The Wheeler Family

The sheet of lined, white notebook paper is wrinkled. It’s apparent that it has been ripped into pieces and taped back together; there’s a chunk missing from the top. A blue heart drawn in crayon occupies most of the page. Written in black marker, to the lower right of the heart, are the words, “WE LOVE YOU.”

So many stories and emotions are etched into that one sheet of paper, which is now framed and displayed in the Sam and Emily Wheeler home.

Emily had asked her daughter, Nevaeh, now 9, to draw the heart after a particularly difficult day, to represent their relationship. At that time, Nevaeh was in foster care and living with the Wheelers, who had plans to adopt her. Emily said she told Nevaeh that when their relationship was rocky, it was like the paper had been crumpled up. “I asked her if she could make it flat and perfect again and she said no. We used this to talk about working to add ‘money’ to our trust bank and to work on our relationship.”

Later, in a fit of anger, Nevaeh ripped up the paper. But Emily kept all of the pieces and taped them together again that night. The next day, she talked to Nevaeh about how she and Sam would be there for Nevaeh “no matter what.” She told Nevaeh that the little girl deserved their love and trust. Emily wrote on the paper, “WE LOVE YOU.”

“There are still days when we have to remind her that we’re going to love her and give her a great life,” Emily said recently. “But when she saw that I was willing to rebuild her heart, it showed her that we were in it for the long haul.”

The ‘long haul’

And that “long haul” is a lifetime. The Wheelers legally adopted Nevaeh on Sept. 29. She had lived with them since May 23, 2019 – seven years to the day after she entered foster care. The Wheelers also have a biological son, Jacob, who is 11.

Emily said she and Sam decided to adopt because they wanted Jacob to have a sibling but they didn’t want a baby.

“It also gave us the ability to help a child in need,” she said. “At the time, I worked for an after-school program in Missouri and one of my students was in the foster care program. It made sense that we could take a child that needs a home and loving family. We also had experience with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and anxiety and had a basic knowledge of trauma.”

Emily said that as she and Sam began exploring adopting from foster care, their workers suggested that they take a course in Trust Based Relational Intervention. Trust Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) is a holistic, attachment-based, trauma-informed intervention designed to meet the complex needs of children who have experienced abuse, neglect or trauma.

A ‘life-saving’ experience

“This was truly a life-saving experience for us,” she said. “It changed how we looked at parenting and made us a stronger support system for the kids.”

In fact, she thinks TBRI training should be required of all potential adoptive families.

“All of these children have trauma,” she said. “It is possible to help them and fill the cracks in their foundations as long as you have the right tools. TBRI helped us to be better parents and also to stop and look at our relationships with even other adults. We’re able to help others and ourselves meet our needs.”

They also were able to connect with other foster and adoptive parents through workshops and support groups.

“We have made so many friends and supports through classes, events, and mutual friends that truly understand our struggles,” she said. “We are not an island. It has been one of the greatest benefits. It’s so nice to sit with other parents who know that being excited that your child didn’t hit anyone today is a big accomplishment! They celebrate with you when other parents may not understand.”

Growing as a family

Emily said it’s been rewarding to watch Nevaeh “grow and evolve into a kind, smart and resilient human being.”

She and Sam also have grown more patient and understanding.

“We know that Nevaeh acting out is how she tells us that she has a need that she needs to have met,” Emily said. “She loves to give hugs and cuddles so we have lots of hugs every day!”

They’ve also watched their son, Jacob, grow.

“He is much more patient and understanding,” Emily said. “Bios are the unsung heroes. They have little control but make such a massive difference. They help the new kids feel comfortable and are the greatest allies the kids will have.

“I am in awe every day at the love and acceptance exhibited in my home.”