Hello Home Vol. 6 - The Sabo Family
I'll never forget the day this sweet friend/co-worker of mine got the phone call that would change her life forever. Chelsea was working at our co-working space as a single, working professional in her mid-20's with a massive heart to serve the Lord and love her neighbor. Several of us happened to be around that day when she found out she had been matched to foster a little boy named Tyler. We immediately kicked into high gear looking for baby supplies and a childcare option that would allow Chelsea to foster while sustaining a full-time job. Fast forward a couple of years and Chelsea has not only legally adopted Tyler, she has also started The Foster Care Alliance - a non-profit designed to create and complete healthy permanency plans for children in foster care. Scroll down a peek into their lives together and one seriously inspiring story of faith and trust...
Tell me a little about Chelsea before Tyler.
Chelsea, before Tyler… that is hard to remember, as he is my whole life!
I was raised in Dunwoody, GA in a wonderful Christian family. My parents were married and very much in love. I have one sister who is 4 years younger. I grew up in private school all throughout early and secondary education and then went to Samford University for undergraduate. I graduated with a degree in Communications and Writing, but I spent my after college career doing non-profit work and community development in underprivileged areas. I always had a passion for working with children in poverty, and spent summers in Romanian orphanages. I have always had great friends in Atlanta and a great church community at IKON community church. These friends and family have always been supportive and encouraging of each adventure God has called me on.
Your story is really special because you first fostered Tyler before adopting him. What led you to become a foster mom? And at what point did you start considering adoption?
I had always wanted to foster and always wanted to adopt, but I will be honest, my dream of doing this always included a husband. So, I never ever expected to foster and certainly not adopt as a single mom. But, God was calling me to do this even outside of my well thought through plan.
I used to have a reoccurring dream at night where I would be walking down the street and see a crowd of people gathered around a storm drain on the side of that road. Of course, I was curious, so I would walk up to the crowd. There was a baby there, laying at the opening of the drain, crying. It was an African American baby boy, but I could never see his face in the dream. Someone from the crowd picked him up, but he was still crying and crying. He was passed to a couple people, until someone turned to me and said “you try.” I hesitated, but took the baby in my arms. The baby turned his face toward me and said “mama,” then closed his eyes and went to sleep. I would wake up at that point. I never saw the child’s face and never knew what happened next. But, I had the dream 20-30 times over the course of 5 years. I would share this dream with mentors and friends that I trusted. Their advice and interpretation was always that this was a confirmation that I should be working with children in poverty, so I should stay doing what I was doing. But, the dream kept happening and as I prayed, I still felt unsettled. Fast forward a few years and it was about 6 months before my 30th birthday. I was still single and figured I would start thinking about and considering foster care.
I honestly am not sure what made me take the leap at that point… but I just sent in the application one day and the rest was history. I finished all my certification to become a foster parent, checked the boxes for all of my preferences and waited to be matched. I wanted to start off small and get my feet wet, so I said I would do respite care (max 2 weeks) with one child who did not have any medical issues. What was supposed to be 1 weekend turned into 3 years before our adoption was finalized. And Tyler, who was described to me as “just a bit small for his age” ended up being a medically fragile child with 16 doctors and therapists and several appointments a week. I will admit that at first, it was so overwhelmed and tried to quit. I didn’t think that I could do it. I thought that I was the worst parent of all. But, thankfully, he was never moved and we took it day by day. Not to say it got any easier to figure out and deal with all of his medical issues, but it became more clear and manageable as people in my community stepped in to help! They say it takes a village to raise a child, and honestly, in my experience that was 100% true!
I would say probably 6 months in, I was completely smitten with this amazing child, and began praying about whether I should consider adoption. And about a year in, the conversations with the Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) began. I believed at this point that God had told me that Tyler would be my son, but the next 2 years of holding onto that, while court dates and case manager changes and policy shifts dominated our lives was really challenging. I wish I could say that my faith was strong throughout these years, but there were definitely days of doubt and grief, nightmares of him being taken, and endless tears of losing this child… the person I had grown to love most in the world. In April of 2018, Tyler’s parents both signed paperwork surrendering Tyler to be adopted by me! And, on June 5th, 2018, Tyler became my son!! God would have been faithful to us both regardless of the outcome, but the blessing of becoming a forever family will never be one I will take for granted, as the fight to get to this point has left some battle wounds on my heart.
Did you work with an agency, consultant, or social worker during this time? Can you tell us what you found to be the most helpful resources in deciding where to start?
I did foster through a private CPA (Child Placing Agency). It was helpful in the process of becoming a foster parent and being able to ask a lot of questions. I would say that it is a great place to start for those new to foster care. There are many different CPAs out there. So, I would recommend reaching out to someone that already fosters and see what their experience has been.
What were the hardest decisions you found yourself making during the foster care application phase?
