By Lauren Hollon Sturdy
Photography by Chelsea Quackenbush
You’d never suspect from looking at him that Tony Hawkins is a huge softie. Words like “solid” and “unshakable” come to mind instead. The broad-chested, 50-year-old former football player has rough palms and arms like tree trunks.
Far from being the strong, silent type, he’s intense and expressive when he speaks. He talks passionately about his role in the lives of his foster children, and his voice softens when he talks about what the kids have gone through.
Tony says he felt compelled to do something for children because of a weekly segment on a local TV station featuring profiles of children available for adoption. Seeing the children’s pictures and hearing their stories made him want to give these kids what he and his wife, Gloria, and their children and grandchildren had: a chance to have a safe, innocent, love-filled childhood. He didn’t feel called to adopt a child when he has five children and seven grandchildren of his own, but his wife, Gloria, introduced him to the idea of foster care and things fell in line from there.
Tony and Gloria are fostering two children now: Zachary* is a kindergartener and Jeremy* is in first grade. When they lived with their birth mom, Jeremy often had to take care of both her and his younger brother – a responsibility no 6-year-old should have to bear.
The boys came to the Hawkins’ home in January having been through a string of two or three other foster homes. It wasn’t until Tony and Gloria took the boys to a doctor’s appointment that they learned how far the boys had come in their time under their roof.
“The doctor and several others told us, ‘These are not the same kids,’” Tony says. “They were out of control [before].”
Gloria’s influence has a lot to do with that. She says she’s “the structured one,” and attributes part of it to her years serving in the Air Force. She speaks as one who is used to being listened to, in purposeful, measured sentences with an air of certainty.
Gloria says the boys used to fight “like men – to hurt each other.” They used the furniture as a trampoline and expected Gloria to clean up their messes. “You’re the woman,” the kids would say, “you’re supposed to … ” Gloria isn’t one to be walked on, though. Over the last nine months, she and Tony have taught the boys to respect adults’ authority, to treat belongings with care, to pick up after themselves and to be gentlemen.
“It took them a little time to get that men hold doors open for women,” Tony says. “But now, they run to take turns to open the door for Gloria. She’s not being mistreated in this house full of men. We treat her like a queen, because we’re four males in the house, so we have to cater to her. And we all say she’s the boss.”
Tony quickly realized Zachary, Jeremy and another foster child who lived with them have looked to him as a role model. None of the boys have a father in their lives, so Tony sets the bar for what it means to be a father and a man.
“It is a big deal,” he says. “Because they know who their mother is, so it’s hard for a mother to replace a mother, but a father’s all new [to them]. So to me, it’s easy, because they don’t have any example of what it’s like. It’s like I’m a hero all the time—except when I have to make them do something.
“As a man, I see things they’ve picked up from me and I think, ‘Well, maybe I am helping.’ If you ask Zachary, ‘What does a father do?’ he’ll say, ‘He takes care of me.’ I think I might have said that when I was trying to convince them I was going to be there for them. He never forgot. To me, that’s important. That’s what I do. I might not have all the answers, but I’ll be there. And they sense that.”
Life in a family
While they know their mission is to provide a temporary home for children, the Hawkins have done a wonderful job of giving their foster kids a sense of stability and family.
Part of the reason they’re so good at providing foster children with a sense of belonging, they say, is that they have experience blending families. They’ve been married for 18 years but when they married, he had four children under age 14 and she had never been a parent before.
“That was a challenge,” Gloria says. “So the way I looked at it – if I can get through that with somebody else’s children, then it prepared me for this season.”
She gave birth to their son, Eric, at 41, and says “even in my older age I was experiencing new things, and I always called them adventures. So I call this, fostering, an adventure. That’s something we’ve never done before. If you keep it focused as an adventure, you can keep your mind and keep focused on why you do what you do.”
They say their philosophy is to take care of the kids as if they’re their own. They make sure the kids are involved in activities, like karate lessons for their first foster son and the church children’s choir for their current foster kids. Jeremy is planning to start piano lessons soon, like his “big brother” Eric.
“I think the main thing is that we live our lives – we treat them like our own children,” Tony says. “They live here; this is their home. I was glad when I took them to their therapist and they were telling the therapist about their big brother: ‘My big brother does this’ and ‘My big brother does that.’ She said, ‘Who is your big brother?’ and they said, ‘I told you before – Eric!’ I was glad when I heard that, because that’s what I want; I want them to feel like family.”
After nine months with the Hawkins, Jeremy and Zachary have fallen into the rhythms of family. Tony says some of the most joyful moments of foster parenting are nights when they sit down at the table to eat together.
“When we get to ripping and running too much, the boys will say, ‘When are we going to eat dinner together?’ It never matters what we’re eating; it’s more about the routine of eating together, sitting down at the table, sitting in ‘their’ chair, and they try to get our attention from each other. They always have this thing where they’ve got to tell the better story.
“It used to be, if you asked them a question, they would give you a one-word answer. But if you sit them at the table, it’s like they tell you anything that you think you’d want to know or you didn’t want to know. It just comes out. So dinnertime is important to us. It gives me that sense that everything’s right with the world – even if it’s only for 30 minutes and then we’ve got chaos again.”
The couple strives to make life as normal as possible for their foster kids, which means including them when it’s time for family vacations. This year they went to Gulf Shores, Ala. (“It was like an act of Congress to get the paperwork approved!” Tony says), and said the look on the boys’ faces when they saw “all that water” was priceless. Jeremy and Zachary had never been on a vacation before.
“They were excited, and for us, what we take for normal – like staying in a hotel room – was a different experience for them,” Gloria says. “A lot of times we spend our time complaining about what we don’t have, what we have to do, but then when we look at the kids that we deal with, it’s like they don’t even have the needed stuff – besides what they want, they don’t have their needs met. So at times we have to pull back and say, ‘Wow. We’re blessed.’”
*names changed to protect privacy
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