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Ad Council - Adopt US Kids

The first time John and Jane Thomas met three of their kids, they saw so many camera flashes, it felt like the paparazzi were there.

But this wasn’t a newborn photo shoot. It was a meeting in a chain restaurant, and the kids — Jonathan, Alaina, and Isaiah — were 10-, 13-, and 14-year-old siblings who had lived in foster care for most of their lives. Until they met John and Jane, they’d moved around from home to home, and Jonathan, the youngest of the three, was often separated from his older siblings.

John and Jane didn’t plan on taking any pictures at this first meeting because, more than anything else, they wanted the siblings to feel comfortable with them.


But as soon as they opened the door to the restaurant, that plan changed.

“For five minutes, we could not see because [the kids] took like a hundred pictures,” John remembers fondly.

All images provided by the Thomas family.

These kids were so thrilled to meet their prospective parents that they wanted to document every moment of it.

And they weren’t the only ones who were excited.

John had always wanted to adopt, and when he suggested it to Jane after they married in 2006, she got on board right away.

At first, the Pennsylvania couple looked for a child who was between 3 and 5 years old. But in 2007, a family member of Jane's contacted them about a soon-to-be-born baby in need of a family. So they adopted Jordan, the first child they would adopt together. They were in the delivery room when Jordan was born, and John cut his new baby’s umbilical cord.

Soon afterwards, they contacted an adoption agency to resume their search for a 3- to 5-year-old. But that all changed when their case worker asked, “Have you ever thought about teens?”

They hadn’t considered teens before, and because of the huge need for homes for teens in foster care, their case worker suggested they think about it.

After doing some research, John and Jane learned that every year in the United States, more than 20,000 children age out of the foster care system — and immediately face high risks of homelessness, incarceration, and mental health struggles.

This fact really hit home with them. Jane worked as a prison chaplain and John was a warden, so they both had witnessed some of these effects firsthand. Many of the incarcerated people they worked with had once been youth in foster care.

“We didn't want to see kids end up that way,” John says.

They also learned that siblings have a hard time getting adopted together, so not only did John and Jane decide to adopt teenagers — they set their sights on siblings.

They started attending adoption events and flipping through sibling adoption lists. There were so many in need of homes that it was difficult to narrow down their choices.

But three kids in particular stood out because, for some reason, their photo kept showing up.

“It was like they were following us,” says John.

Those kids were Jonathan, Alaina, and Isaiah.

“By the fourth time of seeing the same wonderful picture of the three of them ... we contacted the agency and said we're interested in these three.”

The kids were interested too. When the adoption agency told them about the couple, the kids zeroed in on John’s job, saying, “If your dad’s a warden, he’ll keep you safe.”

In 2009, John and Jane officially adopted the siblings.

Like many kids from foster care, Jonathan, Alaina, and Isaiah carried their belongings in big black garbage bags when they arrived at the Thomas home. But for the first time, they knew they could finally settle into a home knowing they’d never have to haul around those bags again.

John was determined to teach his kids that love is unconditional.

“We loved them through their initial pain of, are you going to disappear like the last family?” John says. “And we never disappeared. We weren't going anywhere.”

He knew it would take time for the kids to adjust. At first, he wasn’t sure what they would call him — maybe “Mr. John”? But, much to their delight, the kids began calling them Mommy and Daddy almost immediately.

But any parent with teenagers knows they can go through some difficult moments, such as sibling rivalries, missed homework assignments, and raging hormones. John and Jane tackled it all, and John says that what his kids went through was no different from the kids he knew who were living with their birth parents.

Jonathan's high school graduation day.

And, just like any other parents, they continued to love their children through all of the ups and downs.

As a result of that unconditional love, the siblings blossomed. They recognize the value of family and speak often about what it means that they were able to stay together.

“It's just a big deal, especially when you don't have a whole lot of constants in your life,” John explains. “To have your siblings with you is a constant, something you can count on.”

John and Jane have no regrets about adopting teenagers. In fact, three years after adopting Isaiah, Alaina, and Jonathan, they adopted 15-year-old Dontae.

“We would do it all over again,” John says. “If our house was bigger, we probably never would’ve stopped.”

Dontae, now 21 years old and living in Ohio with his fiancée, recently called John at 1 a.m. Like most parents would, John immediately asked him what was wrong.

“Nothing,” Dontae said. He just wanted to tell his dad that he’d just played a great football game. And, for a teen who’d been in foster care, it was really special to have someone to call.

Dontae and John on the football field.

“It’s just a wonderful thing when you see the kids grow up and you see what happens in their own lives,” John says. “We didn’t realize how much it would change our lives, and how much it would bless us.”

Now, the siblings are 19, 22, and 23 years old. All three have graduated high school, and Isaiah and Alaina have moved a few hours away from home. But they all keep in touch and come home for the holidays.

Those precious visits continue to remind John why the entire journey was worth it.

“Every child needs at least one person who is crazy about them,” John says. That’s why he’s passionate about spreading the word about the joy of loving teens who have been in foster care.

“What do you want to leave behind? That you had the nicest car or home or whatever? Or that you invested in the life of some kids who by no fault of their own had to find a family?”

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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