By Keysha Drexel
For most families, the month of November is special because Thanksgiving gives them the time to gather around the table and be grateful for having each other.
But November is especially worthy of celebration for one Riverchase family because of the journey that led to them all being able to come together this Thanksgiving.
For Jessica Rainer, the mother of two adopted daughters, National Adoption Month in November is a cause to count her blessings.
Rainer adopted 11-year-old Samantha and 10-year-old Lizzie Dills when they were just 4 and 5 years old from the state foster care system.
“We are so thankful for our family that God pieced together so perfectly,” Rainer said. “We are also thankful for second chances and new beginnings. We are truly blessed.”
Rainer and her ex-husband, Jonathan Dills, adopted the girls six years ago with the help of Alabama Pre/Post Adoptions Connections, or APAC. The statewide program is a collaborative effort between Children’s Aid Society and the Alabama Department of Human Resources.
Founded 100 years ago, Children’s Aid Society works not only to match children with adoptive parents but also to offer counseling and social work programs.
The goal of the APAC program and Children’s Aid Society is to help the hundreds of children in the state who are waiting to find a “forever home” like Samantha and Lizzie found, said Theresa Cook, a pre-adoption specialist with Children’s Aid Society.
“Alabama has more than 700 children waiting to be adopted from foster care,” Cook said. “Of those children, approximately 260 have no ‘forever family’ resource identified.”
Complicating matters is the fact that older children are more difficult to place with adoptive families, Cook said.
“Most of these children are ages 8 and above or are part of a sibling group of three that may have emotional, mental or physical challenges,” Cook said. “These children are harder to place.”
Samantha and Lizzie, who are biological sisters, had been in the foster care system for about four years before they were matched with Rainer.
Rainer grew up in Guntersville and graduated from Auburn University with a bachelor’s degree in human development and family studies in 2002. She then went back to school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and earned a degree in nursing in 2007.
The UAB nurse said she always knew that she wanted her family to be a mix of biological and adopted children. In addition to Samantha and Lizzie, she also has a biological daughter, 4-year-old Lilah.
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a passion for foster care and adoption,” Rainer said. “When it was time to start a family, I knew I wanted to go through the foster care system, and I knew I wanted older children because they are harder to place.”
Rainer has a sister who is four years older than she and a brother 14 years younger.
“It was just me and my sister, for the most part, growing up, and I remember wanting a big family. It just seemed like a lot of fun–a lot of chaos, but a lot of fun,” she said.
Rainer said as a Christian, she believes adopting children is part of her journey in faith.
“In many ways, adoption is living out my beliefs as a Christian,” she said. “One of my favorite passages of scripture is James 1:27 that says ‘Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to care for the orphans and widows in their distress.'”
Rainer said the approval process for becoming an adoptive parent seemed endless.
“At times, I grew frustrated waiting for the child I wanted to adopt to come home,” she said. “I just kept the faith that the child or children who needed me would find me.”
A few months after the approval process was complete, Rainer received the call she had been waiting for.
“One January morning at 11 a.m., I was painting my kitchen ceiling, of all things, and I received a call from our social worker telling me that there were two little girls sitting at the Shelby County Department of Human Resources that needed a home,” she said.
Rainer and her husband at the time had expected that they would adopt one child at a time and had prepared a room for a 10-year-old boy they had hoped to adopt.
“I happily broke out the paintbrush to paint over the tan walls and went out and bought another twin bed,” she said. “Just like that, I was a mother of two beautiful little girls.”
Samantha and Lizzie’s biological parents still had rights when the girls were placed with Rainer, so for nine months, the new mother had no idea how long the girls would be with her.
“That was tough. I remember being out and seeing parents with their children and thinking how lucky they were because they knew that those children would get to be with them forever,” she said.
But by the time their first Thanksgiving as a family rolled around, Samantha and Lizzie’s biological parents had signed over their rights, and the path was clear for Rainer to adopt the girls.
“It was a really special Thanksgiving for us that year,” Rainer said.
Samantha and Lizzie said they remember bits and pieces of their first few months in their new home with Rainer.
“I remember I was pretty shy at first, but I always have felt like this is where I should have been all along,” Samantha said.
Lizzie said she knows there are a lot of children who aren’t has fortunate as she and her sister.
“To actually have a family that cares for you is what I’m thankful for,” Lizzie said. “A lot of kids out there never find a family, and I feel lucky that I found mine.”
Samantha is a sixth-grader at Berry Middle School, and Lizzie is in the fourth grade at Riverchase Elementary School. Both girls said they share their adoption story with their friends at school.
“When I was in the fifth grade, there were three other girls who were in foster care or had been adopted, so it was good to talk to them because we understand each other,” Samantha said.
Samantha said that when she grows up, she’s going to adopt five kids and have five biological kids.
“I keep telling her that’s wonderful–just rethink those numbers,” her mother said, laughing.
But Samantha said she is very serious about sharing her story in hopes that it will inspire more adults to adopt older children and children from the state’s foster care system.
“I would like to tell people to think about how the child feels that is waiting to be adopted,” Samantha said. “When a child gets adopted, they feel like there’s actually someone who loves them and cares about them and wants them. That makes the child feel good about themselves and it makes them happy, and that’s just awesome.”
Rainer said she hopes more families will consider adopting from the state foster care system.
“It’s been glamorized by Hollywood stars to go off to other countries and adopt children, and I’m all for giving any child in need a good home, but I hope people realize the number of children right here in our country and in our state who need a good home.”
Rainer said she read recently on an adoption resources website that there are more than 100,000 children in the U.S. foster care system.
“With over 300,000 churches in America, simple math shows you that it would take less than one individual or family per church to eradicate the orphan population,” she said. “Every child deserves a forever family.”
Samantha and Lizzie’s “forever family” recently expanded, giving them one more reason to celebrate in November.
Their mom married Drew Rainer, a nurse at Shelby Baptist Medical Center, on Nov. 9.
“To have all of us under one roof at Thanksgiving is going to be a big blessing,” Drew Rainer said.
For more information on the need for adoptive homes and the services offered through Children’s Aid Society, visit www.childrensaid.org or call 251-7148.