Adoption finds platform in pageants

Julie Schoemehl of Shawnee will represent Kansas at the Mrs. International pageant this weekend in Chicago. She hopes to spread the word about foster and adoptive parenting, which led her to adopt four children of her own, including Walter (left), 10, Jacob, 8, and Sierra, 4. Schoemehl’s husband, Kenny Hartman, and oldest child, Isaiah, 12, are not pictured.

Julie Schoemehl of Shawnee will represent Kansas at the Mrs. International pageant this weekend in Chicago. She hopes to spread the word about foster and adoptive parenting, which led her to adopt four children of her own, including Walter (left), 10, Jacob, 8, and Sierra, 4. Schoemehl’s husband, Kenny Hartman, and oldest child, Isaiah, 12, are not pictured. by Sara Shepherd

Julie Schoemehl’s five-bedroom Shawnee home is stocked with 14 beds, where she and her husband have housed more than 100 foster children through the years.

They’ve had as many as nine under their roof at one time, and permanently adopted four of their own.

But Schoemehl is no frumpy soccer mom.

This week Schoemehl, the reigning Mrs. Kansas International, will take her high heels and sparkling tiara to Chicago to compete for the title of Mrs. International. Her goal in entering the pageant, she said, was to find a platform to educate others about foster care and adoption.

In particular, Schoemehl said, older foster children or those with special needs can have the hardest time finding permanent families.

“These are the forgotten kids,” she said. “These kids come into this world, and they sign a blank check. They pay whatever price their parents have chosen.”

Of the estimated 424,000 children who have been separated from their birth families and placed in foster care, about 114,500 can never return to their original homes, according to the North American Council on Adoptable Children, nacac.org. Special needs adoption helps many of them find the nurturing and support of a permanent family.

The council defines special needs children as those who have a more difficult time finding families willing to adopt them. Some have physical or mental conditions that require special treatment; others may have emotional problems stemming from abuse or neglect.

That was the case for the children that Schoemehl and her husband, Kenny Hartman, adopted — Isaiah, 12, Walter, 10, Jacob, 8, and Sierra, 4.

The three youngest joined Schoemehl Friday for a visit to the park, where they were obedient, polite and active. But Schoemehl said that hadn’t always been the case, for them or their brother Isaiah.

Isaiah was a “failure to thrive” baby, Schoemehl said.

He was born with medical problems that included underdeveloped lungs, but his biological mother took him out of the hospital early against doctors’ recommendations. When Schoemehl took him in, at 14 months old, he weighed 12 pounds.

“He was really sick when we got him, really sick,” Schoemehl said. “After that first year he kind of turned the corner.”

The first week Walter, then 3, spent in Schoemehl’s home, he tore off all the wallpaper and only slept a couple hours a night.

Walter was later diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiance disorder, which medications have helped control. Although, Schoemehl said, he still only requires about four hours of sleep a night.

Jacob arrived at age 2 with yet another new challenge.

Schoemehl said Jacob was diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, which happens when children aren’t held as infants, perhaps instead being left in car seats or cribs all the time. After a certain amount of time with their needs going unmet, the infants quit crying altogether, making it difficult for a new parent to tell when they need something.

Schoemehl picked up Sierra when she was just 3 days old.

Sierra was born with spina bifida, oxygen deprivation and cysts on either side of her brain. They anticipated she would end up in a wheelchair.

Her first three months, Sierra ate every hour and a half and was a frequent visitor to Children’s Mercy Hospital — “I thought I was going to lose my mind,” Schoemehl said. But by 1, the hole in Sierra’s spine closed and her cysts went away. Now, she walks, talks and plays like other kids.

Schoemehl said many of the past foster children stay in touch, sometimes when they need something or just to let them know how they’re doing.

“We still have foster kids that come and go in our lives, but they ebb and flow,” Schoemehl said.

Walter said at times it was “kind of annoying” to have so many other kids around at once, but on the other hand there’s always someone to play with.

He was too little to remember it clearly, but he knows he was having “a lot of problems” at his first house. Now, he said, he’s in a place where he knows his mom loves him a lot.

“She treats me nice on my birthday and stuff like that,” Walter said. “She lets us, like, go to fun places like the lake.”

There was a point early in college where Schoemehl considered social work, but bypassed the idea to earn her bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master’s degree in marketing.

After college, she moved to Shawnee and worked as marketing director of a law firm. Now she works varying hours as the owner of a property management company, and trains for fitness competitions. Her husband owns an engineering firm. They have a nanny to help with the kids.

When Schoemehl, who said she could not have children, and her husband went to their first adoption seminar, they were overwhelmed by how long the process would take and how much it would cost.

Hartman asked if they should consider adopting outside their race, and “it just clicked,” Schoemehl said.

Schoemehl said she wouldn’t change that decision.

“I have loved every one,” she said of the children they have taken in. “I have learned so much. I have loved every challenge that has come up.”

By Sara Shepard

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