(Final blog in a three-part series. Parts one and two posted September 1 and October 1)
Grace Weise: “When we moved to south Florida in 2006 with our five children, our oldest son enrolled in a college in Lakeland, Florida. We would occasionally go visit him on campus. One day we loaded up our three-year-old, Aaron, and travelled the three hours north to visit Nathan. He was finishing a job up on campus. While we waited, we found the nearest park to let Aaron have a chance to run and play. Only one other family was at the park that day. There was a lady there with five children and she was sitting reading her Bible. I concluded that they were either on vacation or a homeschooling family since it was in the middle of the day. So I approached her to say hello. Her name was Judy Lantieri.”
You may recall that I told the story of this meeting in the park between Judy and Grace in Judy’s Story (Sept. 1). But Grace has since reminded me that the park was not in Port St. Lucie, as I had written, but in Lakeland. And that makes it even more remarkable. Judy was in the midst of homelessness and had just spent the night before in a dirty, short term rental, located in a very dangerous neighborhood near Lakeland. She had called me that night, not knowing where she would go next, but planned to just put the kids in their van and drive south and see what happened. She foresaw possibly living in their van for a while.
Then Grace Weise happened. In a town park that both Grace and Judy just happened to be visiting at the same moment. The world might call it “chance”—but we, as believers, know there is no such thing. God had long before planned their meeting. And not only that, He had planned carefully and compassionately that the two families would intertwine from that point on; until, in time, the Lantieri children would become Weise children, and for the first time in their lives, live with a real mother and father.
Giovanni, Katie, Grace, Christopher, Ashton, Aaron and Faith
During their meeting at the park, a house in Port St. Lucie was offered to Judy and her grandchildren. The Weise family had just moved from the house, after purchasing a home of their own. They referred Judy to the home-owner and made arrangements for her and her grandchildren to move in immediately. It was a beautiful, well-appointed home with four bedrooms. It came just at the right time, as Faith had already been born and was ready to be discharged from the hospital in Miami. Now there were six grandchildren to care for—and with their roots planted in this new location, a deep friendship with the Weise family started to blossom.
Grace Weise had been born in Florida but her parents moved to Ohio shortly after her birth. She was one of eight children, and when she was seven, her mother died. Her dad didn’t know how he could care for so many children by himself, and a year later, he remarried. Grace quickly adjusted to this new mom as well as a new baby brother a couple years later. Both of her parents were Christians and Grace had heard the gospel for as long as she could remember. She made a decision to follow Jesus at the age of 12.
After high school graduation, Grace broke the family tradition of going to a Bible college in Oklahoma, and instead attended one in Texas. She studied children’s ministry and began travelling with a singing group. It was there that she met her future husband, Christopher.
Christopher was born and raised in Texas and began studying piano as a child. He, like Grace, accepted Christ at an early age. He loved music and enrolled at a state college in Texas to pursue it further. But after three years there he felt God was calling him into worship ministry, and he switched to the same Bible college that Grace was attending: Christ for the Nations Institute. Travelling together in music ministry, Christopher was struck by Grace’s “sweet and genuine spirit and her beautiful smile.” Six months after Grace graduated and returned to Ohio, Christopher says, “God spoke to my heart that she was the one He had prepared to be my wife, and we began a time of courtship. I cannot thank God enough for the wonderful gift [Grace] has been to my life.”
Grace and Christopher on their wedding day
Grace and Christopher were married on June 21, 1986. They have served in church ministry throughout their married years, Christopher primarily as a worship pastor, but both of them involved in children’s ministry as well. Early on, they had four children in four years which exhausted Grace. She then had surgery to prevent having more children, but shortly afterwards, regretted her decision. Twelve years later she again underwent surgery, this time to reverse the first. After a miscarriage, Grace and Christopher were blessed with another son, Aaron. Aaron would be the son who would eventually grow up with four other siblings closer to his age than his own biological siblings—the Lantieri children.
