A Trophy Family

Ethan and Sheri Horvath

A couple weeks ago, a woman I know through work emailed me with the subject line: “Feel good story.” I’m always up for one of those!

Sheri Horvath of Martins Ferry went on to explain that on Feb. 23, 2015, her mother, Shirley McGlothlin Horvath, died unexpectedly in her sleep. The loss devastated Sheri. Her mom raised her and her brother alone, guiding them through all their tough times and big decisions. She and her mom talked five times a day. They even shared the same birthday.

Obviously, that’s not the feel-good part.

Sheri said a few days after her mom’s death, she had a job interview scheduled. Her mother had been praying she would get the job working with at-risk youth. The agency CEO allowed her to postpone the interview, and Sheri ended up getting the job.

That’s how she met Ethan, a youngster whose parents’ rights had been terminated and who had been in and out of foster care, detention centers and runaway shelters nearly all his life. Six of his seven siblings had been adopted, but his behavior and other issues kept barring his way to a permanent home. One foster family ended up getting pregnant and no longer wanted him.

Sheri told me: “He used to come back to the shelter (from a failed placement), and I would say, ‘Ethan, God just didn’t want you there. … He has the perfect home picked out for you. It just wasn’t meant to be.'”

What they didn’t know was that “perfect home” was her own.

One day last year, after Ethan returned from another detention-center stint, his team had a meeting to decide what to do with him. He already had been in the 90-day shelter off and on for two years. Sheri said she felt her mother’s influence in that room and found herself blurting: “I’ll take him.”

She assumed she’d lose her job because contact with clients outside work is verboten, but the CEO saw through the red tape to her heart and Ethan’s needs, and he gave the green light. She was now Ethan’s foster parent, on the path to adoption.

The way was not straight. Ethan pushed her away and tested her loyalty. Sheri, who is 47 and never married, ended a relationship because her significant other never envisioned a child as part of the mix. In the meantime, she finished a bachelor’s degree, started a master’s program and changed jobs.

A self-professed workaholic who subsisted on takeout and never had time for a family besides her mother and brother, Sheri was not at all sure she would be found fit to be Ethan’s mom.

But in early February, she got a call from her attorney stating the deal was all but sealed: Ethan was going to be her son.

The adoption hearing date was set for Feb. 23. It was the third anniversary of her mother’s death.

“A day that was usually filled with sadness is now going to be filled with joy,” Sheri said. “I truly believe my mom had something to do with that.”

“I never thought I’d be a mom, ever,” Sheri said. “I never had a desire to have kids. … That was my mom’s thing. I just go into a shock if the cat gets hurt, so I couldn’t imagine taking care of another person.”

Now, she said, “I love him so much I can’t even explain it. It’s like I really had him, even though I didn’t give birth to him. … It’s like he’s always been mine.”

Despite having to make adjustments (such as always having to have food in the fridge!), she’s “not too bad at” being a mom.

Ethan, now 13, agreed.

“(Sheri’s) telling me right things and looking forward and ahead to what will happen and helping me out and saying I’m going to be something one day, which really influenced me to keep working hard and stuff,” he said.

Ethan has a message for kids like him: ‘There’s always somebody that cares about you, and you still can make it. … Never give up. There’s always somewhere in your heart that you can find so you still have a way to look forward to something. And just keep your eyes on the trophy.”

For Ethan and Sheri, the trophy is their little family.

Sheri said she hopes to pass on to Ethan everything her mother taught her about service-before-self and unconditional love.

“I just want to carry on her legacy,” she said.

Betsy Bethel is the Life editor of The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register and editor of OV Parent magazine. She can be reached at bbethel@theintelligencer.net.