As Christians worldwide prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, one Kentucky couple reflects on the day they say God stitched together their Christmas gift of a new family.
On Dec. 18, Sam and Stephanie Patterson will mark the second anniversary of the day they adopted four siblings from foster care.
"That's our 'forever family' day," said Stephanie, a music ministry associate at Little Flock Baptist Church in Shepherdsville, Ky., just south of Louisville.
More than 8,000 children are in the care of the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services this holiday season. Another 400,000 foster care kids are waiting for permanent homes across the U.S.
Sam recalled when he was handed a photograph of his children while they were still in the state's care and the range of emotions that followed. He cautioned others not to get caught up in a cloud of empathy that could lead to a child being abandoned twice.
"I think you need to be led," Sam said. "You don't need to do it just because you know Christians are supposed to take care of orphans. God really needs to place it on your heart."
The couple struggled with infertility for 10 years before recognizing God was leading them toward adopting older children.
"We never intended to get small ones," Sam said. "Carrie and Carissa are more the age we were looking for, but when they showed us a picture of all four, there was no way we were going to say no."
Carrie, now 13; Carissa, 9; Austin, 6; and 4-year-old Kali have since settled into safe and predictable patterns at home, school and church.
Eighth-grader Carrie is contemplating a career in veterinary medicine while ignoring the occasional admiring glance from a boy or two at Little Flock Christian Academy.
Her once bashful sister, Carissa, has joined the cheerleading squad at the same Baptist private school and views any open space as an invitation to perfect her back handspring.
Austin finally got his wish to go to school like his older sisters. Mom and Dad said the kindergartener is becoming a pro at spelling words by sounding them out.
And Kali recently discovered the furry, four-legged members of the family. On several occasions, she has been caught bear-hugging or straddling the cats.
"I can't remember what life was like before kids," Stephanie said, a smile lighting up her face.
In a situation that began as anything but typical, the couple agreed that becoming parents of four foster children overnight has settled into something that probably looks like any other family of six with lessons in selflessness, gratitude and personal responsibility taught over and over—and over.
Sam said patience has been the greatest challenge for everyone.
"We preach love and kindness all the time. Does it always happen?" Stephanie asked. "No, but I think that's normal."
As one of more than 15 foster or adoptive families at Little Flock Baptist, the Pattersons are quickly becoming less of an exception.
"God calls us to care for the widows and orphans. How we care for them is going to be different for every person," Stephanie said. "For Sam and I, that was to adopt children, bring them into our home and be a forever family."
But for others who may not have the means or clear calling from God, the couple suggested putting together backpacks full of supplies for children who are new to foster care. Children's belongings are often stuffed hurriedly into trash bags when taken from their homes.
Other ways to help include providing respite for foster parents, mentoring or sponsoring a foster child, or volunteering at a hospital to comfort babies born with addictions.
"It can be different for everyone," Stephanie said. "It doesn't necessarily mean everyone must adopt, but in some way, we should all be doing something to care for widows and orphans."
Robin Cornetet is the managing editor of Kentucky Today, a news website of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.