Amanda was running out of chances, and Gail Wahl knew it. The 16-year-old girl and her three brothers had already bounced through all the local foster homes that would take teens. It looked like a group home was Amanda's only option.
That didn't sit well with Gail. As a volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), Gail's role was to promote Amanda's best interests. She went to the girl's court hearings and home visits, and listened to the perspectives of each agency and person involved, especially Amanda. Gail saw so much potential in this loud, fiery-but-hurting teen — so much desire to be more than a victim.
Amanda, meanwhile, was not only running out of chances, but she was also running out of time. She would soon "age out" of the foster care system — without parents and without a permanent home.
Gail wasn't about to give up. She didn't know it at the time, but the days ahead would forever change Amanda, Gail and the entire Wahl family.
A message for Amanda
Amanda's biological mother left when Amanda was 5. Her father was abusive. Each new foster home came with a mixture of hope and distrust; each ended with more hurt and rejection. Some foster parents told Amanda the only reason they took her in was for the money they received from the state. Eventually, Amanda hated everyone in the system.
Gail wanted to help, but she wasn't sure how. One day she was listening to the radio when the words of "Beautiful" by MercyMe came pouring out:
You're beautiful / You are made for so much more than all of this/
You're beautiful / You are treasured, you are sacred, you are His . . .
The lyrics moved Gail to tears. She called her husband, Tom, and said, "That's the message God wants to give Amanda, and I'm pretty confident we're supposed to be the ones to give it to her."
"Do what you have to do," Tom replied.
Tom and Gail decided to bring Amanda into their home and become her foster parents. It was a big step, yes, but simply the next one in a much larger journey.
A safe first step
The journey began five years earlier, when Gail, Tom and their two boys moved to Colorado Springs, Colo. Gail began volunteering at a local pregnancy center, and that's when she heard horrible stories from girls who had come through the system.
"What if we became foster parents?" she asked Tom.
Tom hesitated, but the couple agreed to pray about it. They attended a Wait No More event hosted by Focus on the Family, where they learned ways to help kids in need of families. Volunteering with the CASA program seemed like a safe first step. Gail signed up.
Gail's first few cases ended well. Young children were placed in good foster families and eventually returned to their own homes. Then CASA asked Gail to take on a teen case: Amanda and her three brothers.
First impressions weren't positive. Amanda resented Gail because she was part of "the system." Gail had her hands full with the four teens.
"Their language of love was arguing and yelling," she says. But with time, Amanda realized that Gail truly cared. In fact, Gail was the only constant in the siblings' lives.
It became clear that together this group of teens fed off each other's negative behaviors, but apart they could grow. Eventually Amanda moved in with the Wahl family. It was a positive move for everyone, but the transition was challenging. Amanda didn't know how to respond to healthy, consistent parenting and discipline. Tom and Gail had to adjust, too.
"My approach is the rules apply to everyone," Tom says. "That couldn't be how we operated with her."
It took him time to adapt, and it took Amanda longer to trust that Tom wasn't trying to manipulate or hurt her like her biological father had. The Wahls' younger son, Luke, had trouble understanding why Amanda could break family rules that he couldn't.
There were tears. There were questions. There were What have we done? moments. But the Wahls remained committed.
Along with the challenges, Amanda introduced a new dimension to a home with two sons. She brought more feeling, communication, passion, noise and singing than they had experienced before. And despite her negative patterns, Amanda displayed an unexpected willingness to grow and change, especially after she committed her life to Christ.
Six months after Amanda moved in with the Wahls, Gail was floating on a raft with her sister in the middle of a Wisconsin lake. Amanda swam over.
"Mom, I want to be adopted," she said.
They had discussed adoption before, but neither side saw the point of it. "Talk to us if you ever think you might want to be adopted," Gail had told Amanda. Besides, Amanda was almost 18, a legal adult.
Yet now, surrounded by Gail's extended family, Amanda wanted in — officially, legally and for good.
"I was amazed by how much this family could love somebody they didn't even know," Amanda says. "I was sure what I wanted was to be part of this family for the rest of my life."
The adoption process was finalized in 2011, just 12 days before her 18th birthday. Instead of aging out of the foster care system like more than 25,000 American kids each year, Amanda finally had the love and support of a permanent family.
"They're going to be stuck with me forever, and I'll be stuck with them," she says.
Together for real
It's sometimes easy to think of adoption as a fairy-tale ending. But real family life isn't always like the movies.
On Easter weekend 2012, the Wahls' oldest son, Ryan, died in a rock-climbing fall. It was any parent's darkest day, and it was the most difficult time yet for a family that had already come through so much together. But in many ways, their grief brought them even closer.
"After Ryan's death, Amanda could have felt left out or slighted, but she had the love of the Lord in her heart," Gail says. "She became the caretaker for Mom. She often put my needs ahead of her own."
The family continues to heal and grow. While they remember Ryan, they move forward together, thankful for God's love and grace.
"It's huge to know I have family there for me," Amanda says, now a freshman at a local university. "No matter how many times I switched foster homes, my heart was trying to love. With the Wahl family, I was finally able to trust with all my heart, to love because they love me unconditionally."
Amanda finally has what every child in foster care wants — what every child needs — a "forever family." And she got one just in time.