Educators often joke about adopting kids from their classrooms, but this year teacher Heidi Smith did just that.
Santino, 12, and Diego, 9, officially became part of the Smith family in September after several years in foster care. The boys join Heidi Smith, her two children, and husband Tony Smith.
“These boys just fit our family perfectly,” she said. “We couldn’t have picked a better match.”
It started via Zoom school last year, Heidi Smith said. Santino was in her fifth-grade class at St. Helens in Longview and during lessons Diego would sometimes “pop into the computer screen.”
“Then we would have office hours, and kids could come to office hours for extra help and these two would come to my office hours like every single day,” she said. “They really just both had fantastically curious minds.”
When her class was reading the book “Holes,” Santino asked if he could get an extra copy for Diego, who was following along with his older brother.
“I said sure, and so I ran an extra copy out to the foster home where they were staying at,” Heidi Smith said. “But I think at home I talked about the boys a little bit.”
Her husband, Tony Smith, a principal at a Ridgefield school, acknowledged the two brothers came up quite a bit in conversations. Then, Heidi Smith chatted with a teacher friend who often fostered children.
“I was talking about these two guys and just, gosh, these boys are just so fantastic, and she said you know, there’s not a lot of foster homes available and she said there could be a chance that these two boys get separated and put into different foster homes because that’s happening now,” Heidi Smith said. “That just killed me, because these two boys are so lovely.”
Her friend suggested the Smiths offer to be an emergency contact for the brothers just in case. Heidi Smith signed up, and the next day received a phone call from the boys’ case worker asking if she would be willing to be an adoptive parent.
Heidi Smith’s eldest daughter had just signed a yearlong apartment lease while she studies at Western Washington University, so “we had an extra room,” Heidi Smith said. The process moved quickly from there.
The Smiths agreed to be adoptive parents the first week back after winter break 2020. They took the required foster classes to be certified. The boys came for their first weekend visitation in early February. A month later, they moved in.
Santino said when the brothers got the call from their caseworker, “she basically said not all kids go back to their parents after a few years in foster care.”
“They go up for adoption, or if not, they stay in foster care until they’re 18 and then she told us that we were getting adopted by them,” he said. “At first it was really hard, but then we looked at the bright side and here we are now.”
Diego said while he was sad at first, “I was glad to have a new dad and new mom that I know I can trust more.”
The adoption was finalized in September. Heidi Smith said the move happened so quickly because there are so few foster homes and so many children in need.
Santino said while there are chores assigned to each of the brothers, “I’m actually kind of glad we don’t have to move anymore because every time we moved there were new rules.”
The boys love to play sports, mostly football. They are both also serious students, Tony Smith said, which shows their determination. Santino attended nine schools in seven years, and Diego passed through seven schools in five years.
“That’s usually a killer academically,” Tony Smith said. “As a principal, that kind of mobility is just really hard for kids to stay on track academically. These guys, we’re proud of what they do in school, but we shouldn’t be proud because we have nothing to do with it. They have made themselves academically. They have persevered.”
He said their dedication and willingness to ask questions and get help has set them apart and inspired him and his wife.
Santino loves math and PE, while Diego prefers science and reading. They’re both looking forward to their futures, although Santino said he’s not all that excited about high school.
They spent the past few weeks decorating for Christmas, sharing traditions and making ornaments for the tree, so each member of the family has something to represent them.
“These guys over the last four years had to have four different foster home Christmases, so I think it’s pretty exciting that we’ve got to have our own thing,” Tony Smith said. “We’re having a good time.”
While this is a slightly different future than Tony and Heidi Smith imagined for themselves when they got married two years ago, both said it’s perfect. Instead of being empty nesters next year when their son graduates from high school, they will again be raising two young boys.
“We had all kinds of ideas and plans for life, but the plans and ideas got better,” Tony Smith said. “Actually, many of the plans, we’re doing them. We just have more people involved.”
He said while he enjoys his close relationship with Heidi Smith’s two children, he’s also enjoying the opportunity to be a parent to kids from a younger age, and the boys “bring a lot to our world.”
Heidi said she would encourage other people who are approaching the empty nest phase to consider fostering in some fashion. The boys have talked fondly of past foster homes and she said she’s “so grateful for all the people who have come before us and provided our sons with positive memories during a time that is really trying.”
“I think people always go ‘oh gosh, what could happen,’ but here’s the thing: Do you have love in your heart? Because if you do then it will work out,” Heidi Smith said.
She said knowing how many children stay in foster homes until they age out at 18 is hard for her and motivated her to adopt.
“Even if we get these kids to graduate high school and get them into college, who is supporting them?” she said, as Diego passed her tissues. “Because when they’re 18, they’re not ready to be on their own. It’s just so sad to me that you have all these lovely souls that just need a chance and just want a chance. I am so blessed to be able to give two kids a chance right now.”