By Wayne Schutsky, GSN Managing Editor
For Father’s Day this year, George Hursh will have a chance to celebrate at least 12 times over – once for every child that he and his wife, Kate, have adopted.
The Gilbert family has fostered nearly four dozen children altogether, making a small dent in Arizona’s population of 16,000 foster kids.
From the outside, the Hursh family’s home looks a lot like the other beige and tan stucco houses that surround it in the family’s south Gilbert community, but the large commercial-style Ford van in the driveway is a hint at the family’s unique situation.
The couple, who married in 2005, always planned to foster children but put those plans on hold for a few years after welcoming their first child via a private adoption following a twist of fate.
“We had the intent to do foster care and no intention at all to do private adoption,” Kate said.
“But this little baby girl was due Good Friday, and I was working for the Catholic Church. How could you say no to that?” said Kate, who worked in youth ministry at St. Timothy Catholic Church in Mesa for 12 years before retiring after they adopted their fourth child.
They began fostering children in 2008 and have taken in 45 children.
“We kind of just knew there was a need,” Kate said. “When we started, there were only 10,000 kids in care, which is crazy considering where we are now, and only 9,000 beds. We kept saying where are those other kids? Where are the rest of them? So, any time we had an adoption or we could up our license, we just did.”
“Things escalated quickly,” George said.
The family eventually began adopting children, partially motivated by a desire to keep siblings together. Among the family’s 12 children, there are two sibling groups of three children each.
The couple finalized their last adoption in April and now has 12 children between the ages of 2 and 12.
And while they are not the first family with that many kids, the age distribution in the Hursh family is certainly unique as they have three children who are 9, two each of kids who are 4, 7 and 10.
While raising that many young children comes with a set of obvious challenges, it has its benefits, too, they said.
For instance, it can also be a benefit when it comes time to shop for clothes.
“We don’t have a dresser for each kid. We have dressers for ages,” she said.
It also makes it easier for the family to stay on top of the children’s studies when so many of them are learning the same subjects.
“It’s great because all of my third-graders have similar homework,” Kate said.
Educating multiple children of the same age at the same time poses unique challenges, however: “When you have three learning to read at the same time, it’s a lot,” George said.
Fostering also presents challenges for parents who choose to take on children with various physical and mental health issues created by their previous living situations.
“There are varying needs among our little munchkins, some more severe than others,” Kate said. “Everybody’s baseline is different depending on the type of trauma they experienced.”
For the Hurshes, the goal is to provide a safe and welcoming environment where those children can thrive in spite of those issues.
“When kids come in you don’t know things like reading level,” Kate said, noting that one of their children came to them in second grade and pretended she could read for months before they found out she could not.
That same child, sho was reading at a seventh-grade level by the end of third grade, excels at dance and was voted onto the student council.
“It’s beautiful to see them blossom once they are taken out of bad situations,” George said.
Fostering children can be hard on the parents, too, as they have had to say goodbye to many children they had grown to love.
While the couple unequivocally supports family reunification when it is safe for the child to be returned, it still hurts to see them go.
“I love the way George always says that if you’re not going into it with the willingness to get your heartbroken, you’re not doing it right,” Kate said. “You have to love these kids to the point where you would be broken if they left, otherwise you aren’t doing them any good.”
George and Kate Hursh have taken on a lot over the course of their marriage, but they have also had a lot of help. The two parents are the first to commend their families and community for pitching in to create a positive environment for their children.
“Our school community has been incredible,” Kate said of Gilbert’s Spectrum Elementary School. “The principal watches out for our kids like they’re her own.”
It took the couple six years to find resources like Mesa United Way’s Helen’s Hope Chest and Arizona Friends of Foster Care, which helps foster parents pay for activities like dance class or swim lessons for their children.
Those activities are crucial as they help the children come out of their shell and develop confidence.
Aid to Adoption of Special Kids has created a website at azfamilyresources.org where foster parents can find links to resources for clothes, school supplies and other necessities.
It also helps that George, who works in software testing for Chase Bank, has an understanding boss and the flexibility to work from home on occasion.
The Hurshes also keep in touch with some of their children’s biological relatives.
“If it is healthy, we have a great relationship with birth parents and extended family,” Kate said.
Over the course of their journey, the parents have always strived to provide lasting positive memories for the children in their care — whether they will be there long term or for just a few weeks.
Sometimes that means going on vacations to Disneyland or the beach in San Diego to give the kids experiences they have never had before.
Other times that meant starting Christmas a few months early, just after Halloween, so one of their children had the chance to put up her first Christmas tree.
“The tree went up really early,” George said.
Kate said, “We always try when there is a new child to have them put on the first ornament to give them those traditional memories.”
For the Hursh family, those memories are about giving every child in their care something good to look back on, because “you only have one childhood,” Kate said.
“We want for them not to look upon their time in care so negatively,” George said.