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All in the family

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By Jonna Spelbring Priester

General Manager

Children have long been welcome at Tony and Connie Hernandez’ Eminence home.

Throughout the years, children who needed a place to stay for a few hours, or in some cases days, found warmth, joy and love in the Hernandez house.

“We never really were foster parents,” Connie Hernandez said. “God gave us this house ... we didn’t care who came.”

Though the Hernandezes had plenty of love to share with children, they had trouble having children of their own. They have just one natural child, Travis Anthony Hernandez, now a teacher at Eminence Independent Schools. Tony and Connie even looked at adopting before Travis’ arrival.

While Travis was in middle school, the Hernandezes came to know a family with three children of Mexican and Guatamalan heritage, very close in age. One afternoon, Connie said, the Eminence Family Resource and Youth Services Center called and said the children needed a place to stay for a few hours.

“A couple of hours took a couple of days, and became a couple of months,” Connie said. She already knew of the children and as a member of the ambulance service had taken the youngest, a boy, to the hospital once.

It all started for the Hernandezes in 1997.

The first time the siblings stayed with Tony, Connie and Travis, the Hernandez home had just two bedrooms — one for Travis and one for his parents. The children were just 2-, 3- and 4-years old. Connie made a pallet for them to sleep on. Though very young, the children already were very close. “To see April (Alethia) holding Trey (Julio) and Josie (Rosa), and they were all three huddled together, it was heart breaking,” Connie said. “I guess from that point, God put them in our paths.”

They would take the children in several times over the coming years. Over time, sending the children back and forth became more than the Hernandezes could bear. Then 16-year-old Travis told his parents they couldn’t just keep sending the children back and forth. “We explained to their mother that we couldn’t do it anymore,” Connie said. The separations were heartbreaking.

One day, the Hernandezes received an anonymous call that the children were at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Louisville. The family went to St. Joseph to talk about formally fostering the children, but it had been too long since Connie and Tony had received their foster care training. St. Joe’s ended up retraining the Hernandezes. “The kids got anxious and couldn’t wait until it was done,” Connie said.

The three children have been with the Hernandezes ever since, and in 2001, Tony and Connie Hernandez’ adoption of the three siblings was finalized.

“We prayed years and years ago for children,” Connie said. “We never dreamed (they would come) in threes.”

April, Josie and Trey

After the adoption, the newest members of the Hernandez family picked their own names. For each, the names have symbolic meaning. The children chose April, Josie and Trey Anthony.

“Trey asked one time, ‘So, when will I be Anthony?’” Connie said. His adoptive father’s name was Michael Anthony, and his adoptive brother’s name was Travis Anthony. After some reading, the newest boy in the Hernandez family chose Trey Anthony, since he would be the third Anthony.

For those outside the family, adjusting to the children’s new names was difficult. “The kids all knew them at school as Julio, Rosa and Alethia,” Connie said. “But they have a new life, and they took on new names.”

Now, Connie and Tony don’t know their children by any other names than the ones the children chose. “Even though that is part of their life and who they were, this is who they are now,” Connie said.

And who they are now are children who are, as their parents say, good people and joys to be around. April and Josie are students at the University of Kentucky — one would like to be a surgeon while the other is interested in pharmacy — while Trey is a senior at Eminence High School. Trey, who dresses up for school everyday and is president of his class, would like to go to either the Air Force or Naval Academy. He hopes to be a military pilot, and already has a pilot’s license.

Both parents and children feel none of this could have happened without the adoption.

“These three kids have gone from a challenging situation,” Connie said.

Before the adoption, April was labeled as a special needs child, and was heavily medicated. Now, she takes no medication, and hasn’t since the adoption was finalized. Josie was said to have had a communication problem. But Connie said Josie was quiet and didn’t get as much attention as her siblings. “April was the momma, and Trey was so cute,” she said. “Then there was poor little Josie in the middle that nobody noticed.”

“Once you allowed her to talk and be her, she’s just an outstanding young lady.”

April’s biggest challenge, Connie said, was simply learning how to be a child.

Adopting

Though the Hernandezes are happy, and cannot imagine life without the adoption, adopting all three children was not a guarantee. At least, not for Tony.

“When I was first asked to adopt, we didn’t originally think we would want all three ... well, she did, I didn’t,” he said. “I thought, we’re older, it would be too stressful to take care of three people. I just didn’t realize that three is just as hard as one, and (Connie) convinced me of that.”

But the financial concerns were real. The Hernandezes had saved and prepared to send Travis to college, what would that be like with three more children — and children who were very close in age?

Connie’s own parents urged her against adopting.

“We had always been told how hard it was to adopt,” Connie said. “We’re like everyone else, middle class, and thought, gee, that’s a lot of money.”

It’s a lot of money they thought, particularly to raise a sibling group.

But shortly after considering adoption, the Hernandezes read a newspaper article about a state program that guaranteed the state would pay college tuition for children adopted in sibling groups or adopted children with special needs. Attorney Bill Brammell took care of the fees for the adoption.

And cooking dinner for five or six, Connie said, is no more or less expensive than making dinner for two or three.

It seemed the financial hurdles were not as big as they originally appeared. “If God put them in our home, he’s certainly going to provide a way for us to educate them,” Connie said.

And Connie’s parents? At first, they weren’t happy about the adoption. That would change, of course, over time.

Connie said that Trey, in particular, taught her father about unconditional love. As Connie’s parents became ill — her father developed Alzheimers — the children would spend weekends and Spring break time with their new grandparents. “It gave (the children) an opportunity to have some awesome grandparents, and the grandparents an awesome opportunity to have a house full of kids that loved them,” Connie said.

