Four Moms with Very Unique Families
There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to what the definition of what a family really is. It means something different to everyone. For some, the American standard of a mother, a father and 2.3 children epitomizes what a family looks like For others, it is a community of individuals that support one another and love each other, whether related or not. Our family dynamics and situations change throughout the course of our lives and we have to adjust accordingly. Some of us choose to sustain the status quo, while others choose to go out on a limb, catching everyone they touch in their web of love and calling them, “family”.
Sharing her family with two girls who needed one brings her twice the joy.
Pulling up to the home of Cindy and Steve Graves, the scene looks pretty idyllic. Steve is playing catch with his son in the front yard, and two teenage girls are trying to corral two petite, dark-haired little girls, while Cindy watches over her beautiful family. Upon meeting them all, you realize that they are all as kind and gracious as they look, as they welcome you to their home and begin to tell their story.
“There were 3,100 children in foster care in Bexar County in 2017,” Cindy tells me as we sit on the patio watching the kids play in the backyard. San Antonio’s foster system is in crisis and there is a huge need for families to step up and help out. There is a huge opportunity for families to step in and love children. “There is no greater blessing than watching a child whose growth and development has been stunted by abuse and neglect begin to blossom as they are loved and nurtured.”
Three years ago, Steve, a pastor at Shearer Hills Baptist Church, and his wife, Cindy, decided to go through the foster program to become a certified foster family. They both felt strongly that they were being called to help children in need, and that their family of five had enough room, and enough love, to gift their family to a child without a one.
The need for foster families here in San Antonio is dire, and the need for services and organizations that support foster families is critical as well. Shearer Hills is one church here in San Antonio that offers such support with programs like their Foster Parents Night Out. Caregivers for foster children must also be certified through the foster care program, just like the foster families themselves, so it is very difficult to find help when a parent just needs a break, or needs to be away from their foster child.
With the help of many in her church, Cindy started a foster care ministry called Kits for Kids. They put together care packages for children who are pulled from their home situations and taken into the custody of Child Protective Services. The kits consist of duffle bags with a Bible, a stuffed animal, toiletries and a gift card for a free meal from local Chick-fil-A restaurants.
“When children are removed from abuse or neglect, they are often give a trash bag to pack their belongings. Providing them a real bag of their own is a small way we can communicate love and value to them in a tragic time of their lives,” says Cindy.
When the Graves’ received their first call about a foster child in need, they were informed that there were twin baby sisters in dire need of a stable, loving environment. They had not originally anticipated fostering more than one child but in foster care training classes learned about the need for families to take sibling groups to prevent siblings from being separated after removal. When they heard about the situation of these five month old twins their hearts melted and they said yes immediately. The family’s other children, Ashlyn, then 11, Rebekah, age 9, and Samuel, age 4, were onboard immediately, and welcomed the babies into their home with open arms. Ashlyn says that she did worry about becoming too attached to their new sisters, knowing that they could be placed back into their original home at any time, but she, and her sister and brother, stepped in to help care for these sweet babies, because they knew it was a privilege to love them even if for a short time.
There were supervised visits with the girls’ biological parents, and a trial through which the courts had to decide whether to reunite them with their original family, but in the end, the parental rights were terminated, and the Graves’ were free to pursue the adoption process. It took two and a half years of red tape and their faith in God to get through the legal process, but today Cindy and Steve Graves will smile warmly and tell you about their five beautiful children. “We knew that the risk was high, that we would get attached to kids and then they would be placed with their biological family. But the risk is worth it, because it’s not about us: it’s about the need that so many kids in the city have for a family. We committed to be a family for some kids who needed one whether that was for 6 months, a year or forever. It’s such a blessing to us to get to be our daughters’ forever family.”
Having a large family, of course, comes with its own set of challenges, and the Graves’ have had to adjust accordingly. Cindy homeschools her children, and the older girls are very hands-on with the care of the twins. Everyone pitches in to help out, and they have created a system that seems to work for them.
Cindy continues to work to spread awareness of the crisis here in our own city, and when she speaks about the need to attract more people willing to foster a child, she states, “You don’t need to be perfect. You just need to have a desire to love kids.” A high percentage of the kids that “age out” of the foster care system wind up incarcerated, because they don’t have the stability, nor the support system, to become a productive member of society, so being there for child in need, not only has the ability to improve a life, it also has the ability to impact the lives of everyone in the community.
“If you want to change the trajectory of this country, then choose to step in and love a child in need,” Cindy states with passion. There is a way that everyone can get involved at some level, and her message of hope, and the example that her family is setting, will hopefully become contagious in a city that is in desperate need of a little more love.
Raising three sets of twins means double the love x3.
