A typical weekday in the Twal household usually starts at 6 a.m., with the telltale pitter-patter of multiple pairs of energetic little feet, followed shortly thereafter by the familiar overlapping refrain of three ravenous growing boys:
“Mom, I’m hungry!”
As Michelle Twal gets breakfast ready, Mekiah, 8, Ameen, 6, and 3½-year-old Jonathan are often struck by an inexplicable urge to wrestle in the living room. Inevitably, someone gets hurt in the rambunctious wrangling. After any boo-boos are attended to, everyone is eventually fed and dressed, backpacks are readied and car seats are secured, but, before mom drives off to take the boys to preschool and elementary, the beautiful chaos is briefly silenced for a moment of prayer.
“Our family is 100 percent anchored in Jesus. … For us, it is the foundation,” explained Nader Twal, 42, an administrator for Long Beach Unified School District. “Michelle is just an incredible mother who very deeply weaves faith into our daily life so that it is not an event; it’s just part of how we work.”
How the Twals work also includes supporting foster care education efforts. Despite being a perpetually busy stay-at-home mom, Michelle serves on the board of Home Forever, a foster-to-adopt nonprofit. Their source of inspiration? The priceless experience of fostering and later adopting their youngest son, Jonathan.
“After taking in Jonathan, from that first day, thinking, ‘I love you with my whole heart, no matter what, no matter how long you’re going to stay with us,’” Michelle, 38, told Angelus News. “At that moment, I really began to understand glimpses of the heart of God toward us, how he freely just gives his love to us.”
Nader experienced similar thoughts and emotions.
“I didn’t realize that my heart wouldn’t distinguish [between] the love for my birth children and an adopted child,” he said. “It was as rich, it was as deep. It helped me understand my relationship to God, [that] he truly sees me as his son.”
Shortly after they first met, Michelle and Nader — who have been married for 10 years — discovered their mutual desire to someday adopt, which they both trace back to being raised in loving, faith-filled families, though in very different parts of the world: Michelle grew up in Canada and Nader — who was born in the state of Delaware to Jordanian parents — was raised in Saudi Arabia.
For both, faith centers their lives — a view they have shared since day one.
When their two older boys were toddlers, the Twals began seriously contemplating adoption. They had initially hoped to adopt a Syrian orphan, because Nader is Middle Eastern and “we thought it would be very easy to bridge the cultural gap.”
However, they were dismayed to discover that formal adoption within Muslim-majority nations is largely prohibited, and international adoptions in the region are incredibly rare. Despite their disappointment, soon after they learned that, at the time, “there were up to 35,000 kids in foster care within L.A. County,” noted Michelle.
“We began to realize these are kids we could help,” she said.
After speaking with the boys on and off about the idea of fostering a child, one day their eldest son, Mekiah, said out of the blue while out with his dad:
“Baba, do you know that some kids don’t have mommies and babas that can take care of them?” he asked.
“I do know that, buddy. What do you think about that?” replied Nader.
“Well, do you think we could be their family?” Mekiah said.
“Absolutely I think we can be their family, but what are we going to do if their family gets healthy, what should happen?” queried Nader, with tears streaming down his face.
“Well, we can give them back … and throw them a LEGO party!” answered Mekiah.
“What if their family can’t get healthy?” said Nader.
“Well, then they can be part of our family forever,” said Mekiah happily.
And that’s when Nader knew in his heart that their boys were ready.
Though the certification process to become foster parents only takes about four months, the Twals took their time, extending the timeline to almost 18 months to give their children time to become further accustomed to the idea. Also, confessed Michelle, “I kind of panicked along the way, [thinking to myself], ‘Oh my gosh. I can’t even juggle these two little kids; how can I handle a third one?’”
Despite her reservations, she soon realized that her anxiety was overshadowed by the very real need for safe, nurturing foster homes. Just days after being certified, they received a phone call about a baby boy who was only six days old, who had been born at a hospital just down the street from the Twals. They were told they might only need to look after him for about three months.
Baby Jonathan arrived in their home less than three days later and immediately found a place in their hearts — and he’s been there ever since.
