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Never lose focus; never lose hope October 31, 2011

Posted by paulstella in Uncategorized.

The moment is forever seared in my memory. I watched as the earnest-looking teenager, sporting glasses and a standard-issue buzz cut, walked up the short flight of stairs. He first addressed his group leader and requested the opportunity to speak with my son. Given permission to do so, the boy folded his arms behind him and looked Austin directly in the eye.

“What’s it like to get adopted?” he asked.

I immediately felt the weight of his question wash over me and I found myself fighting the urge to cry.

Austin showed me around the school he attended while a resident at Ramey-Estep

Standing there, inside one of the residential units of Ramey-Estep, a group home facility located in rural eastern Kentucky, Austin proceeded to discuss his pride in joining a family and the opportunity he now enjoys to build a promising future. But he quickly transitioned his focus toward the young man before him.

“Never lose focus,” explained Austin. “And never lose hope! It can happen for you too. Just keep working toward that goal.”

The teenager, never breaking his focus from Austin, drank in every word. Then, politely and quietly, he offered his thanks, turned around and walked down the stairs to rejoin his peers.

Watching the boy descend, it wasn’t difficult to analyze the source of my emotions. I knew in an instant this teenager was a reflection of my son before I even knew he existed—formerly conflicted and fighting to find his way. Austin, while speaking from the heart, had also spoken to the boy from experience.

Our visit to Ramey-Estep was the climax to a homecoming weekend of sorts for Austin. It was the first time either of us had returned to his native Kentucky since he came to live with me in February 2010.

Austin and I agreed to share our story at the request of his former caseworker Diane Underwood

We agreed to visit as part of a celebratory event sponsored by the state’s Department for Community Based Services. Adoptive families from across the commonwealth were invited to gather at the Kentucky Horse Park, just outside of Lexington, to mingle with each other and be acknowledged. It was a heartwarming sight to witness the variety of families that represent the tapestry of adoption. Organizers of the event even pointed out to me a couple who adopted 10 kids. Yikes!

Diane Underwood, one of Austin’s former caseworkers, had asked us to present to the entire group about our adoption experience, so I put together a PowerPoint presentation with photos that summarize our journey. He and I played off each other pretty well, describing the ups and downs of our relationship.

Patricia Wilson, commissioner of Kentucky's Department for Community Based Services, joined Austin as a star presenter

It was obviously well received. People were on their feet applauding as we returned to our table. Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s my first-ever standing ovation. Also, more than a few in attendance—primarily caseworkers—asked if I planned to adopt again. The question always makes me a little uneasy as I concede my uncertainty.

“Probably not anytime soon,” I’d say.

“Well, keep us in mind,” was the standard reply, and I assured them I would.

Then, after an overnight in Lexington, Austin and I made our way east for the visit to Ramey-Estep. As we arrived on campus, I could sense he was anxious. Back when he was 14, having recently become an orphan by court order, he was placed in the restrictive group home in hopes of getting him beyond some behavioral issues. He remained there 16 months and now credits that time as a life-changing experience.

Austin looked forward to sharing this part of his history with me, but he was most excited about the opportunity to reunite with his mentor at Ramey—a group leader by the name of Dewayne Sammons. We tracked him down shortly after he had started his shift inside one of the residential units. The former Marine allowed himself a slight smile as Austin approached.

The opportunity to reunite with his former group leader, Dawayne Sammons, was particularly moving for Austin

The pair exchanged greetings, and I introduced myself to Mr. Sammons before listening to Austin summarize his new life in New York. Uncharacteristic of my son, he seemed to struggle for things to say and opted at times to inquire about the fate of the other boys who had lived with Austin at Ramey. Some found their way, Mr. Sammons indicated, while others only found more trouble.

As the current residents took part in a religious service in the hall’s common area, the three of us moved upstairs to tour the facility. Once out of sight from the boys, Mr. Sammons appeared more willing to let down his guard. He recalled Austin as “stubborn,” reluctant to change. But once Austin bought into the system, Mr. Sammons stated, the transformation was rapid. He was clearly proud of the young man that stood before him now.

“I’d be happy to come back sometime and talk about my experience,” said Austin.

But Mr. Sammons had another idea. “How about right now?”

Austin spent a lot of time at Ramey working on projects with Mr. MacAlister, the groundskeeper

He didn’t need to ask twice. When the service concluded, Austin made his way to the common area, and Mr. Sammons introduced Austin as a “former resident” who wanted to share some insights on his time living on campus. What I heard next astonished me.

Austin delivered his remarks to the group like he’d been rehearsing them for years.

“I’ve sat in that same furniture you’re sitting in now,” he said, “and I know what some of you are thinking. You just want out of here. I get that. It’s how I felt too.”

Austin urged the boys to own the behaviors that had them placed there while committing to whatever actions were needed to ensure change. He encouraged them to listen to their group leaders, as he acknowledged Mr. Sammons and the other staff in the room, and he told the boys not to focus on the amount of time it might take to earn their exit. The potential outcomes were worth the investment in time, and he pointed out himself as an example.

“Now I’m adopted, and I’m in my first year of college. My future can be anything I want to make of it.”

Ten minutes after he started talking, Austin received his second ovation of the weekend. I watched him with awe as he climbed the stairs and told him what an amazing job he had done. Mr. Sammons agreed, telling Austin that having an impact on even one of those boys made the effort worthwhile.

Enter the earnest-looking teenager wearing glasses.

– –

The impact of our visit hit Austin within moments after leaving the residence hall. Seeing tears in his eyes, I put my arm around his shoulder, expressed my pride, and thanked him for letting me share this opportunity. On that weekend, I believe Austin came to realize that his choice of direction in life had been validated.

As we returned to the car, my son returned to his usual form—inquiring about lunch and bouncing between various expressions of silliness. Our focus now transitioned to the nine-hour drive home.

But as we winded our way home on the interstate, I kept thinking back to that boy—and that question: “What’s it like to get adopted?”

I’ll never find out what becomes of that young man, but I will occasionally offer up a prayer that he gets to experience the blessing of adoption. And I hope it’s transformative, as I believe it has been for Austin.

I admit that gets me wondering about the other big question posed that weekend: “Are you planning to adopt again?”



1. Debbie Ferris - November 1, 2011

Beautiful story!!

2. Deborah Johnson - November 2, 2011

Paul – Thanks for sharing your ongoing adventure with Austin. Awesome testimony for adoption! 🙂

3. Victoria Schmitt - November 2, 2011


This is a beautifully written, heartfelt essay…. and I have a feeling that another adoption is in your future! What a wonderful father you are – and how proud you must be of your son, Austin.


4. Ellen Shady - November 4, 2011

Paul, lovely story. You’re a great father, and Austin is a boy to be proud of. Ellen

5. Pat Wilson - November 5, 2011

Paul, this story is one of the most wonderful gifts any of us in the agency could ever receive. Seeing the ease and love between the two of you last weekend was very touching, and this account is even more moving. What a thoughtful young man Austin has become. Thank you for following your heart. The two of you are a wonderful family. – Pat

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