The house that Judy and the children first moved into in Port St. Lucie was within five minutes of the Weise’s house. Although Judy was taking the children to church on Sundays, Grace began to take Katie to her church’s Awana program on Wednesday evening. Grace was the director of this ministry. When Ashton and Giovanni aged into the ministry, she also began to take them. Eventually Judy and the children moved into another house in Port St. Lucie, farther from the Weise’s. Still, Grace made sure the children had a ride to church on Wednesday evenings.
Aaron, Ashton, and Giovanni became friends, having play dates and attending each other’s birthday parties. One Thanksgiving, the two families shared dinner together. Grace and Christopher loved the children from the beginning. Then Judy’s cancer returned 15 years after it had originally been diagnosed and treated. While Judy had surgery, the children stayed with the Weise family. They also went there on the days that Judy had to travel to Hollywood, Florida for her chemo treatments. They would bring their own books and homeschool with Aaron on those days.
Grace and Christopher noticed that as Judy recovered from surgery and then began her treatment, the children were often left to themselves. They knew the children’s education was falling behind and that the house was in total disorder. Grace tried to go over as often as she could to help out or just play with the children. She and Christopher became concerned about what would happen to the children if Judy died. They had no relatives nearby. Meanwhile, the four oldest Weise children were gradually leaving home to attend college, marry, and start their own individual adult lives.
Grace and Christopher continued to reach out more and more to Judy and the children. Christopher invited Katie to go with him to a Father-Daughter purity ball sponsored by the local pregnancy center. He also became aware that she was musically gifted and helped her prepare to sing during a morning worship service at their church.
As Judy neared the end of her life, she struggled to find homes for the children. None of the families she was asking to help could do so. All the while, Grace and Christopher began to think that maybe they should take them; however, Judy had never asked them to.
The Weisse Family
During the last six months of Judy’s life, she experienced several health complications and quickly went downhill. Christopher became the one taking her for hospital admittances and staying with her as much as possible, while the four younger children went to live with the Weise’s. They visited Judy often, occasionally overnight; but all their homeschooling fell on Grace, whose little school not only included the Lantieri children and Aaron, but another child of a family from another country. Grace and Christopher were also spending a lot of time helping this family who were new to the U.S. The Weise household was crowded and busy, and yet so evidently sharing the love of Christ.
During the last months when Judy was hospitalized because she had broken her leg, Christopher was visiting her when he felt very much as though God was speaking to him. He sensed Judy’s growing concern for the children’s future care and that her time was short. Christopher says God was assuring him that he and Grace “were in a place to meet that need and God was calling us to have these children be a part of our family.” He shared this with Judy, who finally could rest that the problem was solved.
When Judy died the following June, Grace and Christopher realized that there was no legal document that tied the children to their care, despite the fact that Judy had believed there was. So Grace and Christopher began a fast-paced journey to set about adopting the four younger children and finding appropriate accommodations for the two older boys (see October 1 blog).
Clearly, what happened next was nothing short of the Lord going before all parties concerned. He had long ago planned the details that now were set in motion. For Grace and Christopher though, the next 11 months would be a “brand new world. We just kind of got immersed in it,” according to Christopher.
Starting with referrals to the right attorney; to an attorney being so moved by their story that she refused to charge a fee; to an encounter in the hallway of the County Children and Youth Services building where they had no idea where to go, and literally ran into the lead attorney in Florida for Juvenile Court Assistance, with whom they became acquainted; and then to her properly directing them to the next person they needed to see. Almost immediately, an investigation was launched to clear their home to be worthy of adopting the children. There were no objections.
Another hurdle was to gain the permission of the children’s mother, Alyssa, in order to proceed with the adoption. So many times, Alyssa was unreachable, not to be found. But as God would have it, at the moment needed to gain her cooperation with the adoption, she was in jail—and so even that problem went smoothly. Christopher comments, “I don’t know what the court would have done if she hadn’t been in jail.”
Christopher continues, “There were risks, but we knew if God had called us to do it, we would make it.” Their first court appearance was on a Monday morning. There they met an older gentleman who was a Guardian Advocate. This is a system of volunteers who come alongside the children and make sure they’re good with what is happening. This man approached Grace and Christopher and said that he was the director of the Guardian Advocate program. A couple days later, the same man called them to say that their file had come across his desk and he took it for himself. “He walked with us throughout the entire process and became a friend. This is really cool that God provided this man,” says Christopher.
