FORT BRAGG, N.C. –
“Life before we moved here wasn’t good. We used to fight a lot,” said 14-year-old Olivia.
“We all stayed in one room, on one bed,” added her 15-year-old sister Emma. “I always slept on the edge.”
At an early age, both girls are well-versed in various illegal drugs.
“I got scared when they did drugs,” Emma explained. “They did them all: needles, pot, meth and spice. Their moods were up and down, up and down, all the time.”
For years, Emma and Olivia lived in a three-bedroom home with nine other people. In Kentucky, the two were exposed to drugs, explicit sexual scenes and verbal altercations that would sometimes become physical.
This life was normal for the girls until they were met by state family service workers after school and transported to the home of U.S. Army Reserve Chief Warrant Officer 3 Daniel Schoonmaker, his wife Kristy and their four biological children: Gabriel, Madison, Rayden and Hailey.
“It was an emergency situation,” Dan said. “They showed up with only their backpacks.”
Emma and Olivia had officially become foster children.
Dan and his family were stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, when they decided to become foster parents. Dan is a reserve Soldier who serves in an active-duty capacity. They understood the challenges that came with the job and accepted the risks of possibly becoming emotionally attached to children who may not stay long with their family.
“I was reading it in my Bible, foster children and fostering love,” Kristy explained about her interest in becoming a foster parent. “I believe it was a calling from God. I wanted to talk to Dan about it, but I was scared he would think I was crazy.
“When I approached Dan, he said, ‘I was afraid to talk to you about it, but I have been thinking about (fostering) a lot too.’ So we reached out to a couple of places. I finally got a phone call from an agency that was willing to work with us and we completed the training. It was months before we got the call to foster.”
Dan and Kristy were on the verge of giving up the attempt to become foster parents when they finally received a call after a six-month wait.
Olivia and Emma needed immediate, temporary homes. The Schoonmaker family accepted the call. When Dan and Kristy were told the girls would need long-term care, they didn’t hesitate to say they would keep the girls.
While adoption can be common among military families, military foster parents are rare. Two of the greatest challenges military foster families face are moving out of state and health-care costs.
Medicare is offered at no cost to foster parents, but out-of-pocket expenses remain, and foster children are not eligible for military health care until adopted by the service member.
“We pay everything out of pocket,” Daniel explained. “Medical and dental appointments, prescriptions … even school and sports physicals.”
The goal of family services in Kentucky is to reunite foster children with their birth parents, but not all can. Many are placed with foster families or in group homes for long-term care. Some children placed in foster homes are adopted but roughly 30 percent remain in the foster system until they reach the age of 18, according to Kentucky Cabinet of Health and Family Services 2018 released statistics.
Emma and Olivia beat incredible odds by being placed with a foster family that not only opened their home and hearts to the girls, but wished to adopt them and offer a new life filled with hope, faith and love.
“I don’t get hit anymore. That’s nice,” Olivia said. “Yeah, you don’t get beat up anymore when you speak up,” Emma finished for her.
Olivia remembers little of her time before joining the Schoonmaker family. For her, the lack of memory isn’t a bad thing.
Since moving into the Schoonmakers' home, Olivia and Emma have their own beds and enjoy hot, homemade meals everyday. They have the ability to speak up to their foster family without fear of being hit or made fun of.
“I remember more of the bad than good,” Olivia recalled from their old lives.
All seemed well at first for the Schoonmakers. They dealt with the daily growing pains as Olivia and Emma adjusted to a new home, school and family. They weren’t prepared for what came next.
Dan received orders reassigning him to Company C, 2nd Battalion, 228th Aviation Regiment, 244th Expeditionary Combat Aviation Brigade, at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
“Foster children belong to the state,” Dan said. “I had a friend who had to give his foster kids back to the state because the state wouldn’t let them leave.”
“I was devastated when we got news of the orders,” Kristy recalled. “We even talked about splitting up for a while,” Daniel finished for his wife.
“I had people tell me to go ahead and say my goodbyes to the girls,” said Kristy. “The agency (that helped us to foster) said they had never heard of a family being able to do it.”
According to the Kentucky Chamber of Health and Family Services, only 1 percent of foster children were able to move outside state boundaries in 2018. Despite the odds, the Schoonmakers diligently completed the barrage of paperwork and requirements.
Through determination and a lot of questions, Dan and Kristy were able to move from Kentucky to North Carolina with their family, including Olivia and Emma.
“I can’t imagine my life without my children … all my children,” Kristy exclaimed. “I was so excited and relieved when we got the news. That’s when I knew this was going to work. This was going to happen.”
Today, the Schoonmaker family lives just north of the installation in a large brick home with a pool and yard large enough to foster additional family members — two dogs named Ollie and Lego, a sable-colored ferret named Potato and an orange, 10-year-old cat.
“They are a wild bunch,” said Daniel. “If I’m ever someplace alone (like a temporary duty assignment), I go crazy. It’s too quiet for me.”
As a flight operations officer, Dan keeps his unit organized by tracking pilot flight hours, executive transportation flights and tracking maintenance records for his units fleet of C12-Huron aircraft.
“He’s the kind of Soldier you would want as a commander,” said Maj. Matthew Kane, commander of Company C, 2nd Battalion, 228th Aviation Regiment. “He has a lot of experience coming from the Blackhawk community. He’s been an instructor pilot, the general’s pilot and a foster parent. He’s a good role model for his children, but also a good role model for up-and-coming pilots.
“His potential is absolutely unlimited. Being a foster parent only extends his attributes as a husband, father, mentor and Soldier. It bleeds over into all aspects of his life, not only his Army career, but his civilian lifestyle. It lends to his attributes as a person and shows how big of a heart he has.”
Dan has many combat deployments, overseas assignments and military training under his belt to include resiliency training. This training has helped him face and overcome challenges in his military career and may be useful for dealing with new challenges.
The Schoonmakers have been actively trying to adopt Emma and Olivia for about two years. While they feel the girls are a part of their family in their hearts, they still face the challenges that come with making the girls a legal part of their family.
“It’s a long road,” said Kristy. “The hardest part is getting the release of parental rights.”
Fortunately, Dan and Kristy have the support of their extended families and Dan’s command team. They will not face the upcoming challenges alone.
The Schoonmaker family doesn’t know when the adoption process will be completed but have already considered the best ways to celebrate the occasion once it happens.
“We should go for ice cream,” Rayden said, while Gabriel suggested, “We should go to the trampoline park.”
Daniel and Kristy smiled at one another as each of their children spoke.
The road to Fort Bragg has been long for the Schoonmaker family, but they believe all the hard work is worth all the efforts.
“We are offering them a new life,” Dan said. “Most of these kids end up right back where they started from or in jail. We can give them a life they want and deserve.”
“Even if you can’t become a full-time foster parent, I encourage everyone to get involved,” Kristy pleaded. “You can always provide respite care. It’s just a warm bed and a hot meal for a few nights. You can volunteer your time and go with kids to events like ice skating or a movie. Even something as simple as donating clothes, shoes or suitcases.”
“It’s so worth it,” Kristy beamed. “You’re going to change lives.”
For more information about becoming a foster parent or to volunteer with foster children, contact your state’s local office of Child and Family Services or Child Protective Services.