EDITOR’S NOTE: November is National Adoption Month. This story profiles one family’s journey to an unexpected place.
BECKLEY — Back in June 2018, when Danny Gill’s wife first mentioned a meeting for people interested in adopting a child through foster care, he was not even a little bit interested.
“My reaction was, ‘Uh, no,’” he remembered.
He knew the numbers — there were 6,996 children in foster care in West Virginia as of the end of October, according to the state’s Department of Heath and Human Resources; just over 4,000 of them have been placed with relatives, but the others are in group-home settings, temporary shelters and other placements. Some will age out of the system without ever finding a home or family to call their own.
But they were just numbers — big, overwhelming numbers — with no names or faces attached.
“I can say, ‘OK, there’s 6,900 kids here in foster care,’ but it’s not like you see a face. It’s not like you’re visiting a kid at the shelter who has a real need,” he said.
With two biological children already, he thought, “I had me and my wife. I had a son and a daughter. We fit perfectly in any car. We fit perfectly around the booth at Shoney’s. I don’t need anything else.”
He said, “I told her, ‘Maybe we can give some money.’ Our church has a foster closet where you could get clothes and diapers and stuff like that for free. I mean, maybe we could do more to support that versus just bringing a kid into our home.”
A lot has happened in a relatively short time since then.
Looking back, “I think how selfish that statement sounds, compared to the sign that lays on my dining room table now, that says, ‘When you have all that you need, build a longer table, not a higher fence.’”
Making a connection
The story begins a few years ago, and it follows a winding path, as so many foster stories do.
A Sunday school teacher wasn’t available on this particular day, so Danny filled in for a class he never would have taught. It was a lesson for elementary school children about a crippled man who needed to reach the water to be healed — but didn’t have anybody who could carry him to the water’s edge.
Afterward, he noticed a young girl who seemed especially upset.
“And so I asked, you know, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ And her mother, the little girl’s mother had been permanently removed for drugs. Her dad was in jail long term. She had been taken in place with the grandmother, and then that grandmother had gone into an intensive care unit and wasn’t expected to make it.
“And she just kind of looked at me and said, ‘I don’t have anybody.’ And it just melted me.”
There was no doubt about what he would say, in the face of such need.
“I looked at her dead in the face and I said, ‘You’ve got me.’”
She was 9 years old. They’d known each other for all of five minutes, and he would have turned his life upside down for her.
As it turned out, she was placed with relatives, one of them a social worker who stayed in touch with Danny for a while.
“But at that point, my interests laid in that one little girl. Not in kids in general,” he said.
Last summer, when his wife, Kim, felt an urge to attend that foster/adoption meeting at I Heart Church in Mount Hope, she went alone.
And she learned a lot.
“They said that once a kid in foster care reaches 7, nobody wants them, so that really tugged on my heart strings,” she said. “People want babies when they think about foster and adoption but older kids are put wherever and forgotten about.”
People are often afraid of the baggage that comes with an older child, but “I’ve always had a heart for the teenagers,” she said.
Maybe that’s because Kim Gill has a knack for taking things in stride.
“I wasn’t frustrated,” she said, “because I’ve learned over the years that if it was meant to be, God would change his heart.”
The text that changed it all
Somewhere in the back of his mind, Danny was aware, like most of us, that the foster care situation in West Virginia was bursting at the seams. That there are kids languishing, aging out and falling between the cracks.
“The need is growing exponentially based upon the opiate crisis and a lot of the drugs and overdoses and things like that. But the amount of people that are helping is not growing as fast as the amount of kids that are needing care,” he said.
The sterile facts, though, felt distant.
“It didn’t feel real to me,” he said. “It wasn’t until there was a real face to the story that it touched me that much.”
Then, out of the blue one day in October 2018, he got a text from the relative of the little girl in Sunday school: “Would you be interested in fostering a child?”
Eight little words that would change multiple lives.
Danny assumed it was about the child he’d met those years before.
“So I replied back, and I said, ‘If this is about [that child], just tell me where she is and I will leave right now and I will go get her. I don’t care if she’s in California.”
It wasn’t about her. But her social worker-relative knew another case worker who was working hard to find a home for another child in need.
“It was about a 16-year-old girl who was in a shelter,” said Kim, adding that the woman who texted Danny had taken a special interest in the teen, “knew that she was sweet, would be a great kid to have in your home, she didn’t cause trouble, yada yada yada.”
It was a teenager they’d never met and knew nothing about.
And with that, the man who wasn’t interested in “a random kid” was completely on board.
“God changed his heart,” Kim said. “I don’t know if you can put that in the paper again, but that’s just the truth of the matter. That little girl and God changed his heart.”
“Now it was not 6,900 kids in foster care. It was one particular kid that needed me and it just changed, just like that,” Danny said.
Bringing Arrora home
The path to securing a foster child is rarely straight. Danny and Kim met a whole group of kids in foster care — including the girl they were messaged about.
They completed background checks and, after weeks of persistence, got approval to bring her home for an overnight visit. They also connected with another girl, 105-pound, blond-haired, blue-eyed Arrora, and invited both girls for a long Thanksgiving weekend.
Incredibly, they got approval to include Arrora in a matter of hours.
“If you talk to every other foster family you will know that things like this don’t happen,” Kim said. “It takes months, sometimes years, to get you foster-approved to get a child in your house.”
“We met these girls in November and they were both living with us in December,” she added.
The other girl eventually chose a placement elsewhere, but Arrora stayed, and now, by all accounts, fits in with the entire family like she’s been there all along.
That part has been easy, Danny said. “Her heart wants to do good.”
Becoming a family
Settling in to one place may have been the biggest adjustment of all. Arrora was 14 when she entered the foster care system.
“I’ve moved seven times in the last year and a half,” she said. “It’s something.”
Sometimes she was told she’d be moving but not when. Sometimes a social worker would show up with no warning and she’d have to pack her things.
“You always kind of have to fear that someone’s going to pull up and just, ‘go,’ no matter what I think,” she said.
Slowly, she has settled in. The family jokes about how awkward that first Christmas was, how she used to say about four words a day.
“To me it was one. It was ‘Hey,’” said 18-year-old Sammy Gill. “But when she spoke she kind of had that smart-aleck humor that every single person, all four of us have, so it was an immediate fit.”
Arrora, now 16, and Sydney Gill, 15, are great friends. Both have their learner’s permits at the same time — there are lots of jokes about that.
Perhaps the biggest journey of all is Danny Gill’s transition from detached supporter to adoption and foster care activist. He speaks at adoption events throughout the region, including last week at the Capitol as part of “It Takes A Village,” sponsored by Mission West Virginia.
He’s made YouTube videos. He had his Insure Insurance firm set up a system so that anyone can text the word HERO to 43506 and get a message with information about foster care and a link to Mission West Virginia.
It’s not an easy process, he said. There are roller coasters. There is paperwork.
“But show me one kid who’s not worth it,” he said.