Wendy’s Wonderful Kids Helps Foster Children Get Adopted

The organization often works with Catholic Charities affiliates in their work to find forever families.

Melissa, Ryan and Shane Crace are a happy family.
Melissa, Ryan and Shane Crace are a happy family. (photo: Courtesy of the Crace family)

Looking through a packet of adoption information, one little boy caught Melissa Crace’s attention. There were other children on other pages, but 6-year-old Shane’s smile leapt off his page into Melissa’s heart. “Ryan,” she told her husband, “I really feel like he could be our son. “

The Craces, from Indiana, had just been approved for adoption on their third wedding anniversary, Oct. 17, 2017.  A week later, the packet of information had arrived from Wendy's Wonderful Kids, a foundation dedicated to finding permanent families for children in foster care who are most often overlooked, such as older kids, sibling groups and children with special needs. 

Shane had high-functioning autism and had been in foster care for four years. Two weeks after Melissa and Ryan saw his picture, they met him. Shane moved in with them in March 2018 and was adopted in April 2019. 

“I didn’t know that God would gift me with motherhood through this route,” Melissa told the Register through tears. After struggling with infertility, she and Ryan had turned to adoption. “Shane makes me want to do better each and every day,” she said. “Even through difficult times, we can talk through it and still know that we love each other, and we are family. I am so thankful he is my son. Everyone loves him. If you are in a bad mood, he will make you laugh and smile. If he sees a kid or stranger crying, he will go up to them and pat their shoulder and say, ‘Don’t cry; cheer up.’”


Fulfilling a Need

Rita Soronen, president and CEO of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, originally prepared for a career in landscape architecture. But around the birth of her own baby girl, she was sickened to learn another baby girl in her area of Columbus, Ohio, had died from abuse. 

Rita Soronen, president and CEO of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption
Rita Soronen, president and CEO of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption | Courtesy of subject

She began working in child-abuse prevention and in the legal system before being hired two decades ago by the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, a public nonprofit charity focused exclusively on foster-care adoption. Soronen developed its signature program, Wendy’s Wonderful Kids®, dedicated to finding homes for children waiting in foster care in the U.S. and Canada. The foundation works closely with child-welfare advocates and policymakers, provides free resources about foster-care adoption, and raises awareness through social-media campaigns, public service announcements and events. 

The foundation partners with the Wendy’s restaurant chain but is separate. Being adopted himself, the founder of Wendy’s, Dave Thomas (1932-2002), kept the cause near and dear to his heart. Franchise owners participate in fundraising for the foundation — often with food specials and coupons — knowing that foster children in their communities are being served through this effort. 

Wendy’s was actually named for Dave Thomas’s daughter, and, according to Soronen, she still sits on their foundation’s board of trustees.


A Successful Model

After studying why children were not getting adopted, Wendy’s Wonderful Kids designed a pilot program in 2004 that was tested in seven cities. It focused on issues ranging from recruitment to preparing children for the possibility of adoption. In some cases, that meant helping foster children be open to adoption by addressing past abuse and frequent moves that could be a reason for reluctance. Soronen said, “They have been punished for acting-out behavior that is a natural result of the trauma they experienced. It’s about restoring their faith in their ability of being a part of a family and their sense of worth.” 

Solutions include having recruiters carry smaller caseloads of 12-15 children, making finding families their primary task; meeting with children regularly to get to know them and advocate for them; brainstorm for potential families to include extended families, coaches, teachers and others who have been in the child’s life; and creating resources and long-term support for adoptive families. 

An example of searching for a potential family that Soronen cited was a boy who had been in care for years. “He had a best friend at school who didn’t know he was in foster care,” she said. “The recruiter approached his best friend’s family. His quote to the judge at adoption was: ‘Now my best friend is my brother.’ These stories happen every day; it’s not the exception.”

As part of the pilot program, they provided grant funding that allowed agencies to hire an adoption professional, and very quickly they saw results. “At the end of five years,” Soronen said, “we saw that the program not only worked, but at a substantial level. Children referred to the program were up to three times more likely to be adopted.” 

