“October 16th, 2010, I’m sprinting down the sidelines of the football field covering the kick. I see an opening and crash into the ball carrier at full speed. Instead of hopping up and celebrating after the play with my teammates, I lay there motionless from the neck down. As an 18-year-old freshman at Luther College, I was playing more than the rest of my class. I was known for my hard-hitting ability, but now I couldn’t even push off the ground to get up. What I didn’t know at the time was that I suffered a severe spinal cord injury and would only be given a 3% chance to ever move again from the neck down. My faith and grit would be tested as I endured the toughest road of my life.
When I thought about my future as a quadriplegic, I didn’t think my long-time dream of becoming married and being a dad was going to happen. But 3 years after my injury, an encounter with Emily Summers changed everything. We fell in love and she opened my eyes to the world of foster care. She told me from the beginning, ‘If you want to be with me, then plan on fostering and adopting.’ It was a passion of hers to help children. I loved her so I was ready to jump on board with the plan. I just didn’t expect to become parents before we were married.
‘Emily?’ The sniffling voice on the other line was hoarse from sobbing. Emily sighed. A tearful call in the middle of the night could only mean one thing—Whittley, a girl Emily mentored in high school, was in trouble again. Whittley was 17 at the time.
‘What’s going on, Whitt?’ Emily asked, not sure if she wanted to know.
‘It’s really bad this time,’ she whispered. ‘I’m in big trouble. My sister kicked me out. The cops are involved. They’re putting me in a group home. They might even send me to…to…to juvie!’ Her voice broke into sobs as she choked out the dreaded J word.
Emily closed her eyes. This was much worse than usual. Emily says, ‘Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.’
‘I can’t go to juvie, Emily. I’m so scared. You don’t know what they do to people there. I’m never going to have a normal life if I end up there.’
‘Okay,’ Emily said.
‘Emily?’ Whittley said, then hesitated. ‘Will you and Chris be my foster parents?’
We were caught off guard, but we weren’t surprised because we both knew we were her only good option left. We were only 23 and 24 at the time and newly engaged.
This wasn’t the first time Emily considered fostering Whittley. She hated watching her bounce from house to house and group home to the group home, never getting the help she needed. The idea of her aging out of the foster care system without a real family scared Em. She hated to think what might happen to her if she was left to her own devices. After many discussions, we started to take the steps to make it happen.
5 months later, Whittley moved into our apartment’s guest room one week before the start of her senior year. We got some funny looks when we enrolled her in the local high school. Not many seniors have parents in their early twenties. From the start, Whittley made all sorts of promises about how she had turned her life around. We wanted to believe her, but we were not delusional. I expected her to fall into the wrong crowd or start making poor choices again. I prepared myself for some tough love and set boundaries right off the bat. Our biggest rule, our one deal breaker, was simple. If she wanted to live with us, she had to stay in school.
The honeymoon period with Whittley ended quickly. The principal’s office called and called and called with one behavior problem after another. Whittley always told a completely different story than her teacher, so figuring out the truth was exhausting. Emily had known Whittley long enough to be onto her game. She knew that every authority figure in her life had let her slide through with a slap on the wrist unless she did something truly inexcusable, like punching someone.
We decided early on to stop that cycle once and for all. We didn’t care how small the offense was, there were going to be consequences. Once we grounded her from her phone. Another time we took away her TV so she could only watch shows with us in our living room. The party was over, and Whittley was furious. However, slowly she started to adjust to the new accountability. It was all worth it as she graduated on time in the spring!
Whittley was just the beginning. We accepted a sibling group of four girls the following year, four months away from our wedding. The girls arrived on December 26. The only clothes they had were what they were wearing. All four each only brought one Christmas present. They left everything else behind. I found out later that their aunt purposely didn’t send anything for fear that whoever they were placed with would steal their belongings. Luckily, we already had piles of presents waiting for them. We expected them to be emotional messes after leaving their family, their grandpa passing away, and all they had endured. We braced ourselves for the worst, but surprisingly, they were excited to be here.
All of this was just the beginning. There was no getting around it—having five kids was crazy, but we loved it. There were so many moments when we threw up our hands and prayed, God, I need you right now because I absolutely cannot do this alone. But even in the midst of the insanity, we felt this overwhelming sense of peace. We knew God brought us these girls for a reason, and I was determined to give them all the love and help they needed.
Becoming a foster parent was the best thing I have ever done. It has given us so much purpose and reason for being alive.
We still don’t know what our family will always look like, but we could not be more excited about five permanent additions. Whittley, who has been part of Emily’s life for more than a decade, officially became our daughter in December 2018. The four sisters that were placed with us officially became our daughters in February 2019. Now, through the beautiful gift of adoption, our relationship is officially recognized by law.
We have fostered 18 children in all. We are currently fostering a little two-year-old boy that we hope to adopt.
By now it’s safe to say we have no idea what the future holds. If the past is any indicator, it won’t look anything like what we imagine even now. God’s plans are always bigger and better than our own. We can’t wait to see how God uses us next.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Chris Norton. You can his family journey on his website, Facebook, and Instagram. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
Read Sara’s backstory:
‘Isn’t it strange parenting a teen who isn’t much younger than you?’ My adopted son and I are 13 years apart, but to him, I’m just mom.’: Mom fosters 17 children, ‘They are all so worthy of love’
‘This isn’t the place for me. I just don’t fit in.’ He didn’t want to be adopted. We were broken.’: After foster heartbreak, couple adopt teenage boy, ‘He was given to us in our most desperate hour’
‘You’re asking me to take in a 15-year-old teenager who is about to give birth?’ This is not what we signed up for.’: Couple become grandparents at 35, ‘She made our life better’
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