18-Year-Old Finally Finds His Forever Family After a Lifetime in the Foster System

Image Source: Maria Cooke
Image Source: Maria Cooke

It’s no secret that the landscape of current news has been especially depressing lately. Between politics, violence, police shootings, and just plain sadness, it’s all I can take. But every now and then I come across a feel-good story that causes me to sit up, take notice, and consume every word. This happened today, when I read about Mario Martell Thornton, an 18-year-old who, after spending nearly his entire life in foster care, was finally adopted.

As a former foster parent and the father of two grownup daughters who were adopted at ages 17 and 25, what happened to Mario this past Tuesday, October 4th, really moved me. He found a forever home. His dream of being adopted before he aged out of the foster care system came true, as Mike and Maria Cooke, from Tampa, Florida, stood before the judge and made Mario a permanent part of their family.

The best part? He met Mike and Maria just two weeks ago. He actually moved in to their house this past Monday, the day before his adoption would be finalized. Anyone on the outside looking in would have thought one thing, This is risky!

Was it? Of course. Once they decided to go for it, the naysaying voices began to speak, saying things like, Why would you adopt an adult? What if he acts out? But, he’s too old! One person even asked Maria if she would “marry someone she had only met a few days earlier?”

Yes, they knew the risks. The what-ifs flashed through their heads, as Maria recalled:

“We had the thought, ‘What if we get our hearts broken?’ We had that concern. What if we fall in love with a kid and it doesn’t work out, or he doesn’t like us, or moves on. But then I realized that even if it didn’t work, we loved him for a time and he would always know that we loved him.”

There would always be risks. Foster and adoption are risky. Choosing to love another human being unconditionally is risky. But Mike and Maria live by a powerful question they heard author Jennie Allen ask a few years ago: “What can happen when you go past the risk that your collective group is willing to take?”

So they jumped at the chance. Actually the jumping began last year, when the Cookes saw a video Mario created when he was 14 years old with the Children’s Board Heart Gallery of Tampa Bay, whose mission is to “raise awareness of Tampa’s waiting foster children.”

Mario’s personality shown through as he spoke of his love of football, his favorite types of music — rap, gospel, and (some) country, and how one of his favorite things is meeting new people. He revealed that he’d been in the foster care system since he was 1 or 2 years old, and that he’d been in over 30 foster homes throughout his life — moving around from Minnesota, Tennessee, and New York, eventually ending up in Tampa.

His story touched the couple so much that they started taking adoption classes at Eckerd Kids to get certified to adopt a teenager. But it was as if fate had already decided that that teen would be Mario. It just so happened that there were posters for The Heart Gallery hanging in the Cooke’s church hallway with Mario’s picture on it. Outside of the classroom where their adoption classes took place? A poster with Mario’s picture on it! But what were the chances that he would still be in foster care three years later? Maria wondered.

And then two weeks ago it happened. The Cookes expressed interest in adopting Mario, and he agreed to meet the family. The rest, as they say, is history. Actually, it was destiny.

As I listened to Maria’s heart, it was clear to me … she and her husband did this because they felt called to. And because of that calling, Mario’s life is forever changed.

Mario Martell Thornton became Mario Martell Thornton Cooke in an instant. His world changed. His future was suddenly clear. Maria could not contain her tears in the courtroom. Her heart was full in that moment. “It’s what he’s dreamed of,” she told me, as we talked about his adoption. “It’s what he hoped would happen.”

Image Source: Maria Cooke
Image Source: Maria Cooke

There was a time, of course, before he met the Cookes, when Mario didn’t think this would happen, nor was he sure he even wanted it to. But his heart soon changed. He wanted a forever family. He wanted a place to call home. Maybe it was the reality of the next chapter which quickly approached. Maybe it was the long line of foster homes from his past. Or maybe it was something deeper. Perhaps Mario longed for something we all long for … to belong.

As Maria shared their family’s story with me, I identified entirely. My wife Kristin and I were them not that long ago. We had a similar opportunity standing before us. The year was 2009, and our second oldest daughter, Krystal, was nearing her 18th birthday. She had been in our care through foster care for two years at that point. On an unassuming August evening, she quietly walked into the living room where the two of us sat watching TV.

“Can I, um, talk to you both?” she asked, shyly.

Uh oh, we both thought to ourselves. We immediately braced ourselves for something big. And big it was.

She blurted out, “I’ve thought a lot about it, and I want you guys to adopt me!”

Big, raindrop-sized tears formed in Kristin’s eyes and she sprang up to hug Krystal. I couldn’t stop smiling as I wrapped my arms around the two of them.

Then, just two years later, we received more heartwarming news when our oldest daughter, Rachel, sat us down and proclaimed, “I know what I want for Christmas!”

Kristin replied, “Well, it’s July, but let’s hear it.”

“I want to be adopted, officially,” she said, looking straight into our eyes.

To belong. To count. To say, “I’m theirs, and they’re mine!” To forever say, this is my forever home. My two daughters felt the same way Mario felt. And in turn, Kristin and I felt the same way Mike and Maria felt — Absolutely! We love you! You are ours!

I asked Maria what she would tell a person who has considered adopting an older child but hesitated, or been hung up on the “what-if” questions. She replied:

“We went through the what-ifs too. We also thought through some of the unknowns. But, as I told my best friend, I didn’t know any of my kids before they were born and I still loved them the moment I met them. We loved Mario the moment we met him. Nothing will change that.”

For Mario, it was the bottom of the 9th and there were two outs. His dream of finding a forever home was diminishing. But all hope was not lost. When he least expected it, a couple he had only met two weeks earlier, and really only known for a day, followed their hearts, stepped up to the plate at just the right time, and declared him, “Ours!”

h/t: Tampa Bay Times

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