Extra Christmas stockings hung on the chimney at a Biloxi home this year show how the heart expands to include love for adopted and foster children.
Andrea and Marcus Watson are celebrating Christmas with a full house — five children ages 7 and younger and two of their three young adult children.
The couple recently adopted their third foster child and have two 19-month-old foster children, a boy and a girl from different families.
How do they do it?
“Organization,” Andrea said.
“It’s controlled chaos. We have a lot of help from family and friends. This is what God wants us to do, so we rely on our faith to get us through day by day.”
She anticipates Christmas morning would be more chaotic than usual, but full of family fun.
Andrea’s a college student, taking classes online when she can, and works part-time for Waitr, delivering local food to restaurant customers’ doorsteps.
The Vancleave native had worked as a phlebotomist at the former Biloxi Regional Medical Center until she decided to attend college. She wants to pursue a master’s degree in social work.
“I want to help children,” she said.
Marcus is from La Marque, Texas, between Houston and Galveston. He is a welder at Ingalls. His shift work allows him to meet Andrea at home so they can go together to pick up their three youngest children from daycare on school days.
The loss of two children in 1992 and 2009 prompted the couple to think about becoming foster parents as their own children became teenagers and young adults.
The experience of becoming a foster parent, and realizing foster kids come with nothing but what they’re wearing, led Andrea to start a clothes closet to help other foster parents immediately outfit the children they’ve taken in.
The Watsons have had at least 12 foster children in their home.
The biracial couple were told they were a good fit for many children because some foster parents only want children of the same race.
“God doesn’t see color,” Andrea said. “So we don’t see color.”
One child after other
It took just a few hours after the Watsons signed the paperwork to become foster parents six years ago to receive their first call.
They took in a 1-year-old girl they called Leigha.
“She just dropped into our laps,” Andrea said. “That was our sign that this is what God wants us to do.”
The Watsons adopted Leigha, now 7, two years ago after a judge terminated her parents’ rights.
“The ultimate goal of foster care is reunification,” Andrea said.
“It doesn’t always happen. Foster care gives parents a chance to fix things they need to fix while foster parents love and care for their children. There’s teenage parents, parents on drugs, parents with all kinds of problems. Sometimes they’re able to get back on track. But not always.”
Four years ago, the Watsons picked up a 4-day-old baby boy at a hospital. His mother had named him Jaxon before leaving him at the hospital. The couple had an hour’s notice to pick him up. All he had was the diaper he was wearing and a hospital gown and cap. They scurried about to buy what he needed.
Jaxon was 19 months old when the Watsons adopted him.
He became best friends with Leigha, like they were born siblings. They sing together, play together and often hug each other, showing a love that thrills their parents.
Olivya joined the Watson home as a foster child when she was 4 months old. She was 3 1/2 when the couple adopted her a few months ago.
Then came Baby E and Baby O in the past couple of years. Because they’re foster children, their names and faces can’t be made public.
Baby E was placed in the home when she was as 2 months old.
Baby O joined the family when he was 10 months old.
Both are now 19 months old.
So there’s four children under the age of 4 in their home. How do the parents cope with the responsibilities?
Andrea’s college-age daughter, Bethanie Stokes, still lives at home and is a big help.
Andrea’s young adult son Joshua Stokes often steps in to help and attends church with the family every Sunday. Her other young adult son, T.J., comes to visit when he can.
It also takes a lot of teamwork from Andrea and Marcus.
Marcus does the family’s laundry. Andrea folds seven sets of clothes, socks and underwear included, for each of the children and stacks them up so they’re ready to grab and go.
Marcus is at work by the time Andrea gets the kids up for daycare and school. She either feeds the kids breakfast, gets Bethanie’s help, or the kids eat at school or daycare.
Andrea fits in college classes and school work during the day and lets Waitr know the hours she’s available for deliveries.
Once the family’s all home, dinner time and bath time occupy most of the evening. Weekends give extra time to spend with the kids, whether it’s pulling out the Play-Doh, coloring, watching movies or making arts and crafts.
The home is filled with laughter, the usual childhood bickering and daily reminders that each child is loved for who they are.
“We are not extravagant people, but we have a lot of love and we do things together as a family,” Andrea said.
The birth of Elijah’s Closet
The Watsons had talked about becoming foster parents after the death of their son Elijah in 2009. He was 3 months old when he died from complications from a genetic disorder.
Andrea also lost a daughter, Raven, in 1992. Raven was nearly 2 years old. She rarely talks about Raven.
A couple of years ago, Andrea and Marcus decided there was a way to honor Elijah’s memory by collecting clothing, diapers, even bicycles and other items to help new foster parents.
Elijah’s Closet was born. Donations are stored and available at any time a new foster parent picks up a child.
“Social workers give people my number,” Andrea said. “Some people hear about us through word of mouth.”
Andrea is trying to get nonprofit status for Elijah’s Closet, and hopes to one day have a store front.
For now, she occasionally organizes what she calls a Diaper Drop, a collection point for diapers, baby wipes and such. And she doesn’t turn away gently used clothes in all sizes or used toys.
Elijah’s Closet, which has a Facebook page, is holding a Diaper Drop in Gulfport from 1 to 6 p.m. Jan. 20. The collection point will be in front of the former Winn-Dixie building off Pass Road at Cowan Road.
Does Andrea ever get tired of all her responsibilities? She may get tired, but not of the children.
“I have every bit of the love in the world for children,” she said. “I believe we’re doing what God wants us to do. It makes everything worthwhile. God is where we get our strength and he has blessed us with beautiful children, some to keep, some to just love on for a time.”
Elijah’s Closet Diaper Drop
When: 1 to 6 p.m. Jan. 20
Where: Parking lot of the former Winn-Dixie off Pass Road at Cowan Road
What: Diapers, baby wipes and other infant needs
Contact: Elijah’s Closet on Facebook