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Robin And Stephanie's Story From The 'Let Love Define Family' Series For National Adoption Month

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Huffington Post Gay Voices and RaiseAChild.US are collaborating in an 10-part “Let Love Define Family” series for November’s National Adoption Month. Each series installment will introduce you to another aspect of fostering and adoption. Together we will meet foster youth, hear from culturally competent foster and adoption agency leaders, chat with cast members from the ABC Family television series “The Fosters,” and celebrate LGBT parents and the successful and healthy families they create across the United States. -- Corinne Lightweaver, RaiseAChild.US

Robin Wade, 48, is a web manager for a California state university and Stephanie Cunningham, 38, is a medical massage therapist, though these days she works as a stay-at-home mom caring for the couple’s two adopted children. After meeting in 2008 in Chicago, the couple was married in 2010 on Martha’s Vineyard. They moved back to Robin’s home state of California in 2010 and now live in Long Beach. RaiseAChild.US interviewed Robin to learn more about the couple and how they decided to become foster and adoptive parents.

How did you and your wife meet?
Stephanie and I met at a spa near Chicago in 2008. The spa called me a few days before my massage appointment to tell me my therapist was let go, but a new massage therapist named “Stephanie” would be working with me. They said they just knew I’d love her. Little did they know how much I would! We talked and laughed through that first massage and four months and a few massages later, our friendship became the start of our future together. She proposed on Christmas Day that year and we were married on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts in 2010.

Did you foster any children before you decided to adopt?
We knew we wanted to adopt but had no idea adopting through the foster system was even an option. We had explored other options -- international and private adoptions, artificial insemination. However, once we learned of the hundreds of thousands of children in the foster system, we wondered how any other option was possible for us.

We began our journey understanding it could take some time to be matched with our forever children, so we wanted to open our hearts and home to fostering while we waited. We were certified as foster parents in January 2011 and had our first two foster children placed with us the same day. Since then, we’ve fostered five children and foster/adopted two more who are now officially part of our forever family.

The day we were officially certified, our agency, Penny Lane Centers, called to a) congratulate us and b) ask if we could foster two babies (a 2-year-old and a 2-month-old) and pick them up in a few hours. We learned to swim by jumping head first into the deep end! The children were with us for less than two weeks, but two days after they went home, another sibling set, a 2-year-old girl and her baby brother, were placed with us. Our foster daughter lived with us for nine months before reuniting with her birth father and her brother, who was only 3 months old when they arrived at our home, was reunited with his father when he was 18 months old.

Tell us about your children and your adoption journey.
After our last foster child was reunited with his father, we decided to take some time to regroup and rest while we waited to be matched with children who were cleared for adoption. A month later, the adoption coordinator at Penny Lane called about siblings (Carlos and Linda) who were 9 and 5. They were living with a foster family and waiting for their forever home. The more we learned the more convinced we were that we had to move forward. We met them for the first time in early June at their foster parent’s home and spent an hour talking about their new school, favorite foods, favorite colors, their new bedrooms, and more. We left behind a photo album we had prepared with photos of the two of us, our dogs, our home, and their rooms. Over the course of the next few weeks, we spent more and more time together and, after the fourth visit, we made plans for their move the next weekend. We bonded instantly with these remarkable children and started our lifelong journey together.

Since then, it’s been a year and a half of firsts for them -- plane ride, zoo, beach, Disneyland, bikes, vacation, snow, and so much more. Even the simple things we took for granted as kids, like having our own bedrooms or finding presents from Santa under the tree at Christmas, were completely foreign to them. They slept on the floor with their birthparents and shared a room at each foster home. We learned Santa had brought presents for other children in the foster homes where they lived, but never for them. When I shared this with a co-worker, she and her husband arranged a special visit from “Santa” himself on Christmas morning. It was a Christmas none of us will ever forget.

The rights of the children’s birth parents were terminated in late 2012 but they appealed, which delayed the finalization by nearly 6 months. Early in August this year, our agency called with the great news –- Carlos and Linda were freed for adoption! We had no idea the news would affect them as much as it did. While we thought we were already close as a family, the realization that they would never need to worry about someone removing them from our home was so liberating, and their bond with us deepened. Only one month later, on September 5, 2013, we stood in front of a judge in Edelman Children’s Court and officially finalized our family. We’re looking forward to fostering again in January 2014.

Were there any challenges or obstacles you had to face when fostering and adopting?
We were not emotionally prepared when our first foster daughter was reunited with her birth father. After nine months, it was heartbreaking to watch her taken out of school and move into a roach-infested garage with no heat, no hot water, no stove or refrigerator. We thought the father needed more time to get his home prepared or at least let her work up to the move with overnight visits. Unfortunately, as foster parents, the judge saw us simply as caretakers. When we realized it was out of our control, we took a step back and examined our sphere of influence. What we could control was giving these children the most loving, supportive, safe and happy refuge possible during the time they lived with us and providing the birth parents the support they needed before, during and after the transition to help ensure their success. We are fortunate to have our own support system of family, friends, church, co-workers, social workers and our foster agency, which has been essential in our journey.

What words of encouragement do you have for other LGBT couples who are interested in adoption but are afraid to take that first step?
It’s ok to be afraid. We were too. Some people warned us against fostering or adopting from the foster system. “You never know what you’ll get,” they said. Well, you never know what you’ll get with your own natural born children! Everybody comes with baggage. These kids are in the system through no fault of their own. They just need love and a place to call home. Challenge yourself. Be willing to take the risk. It will change your life and the lives of these children forever. The world needs more parents like us.

You continue to be an inspiration when talking about your adoption journey. How do you think the work of RaiseAChild.US benefits others who are interested in adoption?
We had been fostering for a little over a year when we heard about RaiseAChild.US. We wish we had heard about them sooner! They provide an enormous network of resources to assist parents and potential parents from the beginning and through each step of the journey. We’ve met other LGBT families through RaiseAChild.US, which gives us the opportunity to share experiences and encourage each other. It’s wonderful they celebrate the LGBT community and the idea that love truly is what defines a family.

Corinne Lightweaver is the Special Projects Manager / Community Advocate for RaiseAChild.US, a nonprofit organization that believes all children deserve a safe, loving and permanent home. We educate and encourage the LGBT community to build families through fostering and adoption to answer the needs of the 400,000 children in our nation's foster care system. RaiseAChild works with foster and adoption agencies that have received training in LGBT cultural competence through the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s “All Children – All Families” initiative [link: http://www.hrc.org/resources/entry/all-children-all-families-about-the-initiative] and received its Seal of Recognition. RaiseAChild.US’s National Adoption Month campaign includes special events for prospective parents in Chicago (November 18), Los Angeles (November 20), Kansas City (November 21), New York City (December 3), and San Francisco (December 5). To RSVP, visit www.raiseachild.us or email info@raiseachild.us.

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