BEMIDJI, Minn. — Denae Alamano was feeling outnumbered. She and her husband, Orlando, had two young boys of their own when they decided to become foster parents in 2015. The first two foster children they cared for were boys, too.
But that all changed two months ago when their third foster child became their own in an adoption ceremony at the Beltrami County Courthouse. Elizabeth Kay Alamano — “Libby” — joined the family on Aug. 9, exactly 412 days after she stole their hearts in a Fargo hospital room.
“I’m excited to have a girl in the house,” Denae said with a laugh. “Somebody on my side.”
The Alamanos weren’t sure if they were the right fit for foster parenting. With full-time jobs and two young sons, they wondered if their desire to give back to the community would work. Denae is executive director for United Way of Bemidji Area. Orlando is a safety analyst for The Clifty Group, a construction company in the oil and gas industry. They also stay busy with sons Sam, 7, and Joey, soon to be 5.
“We thought let’s get the contact information for the county foster care and tell them how our life is,” Denae said, “because we’re not how we assumed you have to be as foster parents. That someone had to stay home, you had to be very accessible in all aspects of your day, that we could end up with a teenager and we’re not ready or equipped for that, all of those kinds of things.”
They quickly learned that those concerns were not an issue.
“To sit down with Robin Schmidt, who is the (Beltrami) county licensor … to tell her how our life is and to hear, ‘No, there’s a huge foster care system that can help,’” Denae recalls. “We found out we could just do emergency care on the weekends if we wanted, we could do respite care where you’re taking care of kids whose foster parents are maybe going on vacation or need a break. It was just really eye-opening. We thought, ‘Oh, we can make this work.’”
Schmidt said others could learn from the Alamanos’ example.
“We always need more foster families,” Schmidt said. “A lot of them come to us with just wanting to give back to the community in some way.”
After they went through the licensing process, Orlando and Denae were told it could take a while before they got their first call. But two weeks later, at Christmastime in 2015, that call came. An infant boy born in Park Rapids needed a foster home. That meant they would be caring for three boys ages 3 and under.
“We had a very fun first experience,” Orlando said. “He was a very good baby. So you’re holding one, one’s barely moving and the other one isn’t quite big enough to really take care of himself.”
In the six months they had that first foster child, the Alamanos learned about letting go.
“Some people will say, ‘I could never do that, I’d get too attached,’” Denae said. “Part of you is like, ‘Wait, do you think I don’t have a heart? I’m totally attached. But at the same time, someone needs to do this. Someone has to take care of these kids. Someone needs to be present. And if you can go into it with ‘I need to love you while I have you, and that this isn’t going to be permanent,’ that’s why you’re doing this.”
Orlando added, “If you didn’t get attached, then I’d ask why you are doing this. You should get attached.”
They had their second foster child, a 9-month-old boy, only for a weekend in an emergency placement.
Then came Libby.
“I got the call that there was a little girl in the NICU (Newborn Intensive Care Unit) over in Fargo and that she was going to need a home any day,” Denae said.
But it wasn’t any day. Health challenges kept the infant in the hospital for an extended period.
“It got kind of scarily complicated to us,” Denae said, “but I would say by the grace of God we stuck with it. Because it was starting to take so long, I asked Orlando, ‘Can we just go meet her? I feel like this is getting complicated and if our heart’s not in it, are we going to back out.’
So they drove to Fargo in June of 2018, and then started visiting the baby every weekend for the next month.
“We decided that we’d spend the Fourth of July there,” Denae said. “She was going to have surgery, and I hated that she was going to be alone. After that surgery, she ended up coming to our house that next weekend. So we put the boys in day care on Friday, July 7, and drove over and brought her home.”
Of course, that home had never been equipped for a girl. It was time to change that.
“I texted other foster parents and asked for girl’s stuff,” Denae said with an appreciative smile. ”The avengers assembled and our house filled up with stuff. That’s how amazing the foster care community is here in Bemidji, that everyone is willing to help make a baby’s life better.”
A permanent home
It didn’t take long for the little girl to steal the hearts of Orlando, Denae, Sam and Joey. They decided to make it permanent by adopting Libby. The adoption happened 13 months after the little girl came to them as a foster child. Beltrami County District Court Judge Shari Schluchter made sure the boys were included in the ceremony and raised their right hands alongside their parents.
Family friend Erin Echternach was among the throng of supporters in attendance at the adoption ceremony.
“It was so fun to see the different personalities of the kids and see that Libby just fit right in,” Echternach said. “To be there and witness that ceremony, I had never been a part of anything like that, and to see the love that they have for not only their immediate family but for their community, and all of the people up there to support them in that room. I think speaks volumes of them as a couple and as a family. It was amazing to see the boys participate but also to see how happy Libby was to be with them as well.”
Schmidt said it’s not uncommon for families to adopt their foster children.
“Some of them do not come to us with the intention to adopt,” she said, “but sometimes when the stars align with a child they’ve had in their care, and unfortunately reunification efforts with parents were not successful and the child is freed for adoption we’ve had quite a few foster families that have said, ‘This wasn’t our plan, but we can’t imagine this child going anywhere else.’”
The Alamanos celebrated the addition of Libby to their family with a party at the Headwaters Science Center. “We really only invited people who were part of her story,” Denae said, “and there were over 100 people there. The network that little girl has of people who care about her and are supporting us as a family is huge. We wouldn’t be able to do it if we didn’t have that network.”
They plan to remain a part of that network as well.
“We’re licensed, and we’re up for emergency care or respite care, but we won’t be taking on full care right now,” Orlando said. “We hope to get to help other people like we’ve been helped.”