POWIDZ, Poland –
The U.S. Army celebrates the month of the military child in April.
When it comes to subject matter experts in the field of military children, there may be none higher than Master Sgt. Christopher Mancilla and his wife, Carla.
In the last five years, the Mancilla’s have served as a foster family for the State of Washington for more than 60 children, including two – Rocky and Mila - they have adopted. Additionally, aside from children, they have rescued two cats and 10 dogs, making for a very full house.
“We got into foster care because we love kids, and we’ve realized over time that we’re going to help as many as we can,” Chris said.
“We’ve had some kids in our home as little as one day and some as long as a year and a half. You never know how long they’re going to be there, and we want to make sure that they leave our house happier and healthier than they came.”
Chris and Carla met Dec 3, 2010, in their hometown of Chicago, Illinois, and were married March 28, 2013. Carla had worked in insurance, and Chris was a career Soldier, serving at the time with the 85th Support Command in Arlington Heights, Illinois. Soon after marrying, they received the unfortunate news that conceiving biological children would not be possible. It was the start of an unexpected journey for both.
“The thought of being a foster parent never crossed my mind prior to finding out I was unable to have children of my own,” Carla said. “I barely knew what fostering was and had no clue how many children there were in the foster care system until we became licensed in 2014.”
Chris said they decided to try fostering to “see how we’d do with children.” The screening process was a long one – he said it took about six months to become licensed in Washington.
The first foster child in the Mancilla home was a 6-year-old boy, followed by two young sisters.
“After that, we went through many children, and we learned so much about ourselves because neither of us ever had kids,” Chris said. “We learned how to deal with and talk with them – just how to be parents, it was just a great opportunity.”
Rocky and Mila (…and Gracie, Hercules, Bobee, Titan, Bella, Dayzee, Riley, Brodee, Tessa, Talia, Twixie and Krackel)
About two years into their fostering career, Rocky came into the Mancilla home.
“He came to our home the day after his birth, December 30, 2015, and based on his past situation, we were pretty certain he would be potentially adoptable in the long term, so that made us very excited,” Chris said.
“It was definitely a challenging upbringing because of the trauma he dealt with prior to being born. He has autism; he’s nonverbal, and for the majority of his first three and a half years, he ate through a G-tube.”
Despite his medical issues, it is not in the Mancillas' nature to ever give up on any child. Chris and Carla adopted Rocky Feb. 6, 2018, and adopted Mila shortly thereafter. Mila, who is a year younger, also came to their home a day after her birth in December, 2016.
To Rocky and Mila, Chris and Carla are simply “Mom and Dad” since they have known them only as their parents their entire lives. Chris describes the two as “inseparable.”
The Mancilla family actually extends well beyond Rocky and Mila. Not surprisingly, their love is not restricted solely to children. Since they have been married, the Mancilla’s have also fostered 10 dogs, 6 of which are currently in the household, along with two rescue cats.
Chris said to keep track of all the children and animals, he and Carla speak in codes.
“We call them our twos and our fours,” Chris said. “If I tell my wife, ‘Hey did the twos eat this morning?’ that means the two-legged kids, or if I say ‘Did you feed the fours?’, that’s our way of saying ‘did you feed the dogs?’ – or cats – because we have two rescue cats as well. But again, they’re all our children, whether they have four paws or two legs.”
“Every time we foster an animal, we end up keeping them, so in that sense, we’re foster failures,” Chris added with a chuckle.
The ups and downs
The Mancillas were able to overcome not being able to conceive biological children through fostering and adoption. This may seem like a storybook tale, but both Chris and Carla pointed out the world of fostering is nowhere near that simple.
“The life of a foster parent is not one to be taken lightly and is definitely not for the faint of heart and has changed my life forever,” Carla said. “I now realize how much abuse and neglect there is in the world to innocent children from newborns to 18 years of age. I have grown tremendously from this process of learning how to care for drug-affected newborns, disabled children, all the way to teenagers with severe mental and physical trauma.”
Dealing with situations in which innocent children suffer due to circumstances out of their control can be heartbreaking, Chris said.
