Family welcomes adoptees into their lives

Date: 2/20/2014

By Carley Dangona

SOUTHWICK – One family decided that it wasn’t time for an empty nest and chose to expand their family through adoption.

Chuck and Debbie Van Etten formally adopted Henna, 4, and Alias, 6, in November 2013 after fostering the siblings since 2010.

The Van Ettens already had three grown children, Jackie Nicholson, 25, Kyle Van Etten, 23, and Caytlin Van Etten, 20. The Van Ettens also continue to open their home to other foster children in need of short-term, temporary care. They currently have two other children in their care.

The Van Etten family took part in National Adoption Day, a nationwide event that took place on Nov. 22, 2013 at the Hampden Juvenile Court in Springfield. It marked the Commonwealth’s 11th observance of National Adoption Day. The Massachusetts Court Improvement Program, a federally funded program administered by the Supreme Judicial Court, sponsors Adoption Day.

“Our family’s been the best part of my life,” Chuck said. “When you think about it, my kids have been my greatest joy.”

He explained that their house had been full of teenagers for years and then it was just the two of them. “We decided we wanted to be the house that all the kids came to,” Chuck said.

Debbie said that when their youngest child went off to college, the house “changed drastically” and became very quiet.

“When we got this house, I would pray for opportunities to use it. We attribute the good in our life to God. We’ve been blessed and it’s really given us a purpose,” Chuck said.

In 2009, Debbie approached the family about the idea of fostering. “[The decision] was really driven by Debbie who’s gifted with caring for kids,” Chuck said.

Both Chuck and Debbie grew up in New York State. They met when she was a high school senior and he was a college freshman in 1977. Ten years later they married. Prior to moving to Southwick, they lived in Agawam for 13 years.

“We moved to Southwick for a little more room to breathe, more quiet,” Chuck said, noting that he grew up on a farm in the country.

Debbie was one of nine and Chuck one of five children, so neither was unaccustomed to being part of a large family. Both sides of the family had a history of taking in children in need of a home.

The duo thoroughly enjoyed the Adoption Day celebration.

“Judge [Daniel] Swords was amazing; great with the kids,” Chuck said, noting that the judge gave “backpacks full of toys” to each child.

He said that so many of their friends and family attended the ceremony that court officials thought they had double-booked the courtroom. “It was great to be able to share it with them,” Chuck said.

He added that Sword had taken the time to read each case, presenting an introduction to each family before finalizing the adoptions.

When Henna and Alias first came to live with the Van Ettens, the goal was re-unification with their biological mother, but eventually the situation changed and the children were in need of adoption. The children still have contact with their biological parents.

Chuck admitted that he initially struggled with the idea of adoption. “I was not thinking about adoption. When adoption seemed imminent, I went through all these scenarios of where they would go next and came to the conclusion that none of those options were acceptable. This [our house] had become their home,” he said.

When asked what the best part of being a parent is, Chuck responded, “The short answer is hugs. The long answer is just seeing them succeed – all the little victories growing up.”

Debbie said, “I love having little ones say ‘I love you mom.’ I love that I can make a child feel special.”

The couple explained that taking part in the foster and adoption processes has resulted in an even greater love and appreciation for each other. Debbie said, “It makes me love him more. He’s a great man, but he’s an awesome father figure.”

The Van Ettens considered the reality of adopting children in their 50s.

“I [used] to think about whether I will be around to walk Henna down the aisle. There’s no guarantee [that any of us will live well into old age], so I don’t worry about that,” Chuck said.

“If anything happened to us, I don’t doubt our kids would step in,” Debbie said.

Both agreed they have a “terrific support system.” The Van Ettens thanked their church, Westfield Evangelical Free Church and the Thom Westfield Infant Toddler Services program for their assistance that helped them become better equipped to meet the needs of their foster children.

Debbie expressed that there are many children still in need of homes. “If you have an inkling or thought, there’s such a big need. It doesn’t seem right that kids should go through their formative years without ever experiencing love,” she commented.

“If you want to feel like you’re making a difference, [adopt]. You can save the world one child at a time,” Debbie added.

To learn more about adoption, visit the Massachusetts Adoption Resource Exchange website, or call MARE at 617-54-ADOPT (617-542-3678).

Two MARE-sponsored adoption parties are scheduled in Western Massachusetts this spring.

A Meet & Greet Adoption Information Session will take place at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital, 1233 Main St., Holyoke, on March 19 from 6 to 8 p.m. A Pizzeria Adoption Party will be hosted on April 12 at the Lower Pioneer Valley Educational Collaborative Bistro, 174 Brush Hill Ave., West Springfield, from noon to 2:30 p.m.

The Van Ettens’ church, 568 Southwick Road, will conduct an Adoption & Foster Care Conference on March 15 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, call the church at 562-1504. Register online at