“A chance we’re willing to take with our hearts”
For Donna and Tonya, being foster parents always seemed like a natural fit. With their backgrounds in special education and social work, they had hearts for helping kids and knew firsthand that so many in our region need loving homes.
In the past three years, they’ve hosted six foster children, including 11-year-old Logan, whom they eventually adopted, and another daughter who will also officially join the family this summer.
Thanks to the training they received through United Way supported Foster & Adoptive Care Coalition, Donna and Tonya have learned that this life is all about balance – understanding each child’s future with them is uncertain, but still pouring themselves into ensuring the child is happy, healthy and loved.
We sat down with Donna and Tonya to learn about what their family life looks like and how they make the most of their time with each child.
How did you first become interested in being foster parents, and how did you get started?
Donna: Tonya and I have always desired to have children. We decided to start the process not long after we got married. Before I knew what was happening, Tonya had found an incredible training opportunity at Foster & Adoptive Care Coalition. I felt as if the training would be a breeze, as I had many years working in education. As we started to learn more about trauma and how to help children living in foster care, my eyes were opened to a whole other world. Once we completed training and had all the criteria to be licensed, we were ready and excited to welcome our first child.
Tonya: We initially thought we only wanted to foster to adopt, but we really have grown to enjoy the fostering side of it. We both heartily believe in reunification – that kids should be with their biological family whenever possible. It’s obviously much harder because you don’t know how long kids are going to be with you. But it’s a chance we’re willing to take with our hearts.
What’s life like as foster and adoptive parents?
Tonya: People ask for one word to describe it, and I always say I need two: grief and grace. We watched our foster daughter take her first steps and say her first words, and that was such a joy. But I grieved for her birth parents, who missed those moments. And then I look at Logan, and there is no one to tell me when he did those things, and the reality is I don’t know if we will ever get those answers.
It’s the grieving when a child leaves, even when you know they are going to be with a relative or reunified, but not allowing yourself to hold back pouring in all the love and time when they are with you. We tell Logan all the time that we love him enough to wish we never had to meet him or the other kids in our home. It is hard to put into words. I can’t imagine life without them, but if they’d be safe, healthy and happy with their birthparents, then that’s where they should be. He used to say it sounded crazy, but it will probably make sense when he’s older.
How did you end up meeting and adopting your son?
Donna: We had been looking on adoption sites to find an older child to be our forever son. When we saw our son online, we had a heart for him because of his past experiences and felt that we could make a difference in his life. The moment we finally met him, we knew he would be ours forever.
Tonya: It’s hard to just put it in words. On the surface, he seemed like a challenging case, but there was so much positive stuff there. With our skillsets, he just seemed like a perfect fit for us. We were at the lake, and he was feeding the fish. We looked at each other and said, “He’s our son.” That’s not the story for everyone; it’s not always so rosy and all those things. But for us, we just knew.
Tell us about Logan and the daughter you’ll be adopting. What are they like? What do their lives look like, seeing other children come into your home?
Tonya: She thinks he is the moon, and he is crazy about her. She will trail after him anywhere that she goes, and he has a great amount of patience and love for her.
When she first came to our home, Logan was like, “How much longer are we going to be watching her?” And we explained that we didn’t know. Fast forward to a couple months ago, and he was like, “So, when are we going to adopt her?”
How do you build relationships with a child, not knowing how long they will stay with you?
Tonya: Keeping yourself from becoming attached is truly the worst thing you could do for a kid because they need that attachment. Donna and I both know that whatever time we have with the child – the more positive experiences we can give them, the more support – is really setting them up for a better outcome in the long run.
With our newest foster child, we don’t know what his future holds, which is hard. But we know that in this moment, all we can do is love him, get all his needs met, get him caught up developmentally as best we can, and give him as much of our committed time as we would a child that we knew was going be with us forever.
These kids deserve that from us. They have had no choice in being a part of the foster care system. We’re willingly choosing to be there with them.
How do you make the most of each child’s time with you?
Tonya: We try as much as we can to keep each other centered in the now and not think so far ahead – being intentional and checking one another. You can worry so much about not just their future with you, but just their future in general and all these bigger things.
We focus on, this is where we are as a family right now, and this is who we are. Whenever we do family pictures, people are like, “Is everybody going to be in the picture?” Absolutely. Because at this moment, this is who our family is. That will very well likely change, but this is who we are now. The kids that come into our home, even if it’s just a few nights, they leave imprints on our hearts that last a long time.
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Emily (Becherer) Gearhart is a proud native St. Louisan, writer and lover of stories in all their forms. Faced with a captivating question, she will research her way down a rabbit hole and emerge with words that educate and inspire. You can probably find her taking in a musical, bingeing through a new podcast series, exploring the trails at local parks or curating her extensive library of Spotify playlists.