Today, Trey is very close not just to his sisters, but his adoptive brother, with whom he spends a lot of time.

Family, they have learned, is number one. Together, the children have helped their mother with various building projects around the house, including an expansive covered porch, complete with a small pool, railing and many more features. The joy of building things, Connie said, would not be the same without her children.

And the girls say they have learned self reliance from their mother’s projects. They know how to build things and work with their hands, instead of relying on someone else to do it for them.

For Tony, adopting the children later in life afforded him time for things he didn’t have time to do with Travis. “We weren’t working on our careers, we had more time to do things,” he said.

Where Connie reveled in building things with the children, Tony said he enjoys taking the children fishing. “Anytime I was able to take them fishing, I would have the best day, I always did,” he said. “I caught my biggest fish when they were with me, and the most fish when they were with me.”

The children, Connie said, make life more enjoyable. “It’s a scary thing when people talk about adoption,” she said. “(People) say ‘you’re so blessed.’ They haven’t been in our house, they don’t know how blessed we are.”

Growing up Hernandez

Though parents and children are in agreement — the adoption has been an overwhelmingly positive experience — it hasn’t always been easy.

Connie Hernandez makes no bones about it, she’s a strict mom. She has a variety of lectures about life for her children. She is, they say only half joking, ‘the boss.’ “They call me the general,” she said with a chuckle.

All of the children, while at home, have their chores. Josie does the laundry, Trey does the dishes, and April does the dusting and sweeping. All of the children can cook, paint, build and sew, Connie said.

The children have helped with building projects not only at home, but at family members’ houses as well.

And with all things, the family supports one another.

“It’s been hard on Trey, I’m sure, because I’m very strict, and I know they’ve gotten a lot of flack from kids at school,” Connie said. “But we’ll tell them, you’ve got to get out and do something.”

For Trey, that strictness has provided a firm foundation. It’s allowed him, he said, to become who he is. “I know if I go out somewhere, I need to act the way I’ve been taught, and not get into trouble,” he said. “That’s a good thing, because I could get into a lot of trouble.”

His friends, he said, respect that he has a foundation to lean against, where sometimes they may be roaming the streets or cooking for themselves.

And while he gets many of the things he wants — like an XBox — he has to work for it by helping to keep the house clean.

The 17-year-old is confident enough in himself that he said he wears a suit to school everyday. “That got started because in sixth grade, I was struggling with attitude,” he said. He was a follower and his mother encouraged him to be himself.

When other students asked why he was dressed up, he replied, simply, “because I felt like it.”

“Finally, it was like, seriously, why are you dressed up,” he said. “And I (said) I’m tired of being like everyone else.”

He learned, Connie said, that he can be a leader, and not a follower. Now, he’s class president and has good grades.

While every day is a joy, Connie said, the children occasionally upset her — but that’s normal. They have never disappointed her, however. “Have they made some yucky choices? Probably nothing like I’ve ever made on my own,” she said.

Adopting

It may be hard. It may be stressful. But adopting is joyous, Tony and Connie said.

The achievements and accomplishments don’t all happen at once.

“When you see what they achieve with guidance, it’s amazing to see,” Tony said.

April, the oldest at 19, said the adoption has afforded them opportunities they may not have had otherwise. “If we were still in the state we were (before the adoption), we wouldn’t be here,” she said.

Josie agreed, and said Tony and Connie have pushed them to get good grades.

“They put the time in to really care,” April said. “They’ve taught us enough life lessons, they’ve been selfless, they’ve taken in all three of us, and not just one of us.”

The children didn’t really know love, April said, before they came to the Hernandez home.

“They’re very determined parents,” April said. “This porch? We built this porch. Not only have they helped us in school, we know how to survive.”

While their parents are strict, the siblings agreed that their parents are also fun. “If we don’t follow (the rules), that’s when we get disciplined,” April said. “Other than that, they dno’t care. They want to be part of our lives.”

Josie said when she was younger, she may not have realized just how much their parents’ strictness would help. “Learning by what we do? It gives us the ability to be happy for what we did ourselves, what we had to work so hard for,” she said.

Now, both April and Josie say they would like to adopt when they are ready to start their own families. “It made me want to adopt kids when I get older, because there are so many kids out there that need to have a good life,” April said. “I definitely want to adopt a child from the United States, because they deserve it just as much.”

The connection shared by the children and their adoptive parents is strong and deep. It’s strong enough that Josie enjoys being on the phone with her mother, even if nothing is being said.

The Hernandez bond is so strong, even visitors feel warm and welcome in the home.

Cecelia Wu, a friend of Josie’s who joined the family for Thanksgiving, said the atmosphere in the home was very good. “I’m a single child in my family, so I don’t know how ... it feels to have siblings,” she said. “(This) is a very good feeling.”

Each member of the Hernandez family jokes about “going out.”

Whenever the family does go out to dinner, they said, the whole family goes. When you get Tony and Connie, Connie joked, you get the children too.

And as a group, they are definitely mixed. Other people, Connie said, inevitably ask if Travis, who is much taller than his parents and sports red hair, is adopted.

At dinner one night, a younger Trey, who Connie said had a gift for trying to get whatever he wanted, was told to stop brown-nosing. A bewildered look came over his sisters’ faces.

Connie said around the table there were varrying shades of brown — two of the three siblings were of Mexican and Guatamalan heritage, the third was Mexican and caucasian. Tony Hernandez is Cuban and caucasian. A family friend who is black also was at the table.

“There was every tone you could possibly have,” Connie said.

After a moment, one of the girls summed it up.

“You know, his nose IS brown, momma.”

 

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