This same sort of thing—not knowing who to see or where to go and then unexpectedly running into exactly the right person—occurred frequently throughout the adoption process which began in August, once Grace and Christopher became temporary official guardians of the children. They were told if everything went well, the adoption process would take nine months. Grace remembers thinking, “The same amount of time as a pregnancy, except we will have four children, not one.” She also mused that throughout their marriage, they had experienced four miscarriages. “I started thinking that these were the children we never had,” she says.
It was indeed nine months later that the adoption became final. The court date was May 8, 2015, not yet quite a year since Judy’s death. It was a joyous occasion as family and friends gathered—a large group at the courthouse and an even larger celebration dinner at their church afterwards.
Assimilation into one big happy family has been a tough road. Although the children without exception are grateful for their new family, none of them were coming into this new situation with the clean slates of a newborn. They had already spent years in a home, having been pretty much left on their own and developing some unhealthy behaviors and attitudes. Besides that, quick changes are often disturbing and frustrating to older children who have known so much instability. They had never experienced a mother and a father and a structured family system. Short fuses on everyone’s part sometimes blow wide open, but Grace and Christopher try to point themselves, as well as the children, to the mercy and grace of God.
A memorable history lesson with Texas Senator Cruz
For the first time the new Weise family members know what to expect daily in their new family structure. They know they are being cared for in a thoughtful and generous way, and they don’t have to figure out life by themselves. They know they are loved and they see vitally loving relationships between their parents and their parents and God.
I asked Aaron what it has been like for him. As the much younger sibling of his birth brothers and sisters, he was pretty much an only child until four new siblings from another family moved in. The boys have always been friends and continue to grow closer. Katie recently told me what a great brother Aaron is. Aaron says he has adjusted and has not at all minded his new siblings. “I have learned to share. I’m learning how to spend quality-time since I used to be a sort of recluse.” How does he view his remarkable parents? “They are loving and hard-working. They always try to instill good character.”
Grace and Christopher don’t want the children to lose track of their roots. Shortly after the adoption they took a road trip, visiting Judy’s grave and placing the headstone, and then going on to meet several of her relatives. They also began looking for the children’s fathers; none of them have the same father and no one had ever told them who their fathers were. There was only so much digging that could be done by anyone not biologically related, so Katie has taken it upon herself to investigate. She has successfully found all of them, also reaching out to each.
The older two boys found their fathers early on as they bear their family names. They have met them and established relationships. Xavier recently excitedly showed me a picture of his baby brother born this year, and says he can’t wait to meet him. Katie’s and Giovanni’s dads are no longer living, but Katie has met her grandmother and aunt. All of the children have half-siblings except for Katie. Some of the fathers have been eager to hear from their children, and some have not, creating more emotional stresses on young lives.
I have watched these six lives totally transform in the past nine years that I have known them. It has been God who has done it. He has used many people, but especially their new parents and family. Grace and Christopher have poured themselves out as an offering to God in the lives of these children, and they continue to daily. I just returned from Florida, where I visited with Xavier, Dylan, and Katie. Earlier this year, I visited Grace and Christopher and the children in their new Texas home. God’s fingerprints of protection and provision are over them all. And Katie is now a beautiful young woman. She makes my heart so happy—she has come so far.
Aaron, Giovanni, Christopher, Faith, Grace, Katie and Ashton
Like in all of our lives, God will continue to transform and grow these children and their parents. God hasn’t stopped writing on their hearts. I asked Grace and Christopher what their hopes and dreams are for these new children of theirs. Christopher answered: “They are each incredibly gifted.” [I heartily concur.] “Our prayer for them is that they come face to face with God’s love for them. That they encounter Him in their hearts and trust their lives to Him. That they allow their gifts to be used by Him.”
Sort of as an after-thought, he added, “Maybe one of them, a preacher.”
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