Most of us grew up knowing at least one set of twins, whether they were identical or just fraternal. Twins are unique, as are any multiples, and we’ve all heard stories of mistaken or swapped identities, twins that play tricks on teachers and parents, and how twins can be intimately tied to one another’s emotions and personalities. Twins can be a joy and a challenge at the same time, and they often run in a family’s line, but it is very uncommon to find multiple twins in the same family, unless you are the Tawil family.
Gabriela and Jimmy Tawil met in Laredo and began a difficult relationship fraught with cultural differences. Jimmy is Syrian and Jewish, and grew up in Laredo. Gabriela was an ambitious Catholic lady fresh out of college. She also grew up in Laredo and returned to work for General Motors in her hometown after earning her business degree from Notre Dame. Gabriela also earned her master’s degree in Logistics from Texas A&M in Laredo. The two dated for 7 years before they married. Before they decided to get married Gabriela began her studies to convert to Judaism. Once they decided to marry, her parents and many people in San Antonio knew about the marriage, but they hid it from his parents for three years. However surprised their families might have been by this unlikely union, there were many more surprises to come in the lives of the Tawil family.
Today, Gabriela and Jimmy have been married for 19 years, and together they juggle schedules and chauffeur their six children between sports practices and games, violin lessons and various local children’s camps. There are three sets of twins in the Tawil family, and although this makes for a lively household, they are making it work with a lot of patience, a little help and a lot of love. The oldest twins are Jakob and Elliott. They are 16 years old and are excited to get their first cars. Athletic boys, they are also your typical big brothers, playing pranks on their younger siblings and generally testing their parents as all teenagers do. In the middle of the tribe are Olivia and Tevia, their bright and energetic 9-year-old daughters. Making up the tail end of the Tawil family are Avi and Lazar, the only set of twins that are identical. They are adorable 7-year-old boys who love their video games and are constantly keeping the rest of the family on their toes.
The older boys attend Alamo Heights High School, and the younger kids attend The Eleanor Kolitz Hebrew Language Academy, where Gabriela established EKHLA Athletics and Enrichment Programming in 2013. She also does marketing, development and fundraising for the school. She feels strongly that her children learn as much as they can about their religion and they actively practice the customs of the Jewish faith. This summer, Jakob and Elliott will have the opportunity to participate in a five-week trip to Israel, where they will study the history and the sacred lands of their heritage.
During their busy week, Jimmy is in commercial real estate and also runs a toy import/export company out of Laredo. He commutes down there on Tuesday mornings, returning on Friday to a family excited to have him home, as they plan their even busier weekends. The couple usually tag teams the driving duties on the weekends, as they chauffeur the children to soccer games and other sporting events, but they somehow seem to get it all done. Gabriella is incredibly organized and one peek into their garage confirms this. The bicycles are neatly lined up and ready to ride, and she has laundry down to a science. The older boys are great at helping out their younger brothers, when they aren’t teasing them or chasing them around, and the family does have some help during the week.
Theirs is a house is full of love and laughter, and every Friday night they gather to chat about their week and to celebrate Shabbat with a seated family dinner. This is a rare occasion with so many different activities throughout the week, but the Tawil’s love of family is palpable.
Gina Francis Hughes
Blending two families has been her recipe for happiness.
No one will argue that blending families is a challenging endeavor, and some do it better than others. Many of us remember that famous sitcom from the seventies depicting the chaos of life when a man with three sons marries a woman with three daughters. We watched every week as they solved problems together, learned to respect one another, and find common ground as they merged one family with its own traditions and idiosyncrasies, with another family who had their own way of doing things. It wasn’t always pretty, but in the end, their love for one another prevailed and they just made it work.
Such is the story of Gina and John Hughes, who live in a beautiful and historic home in the King William District. John lived in College Station when he met the vivacious Gina online. They started their relationship with John, his 2 daughters and their lab, Bella driving back and forth from College Station for 18 months intentionally getting to know one another. “We both knew it wasn’t just about John and me getting to know each other, but John, me, 7 kids, and 2 dogs getting to know each other. We gave it our best shot to see if we thought we could see ourselves combining our families one day,” said Gina.
Gina is a financial advisor for Edward Jones in Alamo Heights, and the mother of five children. John is a tech consultant for a software company and has three children of his own, but that didn’t scare either of them, as their relationship grew. They married in February of 2016 and John made the move to San Antonio with his daughters, Samantha, now a sophomore at Texas A&M, and Claire, a junior at TMI. John’s oldest daughter, Elly, is 26 and is married and living in Southern California.
