Picture this: A pastor and his wife decide they and their small congregation are going to do something about the number of children languishing in the foster care system in America. They believe that surely, in a nation of such great wealth, these children should have permanent homes.
Now this is a small church -- Bennett Chapel Baptist. And it's in the tiny town of Possum Trot, Texas -- a community of mostly working-class African-Americans who don't have loads of extra resources to make room for adopted children in their homes. Outsiders might have thought it best to first study the foster care system and seek solutions and resources to help ease these children out of foster care over time, and not get in a big hurry about it. Well, that's not the Possum Trot way.
"We just took something on without counting the cost of what it was going to be like," is the way Pastor W.C. Martin often explains it. He and his wife, Donna, set the example by adopting four children who had been raised in abusive homes. Then a few more of Bennett Chapel's families adopted children from foster-care and then dozens more. Today, a decade after the Martins' mission began, 72 children have been permanently adopted by the families of Possum Trot, with more still considering adoption.
At the outset, Donna Martin told the families in the congregation that these children would come to them with challenges, since many were severely abused before they arrived in foster care, and many more had been passed over for adoption time and time again.
"We felt called to give to those totally neglected, told they would never amount to anything," she said. "And those are the kids we have taken in."
Some of these children had been raped as toddlers. Some were burned with scalding water, or with cigarettes; some were starved; some were locked in lightless rooms; some were abandoned. Many were beaten, and all were deprived of the kind of love that allows a child to feel safe.
Today, the Martins say their adopted children --Terri, Joshua, Tyler and Mercedes -- are happy, healthy, successful, loving kids. But it has not been easy, Donna Martin readily admits. She herself was raised by loving parents, in a home where she and her siblings delighted in the company of their mother and father. Donna had no reference point for dealing with children who were emotionally and physically scarred by parents with no idea of how to love and care for their children.
"It's been rocky. It's been tough," she said. "I thought, you know, bringing them into a loving environment, dressing them up, taking them to Sunday school and the movies, letting them run and play, kissing them at bedtime," all this would be enough.
Not so. It has often been "Five steps forward, 25 steps back, but," she quickly added, "absolutely, without a doubt it has been worth it. They're beginning to learn that they have goals and standards, and can choose to do positive things." That is evident watching the Martin children with their parents; the hugs come easily, the banter is familiar and gentle, and there is the subtle self-discipline of children comfortable in their parents' love and their family's routines.
"We talk about anything," Mercedes said. "We're very close."