Paul ’80 and Cindy ’81 Stark believe that you can change the world “one child at a time.” But technically, they’ve changed the world one child at a time — 48 times over.
Paul and Cindy are foster parents, and over the course of 24 years have welcomed 48 children into their home. With four kids of their own, this was no small feat, but it was actually their youngest daughter, Nicole ‘16, who opened the door to fostering in the first place.
After having three biological children — Michael ‘09, Matt ‘14, and Lauren — the Starks adopted nine-month-old Nicole from China through an organization called Sunny Ridge Family Center. For Cindy, this addition to their family was a long time coming. She had known she wanted to adopt a child since her sophomore year at Notre Dame when she got to know an administrative assistant in the marketing department who had two adopted sons. What she hadn’t always known, was that bringing Nikki into their family would allow them to bring many more children into their home over the years.
“After we adopted Nicole, we got a Sunny Ridge newsletter, and it said they were looking for foster parents for the Healing the Children Program,” Cindy says.
Healing the Children brings children from around the world to the United States to receive treatments that are not available in their home countries. The procedures are done pro bono, but they rely on foster families to provide additional care. Becoming a foster parent is usually a lengthy process, but adopting internationally had required the Starks to become licensed to foster. After reading the newsletter, Cindy called Paul.
“I said, ‘I think we need to do this.’ And he said, ‘Well, do you think it’s a little early?’ And I said ‘Probably, but let’s do it anyway.’”
The Starks adopted Nicole in 1995, and by 1996 they had their first foster child. Gabriela*, a six-year-old from Columbia, had a condition called spinal kyphosis, which means her spine was collapsing.
“She had a very complex spinal surgery where they inserted a steel rod into her spine,” Paul says. “She came out of surgery partially paralyzed, which was not anticipated. So that created all kinds of complications in terms of her care.”
Despite these complications, Gabriela's spirit continued to shine, and she became an example of strength and unconditional love that the Starks have never forgotten.
“She flew halfway across the world to get the care she needed. She spent time in the hospital. And she would still laugh and snuggle and do funny things,” Cindy says. “She was always smiling.”
After falling in love with Gabriela, the Starks knew: they wanted to foster more kids. But whenever they were deciding whether to take in another child, all of the Starks had to agree, including the four kids.
“If any one person had said, ‘It’s not a good time for me,’ we wouldn’t have done it. But never once did anybody in the family ever say no,” Cindy says.
Another child who left a strong impression on them was Carlos*, a nine-year-old boy from Panama who had a vascular problem. Carlos is dear to the Starks, both because he stayed with them the longest and because for a moment, it seemed like his stay might be cut short. After a relatively routine procedure at the hospital, Carlos developed a blood clot that traveled to his brain and stopped his heart.
“For 45 minutes, Carlos did not have a heartbeat,” Paul says. The doctors were eventually able to restart his heart and put him in a coma, but they were not optimistic about his recovery. “The doctors said because of the length of time he’s been without a heartbeat, there’s a 95 percent chance that he’s going to have brain damage or major organ failure.”
After three days, the doctors brought Carlos out of the coma. Paul and Cindy were there to greet him when he came to, though they were not sure who he would be when he woke up.
“He looked at Cindy and said, ‘Hi, Mom,’ and there was nothing wrong with him,” Paul says. “I’m not a super religious person, but it’s the closest thing to a miracle I’ve ever experienced in my life.”
After fostering eight kids over nearly a decade through Healing the Children, Sunny Ridge stopped working with the program, so the Starks began fostering through Sunny Ridge directly, or Holt Sunny Ridge after it became part of the Holt International network. The children who came to them through this program were almost exclusively infants who needed care while their adoption status was pending or in the process of being finalized. These children stayed with them for much shorter periods of time, sometimes for as little as a few days and usually not more than a month.
“We get asked all the time, ‘Isn’t it difficult to see these children go to other homes?’” Cindy says. “You have to have a certain sense of … purpose. We will love them and care for them, and they are a part of our family for as long as they are here. And they will always be a part of our family, just not be with us for every part of our life.”
That sense of purpose is not just borne out of ideology, but is also deeply personal for the Starks. In some ways, these children’s stories are their story too.
“Our daughter was in an orphanage for nine months. And while the orphanage was a difficult place, they had women there who were able to hold the babies and change them, and I’m so grateful to those foster moms who took care of Nicole. It’s nice to know that we’re able to do this for other families.”
Paul and Cindy have slowed down on the fostering as they approach retirement, but Cindy continues sharing her story through her career as a life coach, sometimes counseling couples struggling with infertility.
“I love being able to say to them, ‘There are so many different ways to become a family. There are so many different ways to make a difference in this world and fostering is just one of them.’ Our definition of family is so evolving in this country, and I love that,” Cindy says. “We each deserve an opportunity to have a family in our life and to be loved by someone.”
If you are interested in learning more about fostering or adoption, contact Cindy Stark at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*names have been change