FLORENCE — At 18 years old and in an overcrowded foster care system, twin sisters Adeja and Alona Gore believed they would simply age-out of the system when they went to college, leaving them to never experience what it felt like to come home on holidays and summer break.

But that was before they were placed with Jeannette Gore.

After almost a year and a half together as a foster family, the three have decided to officially become a family through adoption. And that means the girls will now forever have a place to call home.

“With Alona and Adeja — in just the few years they've been with me — I couldn't let them go,” Jeannette said. “I have that attachment, and I just can't see a child having nowhere to go. That doesn't make sense, and me giving them up now. That's not an option.”

With Adeja heading off to college in a few weeks and Alona following soon after in January, the twins were already starting to feel some separation anxiety. But now both girls say the adoption has eased most of their discomfort and made what would already be a difficult time much easier.

“I'm going to be lonely,” Adeja said. “But to know that I'm going to come home to my sister and my mama is a good thing, and to actually have a home to come to is even greater.”

Making the decision to allow Jeannette to adopt them wasn't as easy a decision for the girls as one might assume though. For many older kids in the system, especially ones who have been moved around a lot or been hurt — either emotionally or physically — by previous foster families, the decision can be really tough.

“I was on the back burner because we had already had a family say they were going to adopt us and then back out,” Alona said. “I kind of understood because they were older and might not be able to keep up with us, but. Then Adeja came to me and said, 'Alona, I think she's really going to be good for us, I really like her.' Then I said, 'OK, I'll give it a try.'

“It's a blessing to be adopted at this age — we're lucky.”

The girls aren't the only ones feeling lucky — giving the twins a home has blessed Jeannette too.

“I have a heart for kids; I love kids,” she said. “If I could get all these kids today I would. I just want to give them something to call home. They may move off, but they'll always have somewhere to call home — no matter where they go. If you can't go nowhere else you can always come home.”

Unfortunately for most kids in the foster system however, stories with a happy ending like this one are not the norm.

The South Carolina Department of Social Services currently has 610 children between the ages of 13 to 18 years old who live in either group homes or foster care. Some of these children are part of sibling groups and have siblings as young as 7 years old.

In an effort to reduce those numbers and help create more happy endings in the system, region-wide recruitment events are being coordinated around the state to help find adoptive homes for the older foster children who are legally free for adoption.

In a daylong recruitment program called “The Voyage for Permanence for Our Waiting Children,” representatives from the Pee Dee region gathered recently at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Florence with more than 74 potential adoptive families and foster parents, along with almost 90 foster children, to answer questions and introduce potential family matches.

While kids played games and ate cotton candy and snow cones, adults had the chance to mingle with representatives from DSS, therapists, families who have already adopted and other adoption experts. Speakers and panels, made up of both adults and children, answered questions and eased fears over the process and what potential adoptive families could expect upon bringing a child into their home permanently.

Pee Dee Adoption Administrator Sandra Kinley-Belin said the event is part of a new effort to better communicate to all the parties involved and hopefully help reduce the number of kids who age out of foster care without a place to call home.

“The big concern is children who age out of the system without anybody,” Kinley-Belin said. “You know we all have our families we can go home to for Thanksgiving or call when we get a flat tire or have that connection to call when things are going good or not so good in our lives, a shoulder to cry on. We want our children to have that connection with a family.

“Our goal is to find families so that they can have permanence, because you don't really want them to age out of the system in foster care.”

Tony Perdoma, the state director of family services for South Carolina's Foster Parent Association, which works in conjunction with DSS, is someone who practices what he preaches when it comes to finding a home for kids in the foster system.

He and his wife have two biological children, one adopted son and are in the process of adopting a sibling group of four.

“By trade I'm a therapist and I do trainings for the foster parents and adoptive parents,” Perdoma said. “I really got involved about four years ago and it just really pulled at my heart strings. I met a little boy that I really fell in love with and that's what started the whole process.”

The experience has left Perdoma and his wife with a pretty clear understanding of what it takes to make it work when bringing foster kids into your home.

“It's not my kids and my adopted kids,” he said. “They're all my children. You have to have the understanding and the ability to not differentiate between your kids.”

In a program called 'Unpack the No,' therapists, adoption advocates and DSS offices across the state are working together to change the thinking of foster parents and kids.

“It's a new concept of trying to get kids placed and it's just basically become a driving force, you know James 1:27 — we have to take care of the widows and orphans,” Perdoma said. “If they think about it from the child's perspective it's not, 'what am I going to do?' It's 'what are they going to do' when they don't have a home and they're in college and they need somewhere to go for Christmas break?”

Perdoma said the 610 kids currently in foster homes or group homes “may have stability but they don't have permanence.” While some foster families may always welcome their foster kids back, he said there is a difference between being invited and just knowing you're always welcome.

“I know without a shadow of a doubt that I can always go to my dad's house and I don't even have to call first, whereas foster kids who age out of care — they don't have that type of relationship,” he said. “People just don't really understand that from a kid's perspective and from the legal perspective — that piece of paper really means a lot. That means, 'I've accepted you 100 percent.”'

Kinley-Belin agreed and said that bringing the issues that the state is faced with when it comes to foster care and adoption needs for older kids is a crucial effort that must be ongoing to make a difference.

“We're just trying to do everything we can to bring more attention to the fact that while everybody wants to adopt cute little babies and younger ones, we have children who are just as loving and are just as needed, who want families, who want a mom and a dad,” she said. “Please give them consideration and don't look beyond them.”

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Information from: Morning News, http://www.scnow.com