By 2017, Wendy’s Wonderful Kids was present in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. To date, there have been more than 122,000 adoptions in the U.S. and 30,000 in Canada. From just Sept. 10 to mid-November of this year, another 863 children have been adopted and 490 are in preadoption placement, waiting for court hearings.

“The average age [of adoption] is 14, and 75% are part of [a] sibling group,” Soronen said. “Eighty percent have some clinically identified special need, and over 80% have had minimal or no activity on their behalf to find a family. These are kids who have given up on themselves.” 

Soronen underscored that the welfare of the children is key, no matter what age. “It’s not okay that 20,000 a year leave [age out] foster care without a family,” she said. In some cases, young adults past 18 are adopted. “We remind our stakeholders that the need for a family does not stop even at 18.” 


Helping Agencies

Morgan Nerat is the assistant director of Adults Adopting Special Kids (AASK) at Catholic Charities North Dakota. “Within our agency, we have two Wendy’s recruiters who specialize in finding connections and forever families for children in foster care. The recruiters work closely with our youth throughout their adoption journey,” Nerat explained. An example of some of their creative new ideas, Nerat said, is using games to help kids open up about their feelings on adoption and what they would hope for in a family.

She also credited Wendy’s Wonderful Kids program managers with ideas for finding families. “We were given additional support and training with ideas on how to start conversations with potential adoptive families and tools regarding important talking points to discuss with them,” Nerat explained. “Program managers will brainstorm ideas with us regarding any roadblock we come across. In the past, they’ve helped us think of new ways to approach family members who may have been hesitant on providing information about a youth’s family tree or thinking of people in the youth’s past who may remember a past Boy Scout leader’s contact information so we could reach out to see if they would be a connection for the youth. We brainstorm how we can bring things to the next step, doing a file mine — looking through case notes where maybe there is one sentence that says this youth has been connected with someone in the past whom we could contact.” 

For the youth, finding family “means everything,” according to Nerat. “It’s not just up until age 18; it’s a lifelong commitment. Who can they rely on? Who is their support system?

 “There’s not a child out there who doesn’t want to be loved or accepted,” Nerat said. “I encourage families to think about adopting teenagers or sibling groups.”


Adoption Stories

Some of the adoption stories are shared on the Wendy’s Wonderful Kids website. Conner had spent half his life in foster care and had all but given up on ever finding a home. James and Jayme of North Carolina and their two children, Corbin and Savannah, welcomed him into their family when he was 12. 

James was adopted from foster care at a young age, so he understood the issues. Connor was the first child they met in the process. “It felt like the perfect fit for our family … and the perfect fit for Conner,” James said. “It’s honestly like he was supposed to be with us.”

Three brothers entered into the foster-care system with a knock on their hotel door by the police and hotel manager. Their mother had left to buy diapers and never returned. “It was hard because we didn’t know what to expect,” Taye, the oldest, now 15, recalled. They were split up and regularly moved around for five years until they were adopted by Carla and Oliver of Ohio. “I would be worried about them if we didn’t have them with us,” Taye said of his younger brothers, Kemarquez, 12, and Kiondre, 7. 

“It’s so important to keep a family together,” Oliver said. “That was a biggie.”

“Now I can focus on being a kid and finishing high school and going to college,” Taye agreed. 

Sisters Maya and Hannah spent six years in foster care without anyone wanting to take a chance on them. They were adopted when they were 14 and 9 by Barbara and Dana of Middleborough, Massachusetts. The couple had three older boys but room in their hearts for more. “When I started calling them Mom and Dad, I knew it would stay that way forever,” Hannah said.

“Adoption is like a white flag at the end of the war,” Maya explained. “It’s time to settle down and rebuild everything that got destroyed.”

This story was updated after posting.

Wilhelm von Kügelgen’s 19th-century painting, “The Visitation,” depicts the encounter between the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Elizabeth, a patron saint of infertility and pregnancy.

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