By Keysha Drexel
For several years, Denver Nolin would struggle with how he could make a real difference in the lives of the thousands of children he encountered around the world in need of stable, loving homes.
In his jobs as a pilot with the U.S. Air Force, the Air Force Reserves and FedEx, Denver said he always wanted to bring the children trapped in poverty and abuse back home to Inverness with him.
“I saw a lot of pain and suffering brought on children by the bad decisions of adults and I wanted to do something, I just didn’t know what I could do, and it was a question that I asked myself over and over,” he said.
On a mission trip to Venezuela, Denver got an answer to that question that changed his life.
He and his wife, Susan, took their daughters, Katie and Sara, on a mission trip to the South American country about seven years ago.
“Katie at that time thought that she wanted to be a missionary, so I wanted to show her what she would be up against, so the whole family went down to Venezuela,” he said.
The family worked in poverty-stricken areas in Venezuela, including the city dump where children were searching through the garbage for food.
After they left the city dump and were talking about what they had just seen, and during a conversation with one of the orphanage officials, Denver said he had an epiphany.
“I said something to Susan to the effect that it breaks your heart that you can’t help all of the orphans, and she looked me in the eye and told me, ‘You can help one,’ and I thought there was no way I could argue with that,” Denver said.
Susan said the mission trip to Venezuela was a turning point for the whole family.
“It really changed our focus as a family, and we started talking about how we can make a difference in a child’s life through adoption,” she said. “A lot of our friends thought we were crazy because the girls were older and we were on the verge of being empty-nesters when we started talking about adoption.”
But just because the Nolins were ready to welcome a new addition to the family didn’t mean they were ready to go back to the days of diapers and bottles, Susan said.
“We didn’t want to start over with a baby, and we knew that there were a lot of older children looking for a family,” she said.
The Nolins first considered international adoption.
“We had friends who had adopted from the Ukraine so we starting pursuing that, but the door shut on that option pretty quickly, and emotionally, I felt like a pinball being bounced back and forth,” Susan said.
But one day Susan was reading an issue of the Over the Mountain Journal while waiting on Katie and Sara to get out of ballet class and saw an article on older children in the state’s foster care system.
“In that moment, I realized that if we were going to make a difference in a child’s life that we were going to have to be open to God’s plan and pay attention to where he was leading us as a family,” Susan said.
Susan shared the article with Denver, and he talked to an Air Force buddy in Montgomery about the process of adopting a child from the foster care system.
“He told me about all of the children here in Alabama that need a home and about the older kids who have nothing to hope for but to ‘age out’ of the system so they can take care of themselves,” Denver said.
The couple did some research and found out about the Children’s Aid Society, an organization that partners with the state Department of Human Resources to help find homes for older children.
“We took the GPS, (or Group Preparation and Selection) classes that you have to go through if you want to adopt, and then we started the home study process,” Denver said.
The family visited Heart Gallery Alabama’s online gallery of the more than 500 children in the state’s foster care system available for adoption.
“Then one day, we saw this smiling little face on the computer screen, and we called to find out more about Heather,” Susan said.
Heather, who was 11 at the time, had been bounced around from one foster home to the next for most of her life.
“We were waiting on the call to tell us that we could come and meet Heather, but instead, we got a phone call that the foster family she was staying with wanted to adopt her,” Susan said. “That was a day that sent me into a fetal position because I thought I was getting ready to meet my new daughter.”
It was when they were faced with losing the daughter they had never met that the family said their attitude about adoption shifted.
“We realized that in adopting, we weren’t rescuing a child,” Denver said. “We realized that it was God’s plan to show us that we needed Heather as much as she needed us.”
The family’s heartbreak over not being able to adopt Heather was suddenly lifted a few months later when they received another call from DHR officials.
“They said they were calling about a placement, and my heart kind of sank because I didn’t know if we were ready to go through those emotions again,” Susan said. “But then they told me they were calling about Heather and that her adoption by the foster family had fallen through and she needed an emergency placement.”
In order to be qualified for emergency foster care placement, Susan and Denver had to complete CPR classes.
“We took CPR classes that Saturday, and by Monday, Heather was walking through our door,” Susan said.
The couple enlisted help from Katie and Sara in order to get everything ready for Heather’s arrival.
“For Katie and I, the whole thing happened really fast. We spent the weekend rushing around trying to get Heather’s room ready. It was kind of crazy, but it was fun because we were excited about Heather joining our family,” Sara said.
The night before Heather’s arrival, Denver sat at the end of Sara’s bed and talked about the changes ahead for their family.
“It was a big deal, and I kind of had the same feeling I had when they handed me Katie in the hospital after she was born,” Denver said. “I was struck by that feeling again that I would be responsible for someone else’s life.”
Susan said she and Heather bonded pretty quickly as they spent time together getting her enrolled in school, going to doctors’ appointments and getting ready for her first Christmas with the family.
“She came in the middle of December, so we had to rush out and buy some presents so that she would have something under the Christmas tree,” Susan said. “Her favorite place to eat at that time was McDonald’s, so I think I took her there every day during that first week. I wanted her to feel at home.”
While Heather immediately bonded with Susan, it took more time for Heather to feel out her relationship with Denver, she said.
“I had never really been in a family where there was a dad, where the dad was the leader of the family, and I had to get used to that,” she said. “It took a while for me to trust that he really loved me and wanted to be my father.”
Denver said parenting Heather offered him a challenge he hadn’t faced with Katie and Sara.
“With Heather, I was sitting there trying to teach values that my older children had already kind of absorbed, and it was hard to cram all that teaching into a short amount of time,” he said.
A turning point in the father-daughter relationship came when the family visited Disney World and went on an excursion to swim with manatees.
“Heather was really struggling in the water, and she was afraid to get in with the manatees. I was in the water trying to convince her that it was okay to jump, much like I had done with Katie and Sara when they first learned to jump into my arms at the pool, and it dawned on me that she had no point of reference for trust, that unlike Katie and Sara, she had no reason to trust me,” Denver said. “But I kept telling Heather it would be okay, and finally, she did it, she got in the water and started swimming with the manatees, and I knew it was a big moment for both of us.”
But just because they had bonded with Heather didn’t mean that the transition to an expanded family was without its growing pains, Denver said.
“It was a different family dynamic than we were used to, and we weren’t used to our daughters challenging us or acting out, and there were a lot of ‘Well, I haven’t seen that one before’ parenting moments with Heather in the beginning,” he said. “She was still trying to figure out her place in the family, what a family really was, and so we went through some tough times.”
But those tough times ultimately made the family stronger, Susan said.
“It has made us stronger as a family and stronger in our faith,” she said. “Some of these kids have been in the foster care system their whole lives and they don’t know anything about unconditional love, and their hearts are closed down from being stepped on so many times.”
The family went to counseling and consulted other experts but said the real difference came when they surrendered their problems to God, Susan said.
“One of the biggest things we had to come to grips with for Heather was that Denver and I had to come to the realization that we couldn’t fix it, the experts couldn’t fix it, only God could fix it,” she said.
The result of their faith that God could help Heather has been nothing short of miraculous, Susan said.
“We have seen a changed heart, a broken soul bloom in the arms of a Holy God,” she said. “It has been an amazing privilege to be a part of this.”
Heather said this Father’s Day, like every Father’s Day since she became a Nolin, will be a time for celebration.
“I buy Dad gifts for every holiday and want to do something special for him at Father’s Day,” she said. “He’s my dad and I love him, and I want him to know that, always.”