The hardest decisions in the foster care process for me was wrestling with my hearts desire to help everyone, while thinking realistically about what I could handle as a single working mom.
I love that you are a multiracial family. Was this an intentional decision you made? And what advice do you have for families thinking about adopting a child of a different race?
Oh man, I could talk on this topic forever, so I will try to keep it brief. No, it was not an intentional decision. I said that I would take any gender or race. But, I do remember thinking that I had never seen a cuter child in my whole life, when the case manager dropped him off. I will say though, that having a child of another race comes with its challenges. People stare and make inappropriate comments, and kids on the playground ask “how can you be his mom?” But, then, at the same time, when we are together, I often forget that we don’t look alike, because we do just go together! Yes, (in the words of Tyler), I am pink and he is brown. But, we sure do love each other!
Advice is something that I hope to gain as the years go on, but there are a few things that I have learned. Racism is learned. Children notice the different colors, but they don't hate or make assumptions. Adults do. I have learned how to be humble. To take advice from women of color who have raised children before me. I have learned the power of community and that it is important to have strong role models in Tyler’s life who look like him. I have learned to get thicker skin. To not be quick to be offended, but to learn. I have had to learn how to tactfully stand up for my child, and not just let “ignorant racism” slide. So, if someone was considering adoption of a child from another race or culture, I would say, #1 find people who look like your child, and not you, and ask them to help you raise your kid!!
How did your parents, siblings, friends respond to your decision to foster?
Most have been supportive of this decision. It is not conventional and not how people saw my life unfolding. But, most people who knew me, already knew that I am not afraid to take a risk and follow the Lord. My family loves my son and has loved him always! I did lose a few friends in the process, but it was mostly because my life and routines changed and I couldn’t live the spontaneous single life anymore. But, I have never looked back!
I’ll never forget the day you got the call that you were going to be a foster mom! Tell us a little bit about that day and how you (very quickly) prepared for Tyler.
I had received a couple of calls the month before I got Tyler, but I had a huge event at work, so I kept saying no until after that event. So, one Friday morning, I was sitting at my desk, sipping my coffee, and chatting with friends in the co-working space (Hayley was one of them!). My phone rang, and it was the Child Placing Agency. They asked me if they could tell me about a child that needed a place. I said yes, and hearing the little that I did, I was positive I wanted to say yes! They told me that they would be dropping him off around 3pm that day, that he was 1 years old, but a little small for his age. Immediately, I had to find a daycare to start him on Monday, buy clothes, bottles, sippy cups, high chairs, etc. I called my mom to start shopping, called my friend Callie to ask what kinds of bottles/sippy cups I should buy, and Hayley and I started searching for daycares with openings. And for anyone who knows about daycares in the city, people are on waiting lists for months! Hayley would call and see if there was an opening, then send me the address and I would go tour the daycare. I finally found one, signed the papers for him to start, ran to target, went home and he arrived about an hour later!
Describe the scene when you met Tyler for the first time.
I was sitting in my little Decatur condo. I heard a knock on the door. It was my Child Placing Agency case manager. She came in and we talked a bit and signed some papers. She received a call from the DFCS Case Manager that they were pulling up. We walked outside and I was smiling so big I couldn’t contain my excitement. But, at the same time, my heart was racing. I shook hands with the DFCS case manager and introduced myself. She walked me around to the back of the passenger’s side and said, “meet Tyler.” I looked at him and he was precious, but I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. She said, “you can pick him up! You are his mom for a while now.” I got him out of the carseat, hoping I wasn’t going to do anything wrong. We all walked into my house, him with a few shopping bags of old clothes and a breathing machine. He didn’t cry or smile either. He just sat there, sick, lethargic and stunned, with shoes 3 sizes too big on his feet. Within 45 minutes, he fell sound asleep in my arms for the next several hours. He was finally safe. He was finally home!
What were your greatest challenges & greatest joys in that chapter as you settled into life together?
Well, I will admittedly say that after the first day, I was exhausted. After the second day, I thought I must be the worst parent in the world, and perhaps I should never be a parent ever. And after the third day, I called my case manager to come get him and to quit forever. Tyler was precious, but he was medically fragile and there were so many unknowns. He cried all the time. He couldn’t drink more than 1-2oz of milk from a bottle without throwing up (I was constantly covered in vomit). He didn’t sleep. We were in the ER 4x in 6 weeks because of breathing difficulties. It was a steep learning curve. But, I also experienced such an amazing outpouring of love from my community who helped me every step of the way! I am so thankful that I didn’t give up when it was hard because Tyler is by far the greatest blessing of my life!
The financial costs of fostering and adoption I’ve heard are very high. Are you open to giving us a ballpark idea on investment in both parts of the process (fostering and adoption)? How did you navigate the financial hurdles?
