Christopher and Amy Gaebel wanted their Port Washington home to be full of children, and they got their wish, with two adopted children and 23 foster kids—so far
Christopher Gaebel tossed the giggling, 10-month-old girl into the air while his sons Zachary, 3, and Daniel, 4, played on a slide at Hill School Park in Port Washington.
“She’s our 23rd foster child,” Christopher said as he nuzzled the baby who came to their family last week. “That could change tomorrow or even tonight. You never know when another one will arrive.”
The three-bedroom Port Washington home he and his wife Amy own was overflowing last week, and they couldn’t be happier.
In addition to their two sons and new foster baby, the couple has five foster children — three teenage girls who share a room and two younger boys who are in the process of returning to their parents. The boys, who share a bedroom with Daniel and Zachary, stay three to four days a week with their birth parents and the rest of the week with the Gaebels during the transition period.
Their current foster children are in four different school districts. The Gaebels go to many teacher conferences and communicate frequently with educators.
“Christopher is a great dad. He always takes time to play with the younger kids after work. He’s an endless source of come-and-get-me, trips to the park, bike rides, roller blading, hide-and-seek, walks on the beach and bedtime storyteller extraordinaire,” Amy said.
“He’s great with the older kids, helping them with their homework and talking about music, books or sports, finding a common interest.”
Loving is the best word to describe the family, a 16-year-old foster girl said.
“Everybody loves each other even though we may not be related,” she said.
“It’s so nice here. It’s been life changing. I went from a really bad situation to something that put a smile on my face. I never smiled before.
“I never had a stable dad in my life, and he (Christopher) is an amazing dad.”
Appreciation like that keeps the Gaebels in foster care.
When the couple moved to Port 11 years ago, they hoped to fill the house with children, but didn’t expect it would be in this manner.
“We couldn’t have children, and we were looking into adoption but decided to go into fostering,” said Christopher, an English teacher at Homestead High School in Mequon. “We have a fairly big house, and it seemed like the right thing to do.”
While the couple was in the process of being licensed for foster care in Ozaukee County in 2009, Christopher learned the daughter of a woman he knew was pregnant. If the daughter decided to give up the baby for adoption, he told the mother he and his wife would like to be considered.
“The girl interviewed three families several times,” Christopher said. “We talked through everything — how we planned to raise the child and our willingness to have an open adoption and relationship with her.”
They got the OK from her about the same time they got their foster care license. Foster children starting arriving in September and their son Daniel was born in December.
“We went from no one in the house in August to a full house by December,” Christopher said. “It was a very hectic, fun Christmas.”
Zachary came to them in October 2010. He was 2 months old and had been in another foster home. Efforts to reunite him with his family failed, and the Gaebels applied for adoption. It took two years for his parents’ rights to be terminated.
With two beautiful adopted sons, the couple could have stopped taking in foster children and concentrated on raising the boys, but they did just the opposite.
Their sons have grown up with foster children coming and going.
“They think it’s normal and all families are like ours,” their father said. “They go through the getting-to-know stage, wanting to know everything about the new arrival. They were so excited to see the baby.
“They look at it as an opportunity for someone new to play with. They adore the older girls and the girls adore them.”
The Gaebels, who were willing to take any age child until recently, are often the first family called by social workers when a child needs emergency placement.
Until their sons get older, they have decided to take only teenagers or children younger than the boys.
“They were picking up some bad habits,” Amy said. “They’re too impressionable now. When they get older, they’ll better understand what’s acceptable and not acceptable behavior and we’ll take elementary kids again.”
The recent increase in heroin use in the county has resulted in an increased need for foster parents to care for children found in the homes.
“There is a lot of substance abuse. It affects all aspects of life,” Christopher said. “But they come to us for a variety of reasons — mental health issues, not being able to take care of a baby.”
Amy added, “Sometimes, it’s just poor decision making, but those decisions have adverse effects on the children.”
Foster parents take classes to learn how to handle the children in their care. They share what works and do a lot of research on the issues the children have.
“Sometimes, it’s just trial and error,” Christopher said. “You keep trying things until something hopefully works.
“We had brothers with similar challenging behaviors. One thing worked excellent with one and not at all with the other. Each child is different.
“Some of the kids that come to us had to grow up way too fast. They’re making their own meals, doing the laundry, sometimes taking care of their parents. They have issues with authority, and there is a lack of trust. A lot of promises have been made and not kept. We don’t make promises we can’t keep.”
Amy added, “You can’t go into this thinking you’re going to have a father-son or mother-daughter relationship. It’s a different relationship, and they learn to appreciate you in a different way than as a parent.”
Christopher and Amy often work with parents to help them get their children back. The steps the parents must take are dictated by the courts and social workers.
“The parents aren’t happy,” Amy said. “It may take a while for them to realize we’re not to blame. We’re not the ones who took their children away from them. We’re trying to keep them safe and do what’s best for them.”
The couple prefer to call the work they do with parents sharing rather than mentoring.
“We’re sharing what works for us when their children are with us,” Christopher said.
Some foster children are with the Gaebels only a day or two, while others are there for several months or even years. One girl was with them five years.
They keep in touch with foster children who were with them for long periods, and are always ready to welcome new youngsters to their home.
Image information: THE GAEBELS TOOK a break from playing at Hill School Park in Port Washington last week. Amy held Zachary, Daniel was on a step and Christopher held a 10-month-old foster baby. Not pictured were five foster children, three teenage girls and two younger boys. Photo by Sam Arendt