Chris Gibbs, who at 16 has forgotten how many foster and group homes he’s been in, vowed he’d not remain a “state kid.”
Karen Kielbon, teacher of at-risk junior high students, recognized a boy who craved love. Her husband, Richard, listened, uncomfortably, to his own spiritual side.
Two years ago, the Kielbon family welcomed Chris into their home and now plan to adopt him. Beyond his problems they saw a boy who communicated well, who loves life, who longs for relationships and believes, as they do, in church and God.
It’s rare for a teenager to be legally adopted.
“I would guess three or four or five are adopted in a year” across Washington state, says Chris Robinson of the Department of Social and Health Services in Olympia. Robinson supervises program managers who handle adoptions and out-of-home care.
“I didn’t actually think it would happen,” says Chris Gibbs. “It doesn’t happen with teenagers. They want little kids because they’re cute.”
First, the Kielbons were licensed as a foster family in order to take Chris into their Spokane Valley home, near Chester Elementary School. Karen had to persuade state caseworkers that she and her family could help a boy who had years of abandonment, rage and bad experiences in “the system” fueling his temper.
“The caseworkers were skeptical at first. Finally I had to pull out my credentials,” Karen says. She is certified as a special education teacher, with a master’s in guidance and counseling. She’s also the mother of three: Josey, 17, Kristina, 10, and Jonathan, 8.
Various delays have slowed the process, but adoption of Chris is still ahead.
Chris and Karen met two years ago. It was a short meeting.
Chris had been expelled from Bowdish Junior High. He was trying to enter North Pines Junior High and would be going into Karen’s self-contained special education room there.
He and Karen met in Principal Dave Bouge’s office, and the conversation turned tense. “No, no, ITAL youNORM listen to ITAL meNORM ,” Chris told the principal at one point. Bouge adjourned the meeting. “You were asked to leave,” Karen says.
“Naw. I was kicked out,” says Chris, with a twinkle.
A week later, Chris called Bouge to apologize, and he was allowed to enter Karen’s class.
She found a child, then 14, who had learned so early in life that he had only himself to count on that he could not easily trust anyone. She also found reasons to admire Chris: He had stayed drug- and alcohol-free. He had read the Bible. He was, on his own, getting to church regularly.
Chris found in Karen someone who could listen to his tales of anger and violence and agitation, and see beyond those survival strategies, to the boy who wanted to belong.
Chris was separated by the state from his birth mother by the time he was 6. His mother’s life was chaos: heroin, alcohol, prostitution.
He has blocked out much of his painful past.
School was sporadic for Chris. By the time he got to fifth grade, “I had nothing but walls, a desk and a chair,” he says. “Fifth grade was horrible. … In seventh grade, I was expelled. In eighth grade I was expelled.”
Moving often, Chris grew up without friends. He made his first friend in fifth grade in Spirit Lake, where he lived for two years with his grandmother. “Michael (Kerr) is still my best friend. He’ll always be my best friend,” he says.
There were other issues for Chris, too. Living in a co-ed group home before he came to the Kielbons, he’d had to comply with a no-touch rule, keeping a bubble of space between himself and everyone around him. He had to learn all over how to let anyone touch him, especially Kristina and Jonathan.
“She would climb on his lap and he would put her down, and say ‘Maybe someday,’” Karen says. MEMO Memo: ADDENDCOMMAND Now Kristina and Jonathan can climb all over Chris.
When he came to the Kielbons, Chris could eat 20 pieces of pizza at a time. He hadn’t been inside a grocery store in 1-1/2 years. He couldn’t believe he could go to the refrigerator anytime he was hungry.
“We just couldn’t feed him enough,” Karen says.
The Kielbon family has made changes, in part to free up the dollars needed for another son.
The two younger children gave up private school. Josey, the oldest son, works 25 hours a week at Albertson’s to pay his own tuition at Valley Christian School.
Chris and Karen bonded, in part because of her ability to read his signals - and know how intensely he was trying to read hers.
Chris is what’s termed a vigilant child, Karen says, one who uses undue energy trying to “read” adults. If he knows ahead of time where he stands, he can use his energy to learn.
Now, Chris is a sophomore at Central Valley High School. He played football this fall. He has a steady girlfriend, Nicole Southwick.
“She inspires me,” he says. Nicole is the kind of student who won’t accept phone calls from Chris in the evening until she’s finished her homework.
She likes Chris for his honesty and his hard work.
When Chris talks about Nicole, his tender side is clear, as demonstrated in the poem he wrote for her:
Never say forever because
it isn’t real. It isn’t something
lasting, it isn’t something
So if you mean forever,
just tell me you’ll try
But never say forever
Because forever makes me cry.
He’s making C’s for the first time in his life. His major accomplishment this year is that he has begun to learn how to do schoolwork. His teachers give him high marks for effort, attitude and leadership.
Several of his CV teachers say that, given what they know about his past, his accomplishments in class are heroic - even if he’s still not connecting in all subjects.
Simply following the steps needed to turn in homework requires that Chris retrain habits of a lifetime.
“He’s a normal sophomore,” says Margie Rogers, his art teacher.
Chris is beginning to realize that he has the ability to succeed.
“I’m smart,” he says.
“He is smart, and it’s a new experience,” says Karen, who now teaches at Central Valley’s new alternative program for junior high students at Barker Center.
Something about Chris is high powered. He seems to sweat his emotions right through his skin: edginess, excitement, even joy. So much energy.
Sometimes, during Chris’ first summer with the Kielbons, Karen and Chris would go on five- or six-hour power walks, to dissipate some of his energy. He seems to be small child and adolescent all at once - and he is living at double speed, catching up on experiences he missed.
Ever the interpreter, Karen says, “We find Chris quite lovable.
“I think it’s starting to sink in that we’re for a lifetime.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 4 Color Photos
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