Fostering is different than adoption, as all of the expenses for your child are covered through the monthly per diem. However, just like having a biological child, there are things that come up that you make choices to buy. But, nothing you can’t budget and save for.
I continue to be amazed by the work you’re doing through Foster Care Alliance. Tell us about how your own experience led you to start the organization and the problem you are solving.
Throughout the process of fostering, I was most surprised by the relationship that I would develop with Tyler’s biological family. And throughout I felt a leading and a calling to pray for Tyler’s family and their well being and salvation. It was certainly an up and down relationship with them. But, I still felt a constant conviction that they be treated with respect and dignity in every step of the way.
Tell us about the process to actually adopt Tyler. I know you faced some challenges here!
The journey to adoption for us was a long and painful one. It was filled with lots of court dates and ups and downs. And of course many unmet expectations. I have to say that the expectations were something that I wish I had known how to be more realistic with from the beginning. I would still love every child who came in my home 110%, because they deserve it! But, I would have understood that reunification is what everyone will be fighting for in the beginning, up until the end. Adoption is not the goal. So, there were many times when my heart and desire to adopt Tyler and the truth that I was seeing, that his parents could not handle all of his medical needs, was conflicting with what everyone else around me was choosing to and desiring to see. It wasn’t until we were assigned a new case manager and new parent aide for Tylers bio parents, who both came in with fresh eyes and no agenda, that they were able to see what was best for Tyler and best for his other siblings as well, even if the plan for each of them was different.
Tell us a little more bit about what life is like now.
Life is choatic and crazy and disorganized and messy. I feel like most of the time I am flying by the seat of my pants! But, our life is also beautiful and filled with laughter and miraculous and fun! My son is by far, hands down, 100% the best part of my day! Someone asked me the other day what my hobby was. I was like, “uh, being a mom. My kid is my hobby.” We laugh all the time, do dance parties every night, and read books till my eyes are closing at night. Not much has changed in our routine, because after 3 years together, multiple therapies a week and over 300 doctors appointments, there isn’t much wiggle room. But, now there is security and permanency. We know that we will be together forever and that fear of losing this precious part of my heart is no longer one that I have to worry about. There is something that uncertainly does to the child’s brain, but it does to the caregiver too. So, I am a working, single mom of a medically fragile miracle and I wouldn’t have it any other way! *Well, maybe we could do without the single some day! haha
What other advice do you have for families interested in fostering or fostering to adopt?
Do it! Every child is worth your time. They are worth your pain. They bring so much more to life than you will ever give up. It is scary. Your heart will hurt in ways that you never knew possible. You will be stretched to much more than you ever thought you could bear. But, you will come out stronger, changed forever. Be willing to step into the vulnerability and the mess. You won’t regret it. But, also be sure that this is what you are being called to do. If you are single, ask some trusted friends and make sure that you have a support system around you to help you! It takes a village! If you are married, take time separately to talk with your individual trusted friends and then come back together and see if you are on the same page. Foster care is a battlefield and you want to be on the same page from day one. If one of you is hesitating, then you need to both hesitate. If you aren’t a team and you aren’t on the same page, it will take a toll on your relationship. And the last thing these children need is another failed relationship. And, again, make sure you have people to talk to, mentors who have raised families before you, and a community to have your back. Single and married, still date. Still go out with friends. Make rhythms in your life to keep joy and laughter, because the tears will surely come! But, at the same time, these people will then be the ones to stand with you and celebrate when those days come too! At our adoption, there were people who had to stand because there weren’t enough seats in the court room. The judge said she had never done an adoption with a full courtroom before! And this was her favorite! Your true community will cry with you and fight with you and celebrate with you! And oh my does that just make life so much sweeter!
ABOUT THE SERIES
"Hello Home" is a photojournalistic blog series about the ins and outs of the adoption process and a celebration of adoptive families in Atlanta. Over the course of this year, we will meet about 8-10 families who have adopted internationally, domestically, fostered, adoptive families with biological kids, multiracial families, children with special needs, you name it. I'm so excited to learn more about some of the rarely told truths around the adoption process and to celebrate those doing this amazing work. In exchange for these families sharing their stories and answering some tough questions, I'm giving them a free lifestyle photography session.
Note: these families have been asked to share as much or as little about their story as they feel comfortable. All sensitive information has been freely and graciously volunteered.
Stay in the loop by following along on Instagram: @hayleyjophoto.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hayley Johnson is the owner of Hayley Jo Photo - an Atlanta based newborn and portrait photography business. Hayley is an award winning photographer and was named one of Atlanta's Best Newborn Photographers by expertise.com in 2016, 2017, and 2018. She was also named a Top Family Photographer by atlantaparent.com. Hayley is a member of the National Association of Professional Child Photographers and Clickin Moms, and her work has been featured by Beauty & Lifestyle Mommy Magazine, TheBump, and Pottery Barn Kids.