“There’s almost no way not to get emotionally invested in children who need a safe space, because any child in the system obviously is coming from somewhere that isn’t good for them,” Chris said.
“The primary goal of any state is to reunite children with their parents. Unfortunately, we have seen on many occasions where children are going back to their biological parents, only to know that they haven’t made the necessary changes, and you know these kids are going to be back in the system. That’s why we say we’ll do the best that we can while they’re with us because we can’t affect anything before or after. We want to provide them a nice, stable place for them to spend time in. It can very much hit your emotional side and you just can’t stop that, it’s just human nature.”
One of the toughest experiences to deal with involved a pair of 16-year-old girls the couple had fostered.
“We had a 16-year-old girl who we thought we were going to adopt,” Chris recalled. “She was a wonderful girl. She was in our home about a year and a half. And then all of a sudden one day she just ran away and never came back. That was traumatizing. That was our child.”
“The worst part was that there was a wonderful young girl who came into our home a few weeks after the first girl had run away, and we said hey she’s a wonderful young lady, maybe she’ll be adoptable too. What happened? A few months later, she ran away as well.”
Aside from dealing with children who have suffered from a host of problems, whether it be abuse or neglect or trauma through experiencing horrific events, the Mancillas also spent a lot of time worrying for the safety of their own son, Rocky. He still requires a lot of care now, but most of the first year of his life was spent at the hospital due to his numerous medical issues.
Through all of the ups and downs, Chris and Carla said they have leaned on one another to show the children the happy and safe home they all deserve. The last year has been particularly challenging.
Chris is eight months into a deployment to Poland with the 652nd Regional Support Group, an Army Reserve unit out of Helena, Montana, which manages base operations on 11 base camps throughout the country. The mobilization saw him serve for a time as the human resources noncommissioned officer in charge, before moving on to work as the supervisor of a remote training area.
In the meantime, back at home in Olympia, Carla is working full-time, caring for their two adopted and two foster children, six dogs and two cats. Beyond all this, four of the adopted dogs have passed away since Chris has been deployed.
“I can’t tell you how amazing she is for everything she does in support of these children,” Chris said. “I cannot understate the amount of support that my wife has given me. I was deployed for the majority of 2017 to Kuwait and now I’m gone again.”
This is actually Chris’ third deployment, as he has also deployed to Kuwait in 2017 and Bosnia earlier in his career. He stressed that Carla is the cornerstone of the family.
“She does 90-percent of all the work with these children,” Chris said. “She is what makes this military family work, because often in military families, one member is gone, and the other is tasked with the thankless job at home of dealing with sick and unhappy children. I cannot thank her enough for all that she does, when I’m there and especially when I’ve been gone.”
From the beginning, Chris said Carla sacrificed her life for her family.
“She literally dropped everything she had going on to join me in the state of Washington,” Chris said. “She uprooted her life to become my wife and for that I’m forever grateful.”
Chris is slowly winding down his time on his third deployment and is hopeful to return to his wife and a house full of children and animals in the near future
Meanwhile, Carla who possesses criminal justice degree, is following a lifelong calling to work as a police officer.
“I want to continue helping children and people, but in a different capacity when I have the opportunity to be successful in the criminal justice world,” Carla said.
She said that when (not if) she achieves her job becoming a state trooper, her time as a foster parent would likely come to an end.
When asked if he had any regrets, after all the ups and downs one faces when taking on foster parenting, Chris didn’t hesitate for a second.
“No, not at all,” he said. “Whether it’s been fate or destiny, it wasn’t meant to be for biological children. But had we had our own children, we would have never meant our son or our daughter or the children that have come to our home. So for us, it’s a blessing that we could have never seen coming.”
His wife echoed the sentiment. She said this experience has taught her a very important lesson about herself.
“I believe the most important thing I have learned is that you do not have to give birth to a child and be their mom and love them more than your own life and to fight whatever fight to make sure they are safe even if it means tears, anger, sadness and unexpected illness and needs,” Carla said.