son, Gabe, as he showed off a picture of himself giving Gerry a piggyback ride. “They both started off very quiet and timid. But then my youngest brother, Max, had a flag football game that day. We all went to that to watch him play, and as soon as Gerry and Kateri started running around playing, they came out of their shells.”
In April of the following year, their adoption became final, and today it’s a full house as Gerry, now 6, and Kateri, now 11, enjoy typical sibling relationships with the Salamidas’ biological children — Hannah, 19; Gabe and Michael, 15; and Max, 13.
The bond among them was immediate and indistinguishable from traditional family ties.
“I’ve told Kateri about the excitement we had on the day I found out I was pregnant with each of our birth children, and how they grew in my stomach and my love grew for them,” explained Kathy, who said she will tell the same story to Gerry when he is a bit older. “When I saw their picture for the first time and knew they needed a home, it was the same feeling as when I saw the positive pregnancy test for the other kids. And during the months of preparation for them to come home, my love grew for them the same way.”
As with any major family change, the Salamida kids had their fair share of adjustments, along with some unexpected benefits.
“I went from having my own room to sharing a room with my two bio brothers so that Gerry and Kateri could each have their own room,” Gabe said. “It was a big adjustment. But it helped them to each have their own room, and I actually think I grew closer to Michael and Max.”
When the family experiences the occasional bumps in the road, Shawn and Kathy surround themselves with supportive friends who also have adopted. But they also use it as a learning tool for their own children.
“Many kids who are adopted from foster care have had traumatic experiences that you have to help them work through,” Shawn said. “For our other kids to see them struggle has been a challenge on some days. But they’re seeing our family heal these kids and help give them a future.
“It’s definitely the most rewarding thing you could ever do,” he continued. “It may be the most challenging as well, but the reward comes back to you because they make your life so much better. I can’t imagine not having adopted them.”
In meeting these three bio-adoptive families it becomes clear that, despite the hurdles they have faced, their lives play out much as those of any typical family. A husband and wife share a laugh over the talkative nature of their youngest child. A 6-year-old boy enjoys a post-school-day brownie from a batch he helped bake. Grandparents smile with pride while telling a story about their daughter and granddaughter.
It is easy to forget how their stories came to be, how the children adopted by these families would have been much different had their paths not crossed, and how the parents and biological siblings might never have known a new kind of love.
But the pictures displayed in their homes and on their parents’ cell phones tell the real story. They are photos of children with smiles beaming and eyes shining, as if to say that these families are where they were meant to be all along.
All, miraculously, their own.