Outside of a Mount Pleasant bowling alley, it feels like any old day in a strip mall. Shoppers hunt for the few shady parking spots. Delivery guys unload boxes from trucks. People come. People go.
But inside Sparians at River Bowl Charleston, nerves build like the searing summer heat beyond.
Thirteen teenagers arrive, some joking nervously, others solemn with uncertainty, to meet a dozen strangers. The strangers, six couples, wait just as anxiously.
All have come for one reason: to find the missing puzzle pieces of a family.
The teens hope to find lifelong families of love and stability.
And the couples are interested in adopting teenagers who have grown up in the shifting sands of foster care - lives of multiple moves, temporary homes and relationships that have come and gone like the days of their passing childhoods.
These six adoptive couples are among the too few. Most want babies and little kids.
The bowling alley air fills with a strange feeling, part long-lost family reunion, part blind date, part super awkward social event filled with people who don't know each other and have little in common.
Music blares and disco lights spin.
The S.C. Department of Social Services arranges these "meet, mingle, match" events around the state. At the recent bowling blitz, DSS staff separate adoptive couples and randomly place them with teens.
The first lane sits in painful silence.
Kyla, who's 15, sits on a couch, glancing around, a bright pink headband around her shorn blonde hair, as three adults and a teenage boy join her lane. The boy sits without talking.
Kyla is up first.
She grabs a bright red bowling ball and slings it down the alley. It slips into the gutter. But when she turns around, smiling sheepishly, the adults grin and cheer for her.
How do they imagine what a lifelong family looks like? They all know at least one, their own, for reference.
How does Kyla imagine a lifelong family?
She can't. And she doesn't let herself.
Kyla and her two sisters landed in foster care after their mother and her boyfriend were arrested. (DSS requests the children's last names not be published.)
Kyla was the middle child. As the years passed, her two sisters were adopted.
But not her. She has been in foster care for eight of her 15 years of life, living in 18 foster homes and two group homes.
"I do want a family to stay with forever," she says quietly.
What kind of family does she imagine? She pauses, thinking for a minute. Then she shrugs.
"I don't know a lot about it."
She doesn't remember living with her mother and her boyfriend. Nor does she want to, given how much hurt is mixed into those memories. The rest is near-constant moving.
However, she likes her current foster home. She likes school. She loves to draw.
"I've changed a lot, tremendously so," Kyla says. "I'm not the same person I was. I don't flip out on people now. I'm a whole new person."
One day, Kyla hopes to go to college in Florida. And with a lifelong family to call her own, she would have a home to return to. Forever.
Natalie Howard is an adoption recruiter with Growing Home Southeast, which works with at-risk children and families through foster and adoption programs, among others.
She is at the bowling alley to help find permanent homes for some of the Lowcountry's longest-waiting adoptive children, all teenagers. Adoptive parents often shy away from teens, worried about discipline and formative years overwhelmed with baggage.
"They think all these kids are bad. They misunderstand," Howard says.
Yes, some have trouble trusting. Many grapple with deep wounds from abuse and neglect. Many have never known what trust and commitment feel like. Many have never felt wanted much at all.
Of 606 families statewide approved to adopt, just 72 have indicated they would consider a teenager, says Jacqueline Adams, a recruiter for DSS adoptions.
At the same time, 1,236 children of all ages are waiting for adoption into permanent, lifelong homes. They need families, Adams says, not just until they turn 18, but when they go to college or get married, so their own children have people to call Grandma or Grandpa.
For two years, Karen and Dale Norman thought and prayed about adopting.
They had raised their three sons. The youngest is 20 and in the military. What was next for them?
They felt God wanted them to adopt.
"We kept saying, 'Are we too old?' " Karen recalls. "But we can give a teenager a great life."
She works as a legal assistant. Dale recently retired from his engineering career and is taking seminary classes. Both are in their 50s.
"What these kids all want is a mom and a dad - and a dog," Karen jokes. "We can do that."
Today, they are awaiting an approval letter from the state, hopefully next week. Then they can meet with eligible children in supervised settings. They want to adopt a daughter who is 10 or older.
"Teenagers get left out," Dale says. "But you unpack those bags, and you love that child where they're at."
The Normans have taken classes to learn how to handle issues that arise. They've also learned what many of these kids fear most: That even adoptive families won't want to keep them.
"They need love," Dale says. "If we can change one life, we have changed the future."
"We know there will be issues," Karen says.
"But that's life," Dale adds.
A friend recently asked them: How will you choose a child? The Normans look around the bowling alley at so many.
"I don't know," Karen says.
In Kyla's lane, an adoptive mother gets a strike. Applause breaks the awkward ice. Dale steps up and knocks down most of his pins.
All but the silent boy cheer. Instead, he cracks his knuckles.
Kyla leans toward him. "Why you don't want to play?" she asks.
He doesn't answer.
"Nervous?" she asks.
He picks at his shirt.
So Kyla becomes the life of her lane, cheering the adults, even when they beat her score.
Karen steps over from her neighboring lane. "We need you over here!" she teases Kyla, glancing at her husband.
When Dale throws a strike, Kyla marvels, "He's good!"
Dale shrugs humbly. "Lucky."
In another lane, a teenager named Ben jokes with his brother. If he is nervous, he doesn't show it.
Tall and lanky at 16, with glasses and a teal fishing hat, Ben speaks with a wise old voice.
Then he slings one down a lane and knocks down all but four. On his second pass, he gets all but one.
Despite his outward calm, the thought of a permanent family is "nerve wracking," he says.
He has lived in foster care since he was 6 years old. That's meant five or six homes already. The hardest part? Adjusting to new people and new rules.
While he loves sports, he also plays several instruments with an eye toward music production down the road.
He's here, holding a bowling ball, to find a lifelong family.
"It's the feeling that they want me there, and I want to be there," he says. "And where I feel safe."
Cheering in his lane is Oscar Sanchez. When he and his wife, Maria, lost a child to miscarriage, they prayed. The North Charleston couple had worked with a church youth ministry for several years and just wanted children: biological, adopted, babies, toddlers, teens, whatever.
"We just want kids," Maria says, laughing.
They felt pulled toward adopting and began the process to get DSS approval.
"Whatever God sends us, when that happens it will be clear," Oscar says.
As the bowling blitz winds down, anxious stomachs filled with pizza, bowling games won and lost, everyone hits the arcade.
Kyla joins a group watching a game in which a claw tries to pick up a prize - and inevitably drops it. When Dale's turn comes, Kyla squeezes in to watch. She squeals with excitement when he gets the claw to grip an electronic device ... for a few seconds.
The quiet boy walks around, watching it all from a back-row seat.
From here, approved adoptive parents who felt that special click with a child can pursue future supervised visits. She doesn't know it as she leaves, but one couple inquired about her.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter.