Tim and Summer Gilstrap always wanted to have a family.
But when, after a long and costly effort, they found they couldn’t conceive, they initially had different responses.
“Summer broached the subject of adoption, and I wasn’t interested in solving other people’s problems and taking that route,” Tim said.
Tim says his heart was full of resentment. The infertility treatments had been expensive and difficult, and when they failed it was crushing. Then he became involved in Christ the Redeemer church in his neighborhood of West Central Spokane, and met the adopted daughter of one of the pastors – a girl who was later killed in a car crash. Not long after that, he was listening to a speaker at a men’s church retreat talking about adoption – likening it to the way God takes human beings into his family.
“I remember sitting in the back of the room listening to what he was saying and thinking, ‘How could I be so selfish?’ ” Gilstrap said. “I just started weeping. … I came home. We had a conversation. ‘If you want to adopt, let’s do it.’ ”
That was about three years ago. Today, Tim and Summer have adopted two children they took in as foster children – ages 1 and 2. A newborn was placed into their home in recent days. And the Gilstraps have become evangelists for adoption, helping to organize and promote the upcoming Spokane Orphan Summit, a Christian event next Saturday meant to encourage adoption.
Last year, more than 1,500 children in Washington state were waiting to be adopted, conference organizers say. In Spokane County, more than 700 children live in foster care, and 143 were “legally free” and awaiting adoptive parents. These kids have often suffered any number of traumas or setbacks, or been born into environments that are dangerous or criminal. It’s hard to imagine any population of kids in more need of love and stability – and it’s hard to imagine a more daunting parental task than providing that.
Being a foster parent means living with a huge amount of uncertainty; the state’s goal is to reunite birth parents and children, and there is a long waiting period before a foster parent can proceed to adoption. The children themselves sometimes have deeply rooted problems stemming from trauma or health problems. The state is closely involved every step of the way.
It is, in short, a long way from the dream that many would-be parents start out with. Conference organizers say more than a third of American families consider adopting, but only about 2 percent actually go through with it.
The Gilstraps’ adoption journey began in spring 2010, shortly after Tim’s wake-up moment at the retreat. Summer, 34, is a nurse manager in the birth unit at Holy Family Hospital, and Tim is a fundraiser for a private company that collaborates with nonprofits on fundraising. They had moved to Spokane from Fresno, Calif., in 2007 to be near family here while they were undergoing fertility treatments.
Shortly after they were licensed, Summer got a call about a “safe haven” baby that had been flown to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, where she worked at the time – a premature boy weighing two pounds, 11 ounces. Safe-haven laws allow mothers to leave unwanted newborns at hospitals or other places without facing criminal charges. This boy showed up at Sacred Heart in early May 2010, and state officials called Summer the following day.
Tim said, “They said, ‘Do you need to talk to your husband?’ and she said, ‘No, he’ll say yes.’ ”
Summer said, “We had waited for seven years to get pregnant, so we didn’t want to waste any time.”
They became the foster parents of Malachi, who spent a month in the neonatal intensive-care unit. Summer would spend work breaks bonding with the boy, and Tim would sometimes spend the night in the NICU. They brought him home at 4 pounds, and in the early months they had a few medical scares – but it turned out that “he was just small,” Tim said.
But Tim noticed something when the boy was undergoing testing with needles – something that any parent of any child can relate to.
“I had thought I’d never feel like a normal dad, and yet I felt every pinprick,” he said. “I felt every part of it.”
Less than a year later, they learned of another child in need of foster care. That case was a different kind of challenge: a newborn boy whose parents were entangled with crime and drugs. The Gilstraps took the boy as a foster child; the birth parents worked through the state-sponsored steps of trying to reunite with their son for more than a year. Eventually, though, they gave up their parental rights, and the Gilstraps adopted their second son, Rhysland.
Just last week, meanwhile, an infant girl was placed in their home.
Tim says one of his great joys is telling people that his kids are adopted – helping to break down whatever negative stereotypes exist about foster families and adoption. He relishes knowing he and Summer are helping to break a cycle that will affect their children’s whole lives. And he takes a special joy in seeing how others respond to his children, how they love Malachi’s laugh or comment on how cute Rhysland is.
“People love the sunshine they see in their faces,” he said.