Not long after Jamie and Daniel Kertis adopted 7-year-old DJ, their new son told them about the time he ate cotton candy at Disney World.
They were surprised since DJ had been born to a young teenage mother and had grown up in foster care, but after learning that he’d spent his first four years at Babies First, a UMCH group home for young mothers and their children, the Kertises began connecting the dots.
“They took the moms and their babies to Disney World and Gatlinburg and did lots of things to help them bond and experience some of the joys of life,” Mrs. Kertis said. “He had a solid foundation there and it made a big difference in his life.”
The Kertises, who live in Mobile, long believed their family’s calling was to serve children who need care and love, and the Lord eventually put the idea of adoption on their hearts. After several potential matches didn’t work out, however, they grew discouraged. “We began to think maybe this wasn’t God’s plan for us right now,” she said.
Then Mrs. Kertis saw DJ’s photo on a website that features Alabama children looking for forever homes and she and her family fell in love. The adoption process moved quickly, and just weeks after it was finalized last July, Mrs. Kertis received an invitation to the groundbreaking for UMCH’s new Babies First Home.
Although she has supported UMCH financially for years, she’d never gotten involved with the ministry and didn’t know much about it. Something kept telling her to attend the groundbreaking, though, and that’s where she met Rebecca Morris, UMCH’s Senior Vice President of External Affairs.
“I told her we had just adopted a boy named Damarkis Jamal,” Mrs. Kertis said, adding that the more they talked, the wider Morris’ eyes got. “She finally said, ‘Do you mean DJ? We raised him.’ Rebecca told me they had lost touch with him after he left Babies First, but they had been praying for him constantly,” Mrs. Kertis said.
DJ was born to a 14-year-old mother who had been placed at Babies First when she was pregnant. “She experienced a significant amount of trauma in her personal life and was unable to cope with raising DJ,” Mrs. Kertis said. After 4 1⁄2 years, she signed over her parental rights, and DJ was placed in a foster home.
Figuring out her son’s connection to Babies First was a game changer, Mrs. Kertis said, because they met Blondine Burke who had recently retired after 15 years at the group home. She told them about DJ’s early years, shared baby photos, and gave them insight into his personality.
“It was invaluable,” she said. “A lot of people who adopt know nothing about the child, other than what they read in the clinical file. She was able to tell us that he loved Ninja Turtles, that he’s always been silly and that he’s fearful of loud noises. “We felt so lucky that we were able to hear from someone who knew and loved him from the beginning.”
DJ, now 8, is thriving in his new home. His sisters, 10-year-old Kate and Claire, 7, have welcomed him with open arms – smelly clothes, dead frogs and all. “It’s been one of the greatest blessings of my life to see how our girls took him in without missing a beat,” Mrs. Kertis said. “They have loved him from the start.”
After reconnecting with DJ, Ms. Burke became a “surrogate grandmother,” Mrs. Kertis said, adding that she’s come to soccer games and other events. “She has such a sweet, maternal energy about her,” she said. “We felt like it was important for him to have that connection to his past.”
Mrs. Kertis said she is grateful for the love and support DJ and his birth mother received at Babies First and for the impact it made on his life. “The amount of love in that place, you can feel it,” she said. “It’s a ministry born out of love and care. DJ is definitely a testament to the fact that they are providing a loving, nurturing foundation for the children in their care.”