Gina states, “If I try to do everything for our kids, would I send the message that I don’t trust my kids to succeed on their own? I know they’ll succeed and fail. I want all our kids to know I believe in them and trust them. When they do succeed, they know it’s based on their own merit not mine. Both of our hearts are full.” Gina’s oldest daughter, Julia Grace, is currently a freshman at SMU in Dallas. She recently took a “gap year” to spend time teaching English in Ecuador. Trinity, a senior at TMI, will be following in her big sister’s footsteps next year, as she takes a year off to volunteer in Argentina. Rounding out the crew are Celeste, age 14 and a self-proclaimed “science nerd”, attending The Keystone School, and the twins, Anna Clare and Chance, age 12, attending The Keystone School and San Antonio Academy respectively.
Gina and John are proud of the fact that all of the children are independent and resourceful. By age 8, the kids do their own laundry, make their breakfast and pack school lunches, keep their rooms clean and the list grows from there as they’ve gotten older. I have 4 kids who participate in the JROTC. There are uniforms, medals, corps knowledge, special teams, leadership positions. I don’t know anything about it intentionally, so they can own their successes. Everyone pitches in with household chores on the weekends, even if the chores aren’t always equally divided. Some days someone will put in more work than the others, and some days you get the easy jobs, just like life. They don’t micromanage the children. Instead they encourage their independence. Gina states, “If you don’t give them a chance to fail, they don’t learn that it’s OK to fail, and to try harder to do better.”
Trying to get everyone to their various activities throughout the week can sometimes be challenging, but it’s only logistics, nothing an excel spreadsheet and calendar can’t handle.
The older girls in the house drive themselves to school, while Gina takes the younger ones to their schools on her way to work in the mornings. John works from home, so he is usually tasked with pick-up. On the weekends, it is a whirlwind of sporting events, track meets and other hobbies, but they make it work, and continue to support each other along the way.
One of their biggest challenges is spending quality time together. When there’s so much to do with work, and life, and logistics, and church, and I’m spread thin between so many kids, and buying groceries and keeping gas tanks full, time connecting is sparse. Building meaningful relationships within our family and nurturing my kids is what I value most. John’s and my relationship is still formative. We are both intentional, so we have our own time and supporting one another which takes time and love over and over. We are still in the honeymoon phase, not your typical honeymoon, but we are having so much fun and loving life even though there are a lot of moving pieces.
One of the new traditions that they came up with, in order to stay connected with one another during their incredibly busy lives, is to discuss the “Highs and Lows” at dinner when they can all get together. It was Chance’s idea that everyone should take a turn to tell the family what was great about his or her day, and what was not so great. This allows everyone to become invested in each other. They congratulate one another when it is merited, and they console and encourage each other when it is needed. Celeste stated that, “At the end of the day, everyone cheers me on. Everyone lifts each other up. It’s nice to know that so many people love you.” Gina insists on eating dinner together as a family every weeknight even if dinner is late. Friday nights are chocolate chip pancake dinner and family movie nights. Everyone loves having friends over for dinner or big parties and they all pitch in to cook, decorate, set the table and clean up.
The children have become very close to one another, and all of them have found a way, not only to coexist, but to thrive as one big family. Just three years ago, there were nine people living under one roof, who barely knew each other, and since then, the older ones have moved on to college, international adventures and lives of their own. Isn’t this the goal of parenthood, though? John and Gina, together, are a force to be reckoned with, and you can tell how much they value teamwork by the way that they interact, tell their stories and support each other. Every family unit is unique. There is no “normal” when it comes to relationships. Anyone spending time in the Hughes household can feel the synergy, borne from love and respect, that they have created.
She answered the calling and her love has changed the course for eight children.
Families come in many different shapes and sizes. People do not need to be related in order to forge a bond so strong that the only way to describe the relationship is “family”. People walk through our lives every day. Some stay and become precious to us, while others pass through, serve their purpose and move on. We never know where those who become dear to our hearts will come from, but for one San Antonio woman and her husband, their lives would be changed profoundly by an organization trying to make a difference in the lives of children with special needs and an article in People magazine.
The couple adopted their son, Copeland, now 17 years old, in 2002, and raised him as they lived and worked; a happy little San Antonio family. David is an accountant for a construction company, and Stephanie found her calling when she was teaching at McArthur High School, where she met a student named Ben, who had Down syndrome Ben charmed and enchanted Stephanie, and she brought up the idea of adopting a baby with Down syndrome to add to their family. At first, David was not on board with the idea, but over time, he warmed to it, and they adopted Silas, as an infant, from foster care in 2008. Raising a child with Down syndrome comes with many rewards and challenges, and Stephanie threw herself into researching the best ways to care for him, and what other families were doing to enhance the lives of the children they loved with this condition.
