Some people wish for clothes or money on their birthday. Others may wish for a day of fun with their friends. All ten-year-old Ivey wanted, after being in foster care for three years, was to be adopted by her loving foster parents. This year, her birthday wish came true.
The path to Ivey’s adoption started three years ago, when Paige and Daniel Zezulka of Athens, Georgia made the decision to become foster parents. “We got a call about a little boy who needed a home,” Paige Zezulka told Good Morning America. The boy was named Kai and was a mere 5 months old. While the main goal of foster care is the eventual reunification of child and their birth family, Paige explained it was clear that, given the case’s circumstances, a successful reunion would be close to impossible.
However, the Zezulkas soon learned that Kai had an older sister, Ivey, who was also in foster care. Through arranged playdates and get-togethers with Ivey’s foster family, the Zezulkas realized that Kai and Ivey belonged together. “The siblings were so bonded, it was amazing,” Paige said. Ivey captured the couple’s hearts quickly. “From the moment we met her, we loved her.”
Weeks later, Paige got word that Ivey and Kai’s biological mother had just given birth to a baby girl named Lita. When asked if the couple would consider fostering Lita as well, Paige couldn’t refuse. “I said yes without asking my husband. I knew he would have said yes anyway.”
Out of all the children, the couple was worried that Ivey, the oldest, would have the most difficult time transitioning to a new home, especially as she had grown akin to her previous foster parents. “We made a new room for her with pink everything, fit for a princess. We wanted her to feel safe and loved,” said the Zezulkas. But the first night Ivey moved in to her new home, Paige recalled,”God was amazing…[Ivey] asked if she could call us Mom and Dad. The second day, she asked if she could stay forever.”
A Dream Come True
Although the family knew months ago they were going to adopt Ivey and her two siblings, the adoption was finalized on Ivey’s birthday, at the end of August. In this viral heartwarming video, Ivey opens up her birthday present; her foster parents on either side of her. Inside is a framed document that reads: “I’m going to be adopted.” Immediately upon reading it, Ivey’s face collapses into tears of joy, love, and utter relief. “We will always be your parents,” Daniel tells his new daughter, kissing her forehead and wrapping her in a hug. “I love you so much,” Paige whispers. “I love you, too,” Ivey cries.
“Ivey is so wonderful and special, and we are so blessed she is our daughter. Sometimes people are afraid to consider older kids. They think they may be ‘damaged.’ We hit the jackpot,” Paige said.
A Huge Epidemic Remains
Keeping Ivey and her siblings together was a huge priority for the Zezulkas. Not only to maintain a sense of normalcy and familiarity, but because there are simply not enough homes for all of the children in the foster care system. Paige called the shortage of foster parents in the United States a “huge epidemic.” The state of Georgia especially has been under fire for a lack of families able to safely house children in dire need of care.
Georgia currently has more than 15,000 children in foster care—a 60% increase from 2014. The state Division of Family and Children Services “link[s] the increase in foster children to a state-driven effort to encourage people to report suspected child abuse.” In 2015, the state established a 24/7 telephone number, which according to communications director, Walter Jones, has accelerated the awareness of children who need help. In order to keep up with this rise in need, Jones and his team must constantly recruit eligible foster parents—a never-ending process.
Hundreds of thousands of children who are in foster homes, like Ivey was for 1,128 days of her life, are waiting to open their own birthday presents someday and find a frame of hope staring back at them. Paige Zezulka encourages families to open their hearts to foster care, whether that means hosting a child themselves, or supporting the people close to them who do. In a Facebook post, she writes, “It is so hard on children to live in such uncertainty. Adoption is amazing and we want others to know that adopting older children and sibling groups can be the most beautiful adventure you could ever have!”
Photo credits: Paige Zezulka/Kristin Benton Photography, ABC7Chicago (cover image)