The Londo house is cleaner than could really be expected. The living room is free of clutter and vacuumed. The kitchen and dining room show no signs of the abuse they surely endure.
It takes the eye a while to finally pick out the evidence of what goes on here: a hallway full of photos (some hung, some resting on the floor), a stark white spot on the cream wall where fresh plaster has sealed a recent hole, and, of course, the boys.
The longer you sit in the Londo living room, the more appear. Boys lurking in the kitchen, eating cookies by the handful. Boys sunk into the couch, headphones resting around their necks. Boys out front, doing yard work. Boys playing with dogs. Boys downstairs snoring. The front door revolves with boys, boys, boys.
In all, John and Carla Londo have raised or are raising 16 children, 14 of them boys. Carla gave birth to three of those kids; the rest were adopted — most as messy, sassy, troubled adolescents.
The Londos also have four foster kids living with them (all adolescent boys, of course). Some of the foster kids will probably stay with the Londos until they're grown; others will likely return to their birth parents.
The Londos started fostering and adopting kids in the late '90s, and they've never looked back — even as their friends, put off by the mass of children, stopped calling. Even as their time was consumed by sports games and after-school activities, and hauling foster kids to therapists, doctors, dentists and visits with their natural parents. The Londos kept charging forward even as their budget was consumed by trips to Disney World and pound upon pound of pork chops. And yes, even as those kids they sacrificed so much for behaved like, well, like the troubled, traumatized teens they are.
"It's not a job, it's a life," Carla says. "...You have to love it."
For years, Carla and John did all the work themselves, though both have careers. Then, four years ago, Carla heard about the Fostering Hope Foundation, which would provide the Londos their own team of volunteers to help with cooking, driving and tutoring. Heck, they'd even take the boys fishing.
Carla, however, was hesitant. She wondered if saying she wanted help implied that she couldn't do it all herself. Was it some sort of admission that she wasn't a good mom?
"It took me a while," she says.
Eventually, the Londos came around. Now they have their team, which includes Patsy and Ken Williamson, a semi-retired couple whose own kids and grandkids live across the country. The Williamsons love children. He likes taking the boys hiking and fishing; she drives them to appointments, cooks meals and makes birthday cakes.
"The kids are great, they're real nice," Patsy says. "Carla's taught them to be polite."
For Patsy, being a volunteer is like having a horde of grandchildren just blocks away. For Carla, having Patsy around helps her keep up with everything.
"If [the volunteers] can take them one way [to an appointment], that helps me so much because then I can get dinner going," Carla says.
And besides, it's nice to have a break now and then. Because as well-managed as the Londo house is, boys will be boys. Especially when they've been through what these kids have. Two of Carla's adopted kids, a brother and sister, were locked in a basement for years and abused. The boy now has anger and trust issues.
One of the foster boys has gone from home to home since he was 2. His behavior is erratic. Awhile back, Carla says, the boy stole a truck, drove it to the grocery store and shoplifted. Later, he proudly told Carla he had remembered to wear his seat belt — as though that would be her only concern.
He's in middle school.
Nick Colarelli and his wife, Margaret, wanted their five kids to understand family cohesiveness and social responsibility. Raising their clan in St. Louis, they always had a project and a charity. Now the Colarelli kids are adults with kids of their own. But the values stuck. So when Nick (who now lives in Colorado Springs with his wife and two of his grown children) decided to sell the farm, the family decided collectively how to spend the money.
One daughter, Angela Colarelli Carron, was working in Milwaukee, conducting exams on abused children. She testified on behalf of kids and then rarely saw them again, as many ended up in the foster system. Angela wanted to see the Colarellis do something to help foster children.
Two years of research followed. The Colarellis kept hearing that foster parents were stressed and isolated — so much so that they often "burned out" and stopped taking in kids.
"[Foster families] were very much interested in kind of an extended family with a group of people they could come to know and relax with, that wouldn't be judgmental with them, that also they could call on for help when they needed it," Nick says. "So then the question was, 'Where do you find a group of people like that?'"
The answer was churches.
With the Colarellis visiting local churches to assemble teams of volunteers, Fostering Hope was born in 2006. Barb Lara, the program coordinator and social worker who trains the volunteers, says foster families have three major needs: emotional support, help with transportation, and meal preparation. Volunteers are usually assigned to foster families with larger sibling groups, teens and medically fragile children.
Debbie Swanson, Fostering Hope's development director, says the ultimate hope is that the organization will encourage foster parents to continue, and also bring more foster parents into the system. Actually, Swanson says, some volunteers have used their experience like training wheels for becoming foster parents themselves.
Today, Fostering Hope has 19 teams and 17 foster families, with a goal of 50 to 60 teams in El Paso County. Nick says they'll need more funding; the group relies on local foundations and its own starter money. If businesses chip in, Nick can imagine Fostering Hope expanding nationally. A second branch in Milwaukee started in late 2009.
The baby in the corner goes unnoticed for at least five minutes, until she lets out a mild coo. She's playing on an activity blanket, perfectly contented, as the babies who come into Patti Svendsen's home generally are.
Later the baby grows fussy, and Patti picks her up and inserts a feeding tube in her belly with the sure hand of a longtime mom and caregiver.
Svendsen and her husband — another family helped by Fostering Hope — had three children biologically. Their youngest was born with a brain condition called lissencephaly. He was only supposed to live to 4 or 5.
"Back then, they said, 'Just put him in an institution and forget about him,'" she recalls. "I don't know too many moms that do that."
When Dereck was 5, Patti asked her family to do foster care for a few years, as a way of thanking God for the little boy's health. Soon, the family had adopted three more babies. Then they took two medically fragile babies.
One of those kids passed away five years ago at 13. The other, who Patti affectionately calls T, is 14. The rest have grown up. Little Dereck will turn 29 next month.
The Svendsens still take in foster kids and help other foster parents with babysitting (as Patti's doing for the baby girl). The Svendsens have fostered 130 children since 1987. Patti says her gift has always been for babies, toddlers and medically fragile kids.
When T arrives home, Patti meets the girl at the school bus and pushes her wheelchair inside. Immediately, Patti is focused on T. She is in the girl's world, patiently tending her, feeding her. T slowly eats her M&Ms while Patti stretches the girl's leg so it doesn't become stiff.
T has brain damage in addition to spina bifida and hydrocephalus. She's paralyzed from the waist down, weighs little more than 80 pounds, and has limited language skills. Still, the child is animated and interested in her favorite things: touching hair, snuggling her Barney doll, singing.
Patti understands everything must move at T's pace. The wide-eyed girl requires a bubble of calm and patience, and Patti obliges.
It's hard to imagine how difficult it would be to care for T and a houseful of other children. Patti concedes it's tough, but she loves fostering. Never wants to give it up. Loves the opportunity to provide a safe home for children in a transitional period in their lives. Loves the chance to "build good memories" of cookie-baking and family dinners for children from such traumatic pasts.
Still, she's appreciated the help in recent years from her Fostering Hope team. Like the Londos, the Svendsens were used to doing it all themselves, and hesitant to accept the offer, but glad they agreed.
"Turns out they were a godsend," Patti says. "They're there just to listen when you're frustrated."
Patti says as much as she loves the kids, she missed the adult bonding.
"Most foster parents will tell you that if you do foster care for long enough, your friends have moved on and you're still with babies and toddlers and wheelchairs," she says, her eyes tearing up. "I can't remember the last time we were invited to a friend's house for dinner."