About a year and a half ago, the traveling fine arts exhibition “Estamos Aqui” (We Are Here) spent the summer at the Shafer Memorial Gallery in Great Bend. Highlighting work by 40 Hispanic artists, the exhibition is still touring the nation. Back in 2014, though, Hugo Gonzalez was one of the rare locals artists asked to contribute work to the Great Bend show. He submitted his charcoal series “Halftones,” five pieces depicting life situations that often hinder human efforts to achieve happiness. One of those pieces, “Forever Home,” depicted a tiny hand straining to reach the knob on a wooden door covered by tiny handprints. Those handprints are his 3-year-old son’s and the three foster children he and his wife, Angel, have cared for since November 2013.
“I’ve wanted to foster for about 10 years,” said Angel. “I’d seen a boy in my oldest daughter’s kindergarten class who was hungry and dirty, and I just wanted to take him home and care for him. Someone told me that I should do foster care, but we just couldn’t do it then.”
The young couple had their hands full. They were living in Hays, working full-time, and already raising two little girls. In addition, Hugo was a full-time student at Fort Hays State University, studying graphic design. They had neither the time, nor the resources to take in more children. They didn’t seriously consider fostering again until Hugo graduated and they moved to Hoisington. Angel, a department manager for Wal-Mart, was able to transfer to the Great Bend store, and Hugo got a job at the Great Bend Tribune. It seemed as good a time as any to start fostering, so they sat down 13-year-old Jacquelyn, 11-year-old Isabelle, and their little brother Giovanni for a family discussion.
“Our daughters were all for it,” said Angel. “Giovanni, of course, was only a year and a half, but now he’s thrilled. He loves them and considers them his brother and sisters.”
Hugo and Angel earned their license through Saint Francis Community Services and three months later received their first placement, a sibling set of three – a 2-year-old boy and girls ages three and five.
“When we started this, we only intended to take on one child at a time,” said Angel. “But our worker called and said there was this sibling group and that they’d have to separate them if we couldn’t take them. So, I said okay – and we went from three kids to six overnight.”
Right away, Angel noticed that one of the girls didn’t understand sentence construction. Adults had rarely spoken to her, so she had a hard time comprehending syntax. In fact, tests showed that all three were learning delayed. Neither had the children experienced much structure in their lives, so there were also behavioral issues. Angel became a licensed education advocate so she could better help the children catch up in school, while she and Hugo began the patient application of structure and discipline at home. Gradually, the behavioral problems abated and the children began to keep pace with their fellow students. All three now learn at a level consistent with their age and grade.
“We’ve had some challenging moments, but it never occurred to us that we couldn’t handle it,” said Angel. “We just don’t treat them any differently than we treat our own kids. They follow the same rules we’ve used with our own for the last 14 years.”
Hugo and Angel recently learned that their three foster children will soon be available for adoption. The court has terminated parental rights, and Angel already has an adoption packet in hand. Still, they haven’t decided if they’re ready to permanently double the number of children in their family.
“We’re still discussing it,” said Hugo. “We’re about 70 percent towards reaching a decision.”
For the Gonzalez girls and their brother, the decision is a no-brainer.
“The girls want to adopt them,” said Angel. “So does Giovanni. A few months ago, we were talking about him coming out of my stomach when he was born, and he said it was just like (our foster son). I told him that it didn’t actually work that way, that (our foster son) wasn’t really ours. Giovanni started crying and said, ‘He’s ours; he’s my brother.’ I think he would be devastated if they left.
“So, yeah, I think about six kids ... It seems like a lot, but we’ve done it for two years already.”
Hugo is philosophical, and as an artist, he believes people are constantly in search of their better half – and that that better half is happiness.
“That’s why all the figures in ‘Halftones’ are rendered only in part; their better half is yet to be found,” he said.
If warmth and affection are any measure, the Gonzalez family and the children they foster have already found their better halves — by giving happiness to each other.