Despite their immediate and growing bond with Jonathan, the Twals always knew that the ultimate goal was family reunification. Through the fostering process, they met Jonathan’s biological mother, who had regular visitations with him and went through phases when she appeared to be healthy and doing well.
“That’s the goal of foster care — when there’s a healthy biological family member, we want to reunify,” Michelle said. “But probably 18 months in we started realizing [it wasn’t] going to work out … so we started pursuing [adoption].”
The Twals formally adopted Jonathan a year ago, when he was 2½.
“He’s been with us from the beginning. He knows no other home. This is God’s grace,” said Michelle. From early on, the Twals have used age-appropriate language to tell Jonathan about his biological mother, explaining, “You grew in Mommy Jill’s tummy, but I get to take care of you and I’m your mommy [too].”
The Twals have remained in regular contact with Jonathan’s biological family — he Facetimes with his grandmother and sister every month, and his family travels to Southern California once a year and spends time with him.
“We [became] part of each other’s extended families,” said Michelle, noting she deems it particularly important because Jonathan is African-American, and the strong relationship helps him maintain close ties to his ancestry, race and culture.
“At this young age, adoption is still a very special thing … and it’s awesome [to him],” said Michelle. But as Jonathan gets older and starts realizing that not everyone is adopted “the conversation’s going to be different — and we’ll have to take him through his grief and just help him work through that as best we can.”
Nader advises would-be foster parents to go into the process expecting it to be difficult — for example, some children can be particularly challenging due to the traumas they’ve experienced, and not every foster placement will work out.
“These kids have been neglected, they’ve been abused; [many have] never experienced the fullness of a parent’s love,” said Michelle. “As Christians, we’re called to give God’s love away freely, [but] that doesn’t mean it’s easy. There were a lot of tears involved in our journey, and moments when we thought we were going to lose Jonathan.”
But, according the the Twals, the potential benefits to boys and girls in need of kindness and stability far outweigh the possible risks and inconveniences.
“This is not transactional,” said Nader. “[Love] is exactly what these children need, and if it hurts when they go, then you know you did it right. … If you experience loss when they leave, that means that you loved well.”
“A lot of people say, ‘Oh I could never be a foster parent because I [don’t want] my heart to be broken.’ But the person whose heart [would] break over a child would make the best foster parent,” emphasized Michelle.
“Our hearts will heal,” she continued, “but we don’t know what our love is going to do for that child in the future. Yours may be the only [genuine] love they ever experience as a child, and it may send them on to good things later on in life, just because for one year they had that one foster mom who [really] loved them.”
How to get involved
Child Share (soon to be renamed Foster All): Works directly with volunteers and faith communities to identify the best agency to suit their needs; helps them through the process of becoming certified to foster; provides support and resources before and during the foster care period; and connects agencies with faith communities to provide wrap-around support, such as parents’ nights and collection drives for clothing. ChildShare.org / 818-649-8000
CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children): Connects volunteers directly with foster children. Volunteers receive training and commit to advocating on behalf of foster children in all areas of their lives, such as education and health care. casaLA.org / 323-859-2888
Foster care: Local facts & statistics
› 20,952 children are currently in foster care in Los Angeles County.*
› 38 percent of all children in foster care in California reside in L.A. County.
› Nearly 2,000 young adults 18-21 are enrolled in extended foster care in L.A.
› Half of youths/young adults who have aged out of foster care end up homeless or incarcerated.
› 75 percent of young women in foster care report at least one pregnancy by age 21, compared to only one-third of those in the general population.
› Half of young men aging out of foster care have become fathers, compared to only 19 percent of their peers in the general population.
› Nearly half of foster kids have learning disabilities or delays.
› 75 percent of students in foster care are performing below grade level.
› By grade 11, only 20 percent of students in foster care are proficient in English and only 5 percent are proficient in math.
› Only 58 percent of students in foster care graduate from high school and only 3 percent graduate from college.
From Alliance for Children’s Rights
*From L.A. County Department of Children & Family Services, April 2017