By SUSAN JONES
When Pitt faculty member David Wert and his wife decided to add to their family through adoption, they were very naive about how much the process would cost, he said. Now, a charity they started helps to make that process easier for other families.
They already had two birth daughters, so were prepared for the costs of raising a child, but not for the $40,000 they would need to come up with even before they saw their son. That amount didn’t include the costs of traveling twice to Kazakhstan before they could bring 3-year-old Alek home in 2009.
The adoption process is always a bumpy road, said Wert, associate professor and vice chair of doctor of physical therapy education in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. “I think when you go into it with … the right mindset, I think you can navigate the road well, but it is a challenging one for sure.”
After gathering money where they could and pulling from savings, they realized, “we’re just gonna have to bite the bullet and we’re gonna have to go more public and have a fundraiser, like so many have done.”
“We were kind of just dreading it, because, again, maybe we were naive at the time about everybody’s support of adoption, but we were certainly starting to hear some of the maybe not so supportive comments,” Wert said, such as “If you can’t afford a child then why are you even pursuing adoption?” or “Nobody helped me pay for my kid, why am I helping pay for yours.”
Many don’t realize that the cost of domestic adoptions can range from $15,000 to $45,000, according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. International adoptions can cost $20,000 to $50,000, before travel fees. In comparison, a typical vaginal birth leaves families with an out-of-pocket bill of around $5,000, after insurance, according to a Michigan Medicine study.
When a friend named Gregory heard about the Werts’ dilemma, he sent them a check to cover the outstanding balance for the upfront costs of the adoption, along with a letter that said, “You don’t have to do a spaghetti dinner, I got you covered.”
The charity Gregory’s Gift, which aims to increase the feasibility of adoption by helping overcome the financial hurdles, grew out of this friend’s generosity.
“That financial support was very freeing. It took a huge weight off of our shoulders,” Wert said. “We were so happy that we continued to pursue it, despite the fact we weren’t sure how we were going to afford it. ... We always knew we wanted to pay it forward, because finding folks that are interested in adoption and have that mental fortitude to navigate the bumpy road, there aren’t a lot. Those that are there, so many turn away from it because of the finances.”
Three or four years after they brought Alek home, Wert and his wife started to think about how they could help other adoptive families.
Their church, New Community Church in Wexford, had received a $10,000 donation with the stipulation that the money be given out to the congregation to see what they could do with it to help others. The Werts took the $100 they were given and turned it into $10,000 through a Kickin’ for Kids soccer event, which featured children and parents kicking soccer balls for several hours at Avonworth High School’s soccer field, and an appearance by players and coaches from Pittsburgh’s semi-pro team, the Riverhounds.
They tried to identify someone through their church to give the money to, but had no luck. They then reached out to Lifesong for Orphans, a national organization that was offering a free service to help churches establish an adoption fund.
Lifesong evaluates applications from families wishing to adopt and makes recommendations for interest-free loans or matching grants. The organization also offers foster care support and international orphan care.
“This is somebody that has far greater resources to families in need than obviously our little church in Pittsburgh,” Wert said.
The first need Lifesong identified was in Ukraine, where many older children were aging out of the orphanage system and needed a place to stay. They donated $5,000 of the $10,000 they raised to help build houses where missionaries served a house parents to those kids.
“We felt so much better knowing we were paying forward something,” Wert said.
They then worked with Lifesong to find families outside of their church but in the Pittsburgh region that needed help completing adoptions. Their next $5,000 went to a family near Grove City.
“It was awesome to finally see that in the hands of a family who really needed it,” he said. “That kicked off our our thought process to say, ‘We’re out of money. We did what we wanted to do, but I think we want to do more.’”
With the help of a small group of volunteers, they decided to hold a gala where they would “share what the needs are in terms of adoption. I didn’t know if a lot of folks were like us and really didn’t understand how many orphans there are out there. Let’s just share what the plight of the orphan is, but more importantly, how our community can make a difference. Let’s see if we could do for one more child, for one more family, and one more gift.”
The gala raised between $40,000 and $50,000, which led to the creation of the nonprofit Gregory’s Gift. Lifesong asked if they’d be willing to work with families outside of the Pittsburgh region, like in Central Pennsylvania, to which they responded an enthusiastic, “Absolutely.”
Over the next couple of years — which included another successful gala fundraiser — Gregory’s Gift became Lifesong for Orphans’ number one funding source for Pennsylvania families looking to adopt.
But the charity’s organizers — all volunteers with full-time jobs — and those they were asking for donations were getting a little burned out. Then the pandemic hit making any thoughts of galas go out the window, and no one had time to search and apply for grants to expand the program.
A chance discussion led to a very different fundraising event. The soccer coach for one of Wert’s daughters, whose family also has adopted, was talking to a woman whose son was adopted, and she said, “I woke up today and I really felt compelled to do more for the adoption family.”
The soccer coach connected her with Wert and Gregory’s Gift, which led to her husband, David Wallace, launching Journey to Adoption. The three-day, 300-mile bike trek from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., in 2021 raised more than $100,000. Wert said that has set them up to help 20 to 40 more families.
Since starting Gregory’s Gift, the organization has raised more than $305,000 and helped in the adoption of 78 children — both domestic and international.
But Wert said they’re “kind of stuck again in finding partners who have the same heart, but different skill sets.”
For instance, they have a website and a Facebook page, but need someone who can keep it updated on a regular basis. Right now, the group is being run by Wert and two other men, who get help from their spouses. A few board members left recently to pursue other initiatives.
“We’re really at a turning point, if I’m honest, … of whether we continue or do we disband and say we had a great run,” Vert said. “Pittsburgh has been great. It definitely is a city that likes to take care of its own, and so we found great support here. But it also surprises me how challenging it can be sometimes to find like-minded individuals who are willing to sort of stay the course even in challenging times.”
They have some money stockpiled from donations and from a fund Wert’s church established to help pay for events, but they’re not sure what they’ll host next. Ideas include a concert or partnering with another individual, such as a marathoner, who would race to raise money for Gregory’s Gift and the charity would provide help with marketing and other infrastructure.
“We just need the ideas,” he said. “Looking for those kinds of partnerships, I think are unique and sort of introduce new people to the family. It’s broadens our reach as you introduce new circles of influence.”
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-244-4042.
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