It was then that Stephanie came across a People magazine article in 2010 about an organization called Reece’s Rainbow. Launched in 2004, by Andrea Roberts and with Michelle Zoromski serving as executive director, this non-profit organization helps families with grant money so that they can afford to adopt children with Down syndrome. Reece’s Rainbow’s mission is to help place children with Down syndrome, from around the world, with willing and loving American and Canadian families. Stephanie became an advocate and learned about the plight of children born with the disorder in countries like Ukraine. There, babies with Down syndrome are often abandoned and left at orphanages, where the neglect and abuse are horrifying. Stephanie was so struck by this information, and felt compelled to do something, but with two small children of her own, she didn’t know what that would be. So, she and David prayed on it and hoped that the answers would come.
Stephanie and David spent many months of prayer, counsel and talking Copeland to make sure he understood and was on board with the decision. They finally decided in 2011 they were called to adopt from Ukraine. Stephanie and David set out to adopt three children with Down syndrome and bring them back to Texas to join their family. It took two trips to Ukraine, many weeks of waiting and wading through political paperwork, to grow their family of four to a burgeoning family of seven. That first adoption trip brought home Teague, now 12, Trenton, now 10, and Maclayne, also age 10. Most American mothers prepare for almost a year to bring home their newborn, but Stephanie and David became the parents of one toddler and two infants with special needs all at once.
The family struggled to find a system that worked for everyone, but they figured it out and even thrived. Teague, Trenton and Maclayne grew and adjusted well to life in America, where they were fed properly and loved every day. They were given proper medical attention, and eventually given the proper accommodations to begin school. Stephanie also continued to stay active in the Reece’s Rainbow community, talking to other adoptive parents and forging friendships. The family also leaned on the resources of their church, and over the next few years they settled into a routine that worked for everyone.
However, in 2012 the BBC produced a documentary on the orphan crisis in Ukraine and how babies with special needs were being abandoned and left to the overcrowded and underfunded orphanages, where neglect and abuse were the norm. This sparked a fire in the heart of not only Stephanie but Copeland too, and with the support of David, family, friends and their church, she set out once again in 2015 to Ukraine while David stayed home to care for their children and work, to save three more lives. This second journey to Eastern Europe was more arduous however, and Stephanie spent three long months crisscrossing the country to adopt Chesnie, now 20, located in a horrible orphanage in Eastern Ukraine, Rawlen, now five years old, located in Kyiv, and Bowen, now 15, housed in Western Ukraine. The journey between eastern and western Ukraine was 20 hours by train, and Stephanie would make the journey several times while her adoption papers were being processed.
While she was away, several people from their church stepped in to help the Barnett family. One family even took in Trenton and Teague while Stephanie was in Ukraine. It wouldn’t be the last time that her church became a saving grace for this family either. One morning, while rushing to get everyone ready for the day, Stephanie tripped while carrying one of the babies and fell down the stairs where she sets out each child’s outfit for the day. She shattered her back and had to be hospitalized for four separate back surgeries followed by two separate in-patient rehab stays. Stephanie, never one to ask for help, tried to do more that she was physically capable of and was finally told by her doctor that she needed to stay in bed or risk becoming permanently paralyzed. The next six months showed her what people who care are capable of, as members of her church brought food, mowed her yard, took in and watched the kids, and helped to maintain the home, while David worked. This made Stephanie uncomfortable, because like most supermoms, she was used to doing everything herself. It wasn’t until one of her friends told her, “Every time you deny us the blessing of helping you and your family, you don’t allow us to serve God by serving you.” This tested her faith, but in the end, she realized that, “accepting their help, was also accepting that God had her and her family in his care.”
Today, the house is full of laughter and activity. Stephanie and David do their best to make sure that every child feels loved, and they have great hopes that a few of the boys will one day be able to become semi-independent. Their love, tenacity, generous spirit and resolve to make a difference have, no doubt, saved the lives of those children who would have surely died in those Ukrainian orphanages. There are no programs for humans with special needs, and the horrors that await a child who “ages out” of the system are unspeakable.
The Barnett’s are stretched to their limits, but they are happy, and the children are thriving, knowing that they are loved and that they are safe. They have made more sacrifices than most of us can even imagine, and yet they feel that God will keep them going. With great friends, support from their church family and Reece’s Rainbow community, and programs that help them get the accommodations that they need, this incredibly special family has truly made a difference in the world.
Families create our foundation in life. Where we come from, and those who love us early in our lives, will have a profound impact on our futures. Love is the common bond that makes us thrive as human beings, and it is the thread that allows these families to succeed. I think we can all agree that the world would be a better place if we lived by the spirit that these four families embody. We could all use a little more love.
By Meredith Kay
Photography by Jason Roberts