Making a Difference

Larry Sayler

OUR FOUR CHILDREN are adopted.

After we’d been married several years, we were dismayed that my wife hadn’t conceived. Through testing, we found that we were both essentially infertile. As one doctor put it, “It’s good you are married to each other.” We decided not to pursue surrogacy, in vitro fertilization or similar options.

I thought our life was on an even keel until one day my wife asked, “When you get to be 65, do you want to say that your life amounted only to working for your current employer and making money?”

My employer was ethical and produced products that helped society. I was happy with my job. I told my wife that I was okay with that.

This was not the right answer.

After more discussion, we decided to take in foster children. We began the process to be approved as foster parents. We both had master’s degrees and good jobs. But we decided that, if we took in foster children, my wife would quit her job to focus on the children.

On July 5, 1988, a California social worker brought us two cute, lively sisters, four-and-a-half and six years old. Each was carrying a plastic trash bag containing all her earthly possessions.

Foster parents are paid, and it can provide significant supplemental tax-free income. These two girls had been living with an older single woman. In subsequent weeks, the girls said that at times their previous caregiver locked them in the backyard so they wouldn’t bother her. She would open the door long enough to hand them a sandwich for lunch.

These two girls had two brothers, one younger and one older. The two boys were each in separate foster homes. In most cases, the goal of foster care is the reunification of families. Every week, someone from the foster care system collected the four children and took them for a visit with their birth parents. Frequently, these visits did not happen because the birth parents weren’t available. Then the children came back dejected.

At that time, the foster care system was very clear that they wanted to place foster children with foster parents who were of the same racial and ethnic identity. My wife and I, and the four children, are non-Hispanic whites. Their younger brother was with a Hispanic family.

Several months after getting the two girls, the social worker told us the foster mom of our girls’ 18-month-old brother was having surgery. She asked if we could keep him temporarily. He moved in on Valentine’s Day 1989. A month later, my wife called the social worker and asked when he was going back. Her response was, “Oh, you can keep him as long as you want.”

Eventually, the court ruled that, for many reasons, the children would not be able to go back to their birth parents. We told the social worker that if the court severed parental rights and put the children up for adoption, we would be willing to adopt all four. The short version of the story is the court severed parental rights and we adopted the three children we already had, plus their nine-year-old brother.

Our kids knew their birth grandparents and birth cousins. During the time of foster care, we had gotten to know them as well. After adoption, the social worker said that, as their legal parents, we could do what we wanted. We decided to allow our kids to continue visiting them, and we also invited them to our house at times.

We also maintained a distant relationship with their birth parents. They moved to New York, and he got a job as an over-the-road trucker. We moved to southern Illinois. Every year or two, the kids saw their birth parents, either when the birth parents were traveling near our town or when we were on the East Coast visiting our relatives.

We didn’t adopt all the children in this family. After we adopted our four children, the parents had two more children. Child No. 5 was taken away immediately after birth and put up for adoption in New York. Child No. 6 was raised by the birth parents.

For several reasons, child No. 6 spent the summer with us when he was 10 years old. The birth parents and child No. 6 attended the weddings of our kids. Through the wonders of the internet, two of our children were able to find and contact child No. 5. We have now all met him.

I am reminded of the grandfather who was walking along the beach with his young granddaughter. She kept picking up starfish stranded by the receding tide and tossing them back in the ocean. Her grandfather pointed out that there were so many starfish in the ocean, and the ocean was so large, that her actions did not make a difference. As she picked up the next starfish, she said, “Well, it makes a difference to this one.”

Thanks to my wife’s question nearly 40 years ago, I can say that I haven’t just worked for the same employer and made money. We know we haven’t made a major contribution to the world, but we hope we’ve made a difference to these four people. Even though it has cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars, it’s one of the best decisions of our lives.

Larry Sayler is the only person with a Wharton MBA who also graduated from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Clown College. Earlier in his career, he served as CFO for three manufacturing and service organizations. For 16 years before his retirement, Larry taught accounting at a small Christian college in the Midwest. His brother Kenyon also writes for HumbleDollar.

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