The Gerardis were an ordinary family – that typical American Dream family – mom, dad, son, daughter. But it didn’t feel complete. They knew something else was out there, waiting for them.
“I really can’t explain why,” Larry Gerardi said of why they decided to go through the fostering and adoption systems.
When they first met, Paula, his wife, was lukewarm on having children. Over time, she softened to the idea. She then raised the idea of adopting – so many kids need homes, she reasoned; no reason to add to the global population.
But in 2009 they welcomed their son, Collin, who wasn’t exactly planned for or expected. A year later, they had Madelynn.
They went to church – Christ Fellowship – one Sunday and heard a plea for foster families.
“There are so many children,” Paula said. So many, in fact, that some are sent out of the county to a spare bed. So many that siblings are often torn from each other due to the lack of space.
“It was just really, really important to us and weighed on our hearts,” Paula said.
They discussed. They prayed. They went through the program and became a licensed foster family.
“It’s been an incredible journey,” she said. Of the numerous children they’ve had come into their homes, they ultimately adopted four – three of whom are siblings.
Their quintessential family of four doubled.
Emma was 14 months old when the Gerardis, who live in St. Lucie West, adopted her out of the foster care system. Her parents’ “demons are bigger than they can handle,” Paula said, explaining that Emma’s birth mother lives in Virginia Beach and her father, a veteran, has PTSD.
Emma was the third child to be placed in the Gerardis’ care. She was 5 months old and had a host of medical challenges including fetal alcoholism. She had been in the hospital non-stop before finally being medically cleared for foster care.
“She should be just fine,” Paula recalls being told when Emma arrived. That wasn’t exactly the case, but the Gerardis rose to the occasion, helping Emma to overcome.
“She can eat a New York strip steak and two pieces of pizza before you do!” Paula said of Emma, who turns 3 in December. “She’s thriving.”
The medical challenges they faced with Emma were not enough to deter the Gerardis from continuing to open their home and hearts to foster children.
In May 2016, sisters Dakota and Autumn arrived, having been abandoned and medically neglected by their mother. Neither had any established medical history, no immunizations.
Dakota, who was 3 ½, lost her front teeth. They had snapped at the gum due to bottle rot. Neither child was verbal.
“All they had was baby babble,” Paula said.
The Gerardis were able to find a host of therapists, doctors and a dentist for the girls. Then, they discovered Autumn, then-18 months, was severely anemic. Test results identified a disease that causes her spleen to attack her red blood cells. She requires regular blood transfusions, and will until she’s 5, when her spleen can be removed.
Still, the girls’ challenges did not dissuade the Gerardis. They planned to adopt the girls. Then, they found out the girls’ mother had given birth to a baby boy. The boy was also placed into foster care – a different family.
The Department of Children and Families, however, wanted to keep all siblings together and approached the Gerardis about taking the baby.
“We couldn’t see it,” Paula said, recalling the possibility. Their 3-bed, 2-bath home was already seemingly bursting at the seams with five children and two adults.
They made their peace that the boy had his life in one foster home and the girls had theirs with the Gerardis.
Larry said they knew they were going to adopt the girls. But in order for that to happen, they were essentially told they’d have to take the boy, too.
“Let go and let God,” Paula said, recounting those discussions. They had decided to let the girls go, there was no way they could add another person – an infant no less – to their family.
That Sunday, the sermon was on Isaiah 54:2, which essentially says: “Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back.”
Paula said she and Larry looked at each other in that moment – “Looks like we’re getting a baby!”
“We went ahead full steam,” Paula said, explaining that the state required some paperwork that granted the Gerardis to expand to six children. The state allows for five.
The boy, whose name was changed to Isaiah, tested positive for the same disease as Autumn and also requires regular blood transfusions.
The Gerardis are quick to point out that the state covers the cost of the children’s extensive medical care, and provides a stipend that pretty much defrays the cost of the then-foster children.
And, now that they children are adopted, the four will receive free in-state college tuition, Larry said.
Over the 2 ½ years the Gerardis have been foster parents, they’ve welcomed 11 total children and said goodbye to seven of them. It’s one of the most frequent questions they get: How can they love these children and let them go? Don’t they get too attached?
“That’s the whole point,” Larry said – get attached, love the kids, mourn them leaving but know they are going back to a healthier family situation.
“We sacrifice our hearts” for these kids, he said.
The attachment, the trust, the bond forged between foster child and foster parent is what is integral to the child’s development, the healing needed after having been removed from their home.
Reunification is always the ultimate goal for children removed from their homes. But that isn’t always something that can happen. For those children, they might be bounced from foster home to home; or, in the case of the Gerardis, they are adopted.
There are currently 116 children in licensed foster care in St. Lucie County, according to Josh Kolkana, director of foster care with Place of Hope. They are dispersed among 71 homes.
Place of Hope and other agencies have endeavored to raise awareness for the need of more foster homes. He said they need at least 50 more beds to keep all St. Lucie County children in St. Lucie County.
St. Lucie is one of four counties in a group that allows children to flow from one area to another based on bed availability.
The goal, Kolkana said, is to place children near their birth home – provided doing so keeps them safe. By keeping them near, they could still attend their school, be able to see their friends.
“It’s their whole world,” he said of school, especially for those age 5 to 17.
Those interested in learning more about becoming a foster parent are encouraged to reach out to organizations such as Place of Hope and Devereux Florida Foster Care Program.
“People look as us like saints,” Paula said, quickly adding they are flawed human beings. “We’re just a family. We have good days – bad days and all the days in between.”
Who to call:
- Place of Hope: 561-775-7195;
- Devereux Florida Foster Care: 407-259-0056.