Boone Stokes only had a trash bag filled with his belongings – three toys and a handful of clothing – when social workers brought him to Cecil Stokes home in August, 2015. At just eight years old, Boone had already been in and out of 11 different foster homes. Something told him this time was different.
“I remember when I was coming up the steps and there were a million thoughts racing through my mind,” says Boone, now 14. “I walked up and the door flung open. I heard a loud bang when it hit the wall and I remember looking at him for the first time and I felt connected at once.”
Cecil asked if he could hug the boy.
Listen below to Me Becoming Mom to hear Jillian Michaels’ adoption journey and her unique road to motherhood.
“I said sure and he hugged me and circled around the room hugging me and I’d never felt anyone hug me so tight. It was amazing,” Boone tells PEOPLE.
Cecil, then a 42-year-old single man, had fought hard to be able to foster Boone. Social workers first rejected his application because Boone had previously been in homes with single dads and it hadn’t worked. The case workers believed after facing so much trauma in his young life, he needed a two-
“I felt in my heart he was mine,” Cecil, who first became interested in fostering while dating a woman seriously, and continued to pursue it after they broke up, tells PEOPLE. “I knew I wanted to adopt. I had to foster for six months before the adoption could be started, but I knew from the beginning.
, I said whoever walks through this door, they’re mine.”
Cecil formalized Boone’s adoption six months later, and the two have called themselves a family for six years now.
“He is as mine as any child is to anyone,” says Cecil.
“It feels amazing, I never had someone before who I could go to,” Boone says.
According to AdoptUSKids there are more than 400,000 kids in foster care in the U.S.
“We do not have orphanages in this country, so the United States “orphanage” is the foster care system. People think, ‘That’s where I’m going to go to adopt’ — but it’s more complicated than that,” explains Nicole Taylor, the Executive Director of Congregations for Kids. Her agency works to support kids, families and social workers in the foster care system.
Taylor says the goal of foster care is actually to reunite kids with their families. If mom or dad are not an option than social workers look to extended family to care for kids. Of the 400,000 kids in the system, only 120,000 are actually available for adoption;
. those are kids whose parents have formally given up their rights. But even then, it can be an uncertain journey.
November is National Adoption Month, and PEOPLE is celebrating by highlighting the many extraordinary ways families can grow via adoption, featuring real stories from celebrities, everyday parents and adoptees, as well as information on the varied ways to adopt. For more heartwarming, heartbreaking and happy-ending stories, visit our Adoption page.
Taylor (above) knows that all too well. She and her family fostered a three-month old baby whose parental rights had been terminated, and for whom
.they were beginning the process of adoption.
“He was our son. He was almost a year and had just started to say ‘mama,’ and just before the final stages some family came forward and we had to give him up,” she says.
. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through but it was also the biggest blessing in my life because I can look back and know we were there to love and nurture him at a time when he had no one and nowhere to go. The bottom line when it comes to foster care; there are no guarantees.”
25-year-old Dontae Blair was in and out of foster care growing up and says he wishes adoption had been an option for him and his brothers. His mother never agreed to give up her rights.
“When I was five or six, she regained custody of us and my whole life was like that. We’d go into foster care, then my mom tried to regain custody. We’d go back in and come back out,” he tells PEOPLE. “There was so much instability. I had a conversation with her because I felt like it might have been better to allow us to be adopted.”
Instead, Blair (above) aged out of foster care when he turned 18 and says he would have been completely lost — “all of my support was gone and it was really scary” — if not for a non-profit called The Relatives that took him in.
The Relatives is a Charlotte, North Carolina based non-profit that takes kids ages 17 to 24 who are aging out of the system and helps them find housing, get jobs and further their education. Executive Director Trish Hobson says, “We’re their relatives when they don’t have anyone. It is a very daunting thing to be 18 and not have a place to live, not have a form of income. Everybody needs somebody in their corner.”
“I didn’t even know how to use a washer and dryer until they taught me,” Blair says. “And I never had anybody to be proud of me. The staff there would tell me that: that they were proud of me.”
Each year about 20,000 kids age out of the foster system. Taylor says if a child isn’t adopted by the time they turn nine, the likelihood is they won’t ever have a forever family.
“When kids turn 9 or 10 years old and they’re in the foster care system and they have not reunited with their family, their chances of being adopted drop drastically because of the way they look,” she explains.
. “That is typically when children lose their baby fat and start to look older,
Taylor says people looking to adopt from the foster care system should be prepared to become a foster parent first. Each state is different but it can be a four to eight month process that typically involves training, extensive interviews, a home visit and background checks. There is no minimum income requirement to foster (though in some states you cannot be receiving government assistance) and those approved could receive a call as soon as the next day to house a child.
Cecil and Boone Stokes say they’re proof it can work.
“He called me dad within 15 minutes because foster kids are trained to make people love them, but then about three months later he called me daddy, and
But he admits, it’s still work.
“We came up with the word brutiful because every day has a little bit of brutal and a little bit of beautiful, so we talk about our brutiful life. When you have a child that has gone through what he’s gone through, and you have a single parent, it’s a brutiful life. But it’s also the best thing that has ever happened in my life.”