Story and photos by Nikki McKim
Brandi Conner’s smile lights up the courtroom as her family eagerly awaits the Judge’s entrance on Monday, September 25, 2023. It’s been a harrowing journey for her, coming from parents who struggled with alcoholism. Her biological father, Ed, was the one who kept her safe, but after a stroke, she was left with her mother, who had her own tough battles with alcohol.
“That’s when things when awry,” said Brandi.
Conner’s life took her on a challenging ride of moving around and changing homes. She faced constant transitions from living with her half-sister in Fairmont, Nebraska, to returning to her mother’s house and then experiencing foster care. Sadly, she lost her father, half-sister, and grandmother during this time, which was difficult.
“After my grandmother passed away I became depressed and I even contemplated suicide. I really, so I started going to therapy again. Shortly after, I snuck out of the home for a few hours and got caught. Then, I went to another house to do respite, which became my next placement,” Brandi said.
That placement lasted for about seven months before she moved in with Angela and Bobby Hunzeker. Brandi lived with the Hunzeker family until she went to college in August 2001 and “aged out of the system” in early 2002.
“My entire childhood, I dreamt of being a mother,” said Angie Hunzeker, “That was my lifetime goal. I had always wanted four children for as long as I can remember when we played dolls, Barbies, etc. I wanted four but God Blessed me with way more through my daycare loves and my kindergarten kiddos!”
When Angie grew up and married the love of her life, she realized that God’s plan was a bit different for her.
“We had been dealing with fertility issues for about eight years, so we started to look into adoption,” said Angie.
As luck would have it, Hunzeker coached softball with Angie Lewis, former Resources Developer at the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. It was Lewis who encouraged the Hunzekers to do foster care so they could foster/adopt through the state of Nebraska.
“At the time, only about six couples in our region did foster care. We had done some emergency foster care when our neighbors had newborn foster twins and moved to a different state. We took over fostering their twins until their adoption was final,” said Hunzeker.
After discussing it more with Lewis, Bobby and Angie agreed to have a home study done to start the foster care/adoption process. The home study became a private adoption and a State of Nebraska Home Study.
After completing the home study, tragedy struck with the sudden passing of Angie’s brother, Larry Johansen, but during his visitation, she received news that a friend of his oldest daughter’s was looking for someone to adopt her sister’s baby. Larry’s daughter, knowing her aunt and uncle’s desire to adopt, recommended them to her friend. A week later, they were contacted and informed that they would welcome a baby into their family in three months.
“Only God can take one of the saddest days of your life and turn it into happiness,” said Angie.
As they awaited the arrival of their son Carter, they fostered kids short-term and did respite care.
A couple of years later while waiting in the drive-thru at Sonic, Angie discovered they would be getting their second baby, arriving in November of that year.
“Only God can give you a baby at the drive-through of Sonic,” said Angie. “A little gal dear to my heart was waiting on us and had just found out she was pregnant and told us she was calling us the next day to see if we would adopt her baby.”
Little did they know a scorching summer day, amidst the chaos of life, the Hunzekers had their hands full with a lively two-year-old, a baby on the way, a bustling home daycare with a dozen children, and a six-week-old baby they were fostering, another blessing was about to come their way, though it was initially disguised. During this hectic time, Angie Lewis and her former co-worker Child Protection and Safety Worker Shelly Thompson, both from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, made desperate calls to Angie.
“We have a child for you that we need you to take desperately. She is a 17-year-old girl. Will you please take her?” they both asked.
“Absolutely not. I am not and will not take a teenager,” said Angie.
The women continued to beg and plead while Angie’s response remained the same.
“I had seen this little gal around town and she seemed sweet but a big strong, no,” said Angie.
She hung up the phone and couldn’t believe they would even ask that of her.
“Then I heard a small voice saying, ‘You will take her!’ God, I will do many things for you, but this is not one of them! Then God laid this scripture on my heart. ‘Children are a gift from the Lord; they are a reward from him.’ -Psalm 127:3,” said Angie. “Okay, God – I get it.”
Angie called social services and told them she would try it for one week, but that was it. She then called her husband who was working and said, “Oh, by the way, we have a 17-year-old foster daughter moving into our house within the next few minutes.”
Bobby replied, “Well, if she needs a place, it might as well be with us.”
Angie said they loved her from day one, and she was immediately part of the family.
“From a foster parent standpoint, you don’t know if it will be a short-term or forever placement. So, I kept my guard up for a while as to not get too attached.”
But they did get attached and for the next 23 years, they were family. While Brandi had mentioned adoption, Angie said she thought it was a past thought after her daughter got married 18 years ago.
“We didn’t think changing her name on a birth certificate was that important because she was already ours,” said Angie.
But Brandi brought it up several more times and said she felt it was essential to be adopted for a few reasons.
“One was for a sense of true belonging. Even though I’ve been in the family for 23 years, I still have negative thoughts where I feel if I do something wrong, I will be abandoned. I am able to recognize that it is a negative thought pattern, but the thoughts are still there. Now, I know that even when I might have arguments with my parents, they will not abandon me because I am truly a part of the family,” said Conner. “The second reason is simply the legality of it. For emergency contacts on forms, I can say they are my parents and not a friend or former foster parent. Also, heaven forbid something would happen to my husband and me; they, in addition to my in-laws, would have the ability to step in and care for my children legally.”
Brandi says her husband’s aunt, who also adopted a child, said it best, “Every family member needs to know that their family couldn’t be complete without them. Adoption is a precious outward expression of belonging, unconditional love through good times and challenges, bonds and feelings that words can’t describe, and confidence in knowing those bonds are forever.”
Angie said to them she has been their daughter for 23 years and nothing will change that. Not a name change on a birth certificate, but understands that to Brandi it means something different.
“I believe as a child growing up in a two-parent family that loves you and cares for you, it is hard for us to comprehend what it would feel like for a foster child.”
Last Christmas, the Hunzekers gave their daughter the greatest gift she could ask for – a letter telling her they would pay the attorney fees for her to move forward with the adoption.
“We were celebrating Christmas, and Mom wrote a letter that she had me read. She recorded my reading it and posted my reaction on Facebook. I had tears of joy,” said Brandi.
“She cried and cried. That was when I realized what being adopted by us meant to her,” said Angie. “Our families have taken her in and loved her from day one, she was already ours and one of them. However, if this was what she needed, we were all 100 percent for it. Many of the younger ones thought we had adopted her years ago.”
The Hunzekers said they had no fear when it came to adopting Brandi and they are hoping this story inspires other people to consider late-in-life adoption.
“Children need to feel loved and wanted. There is such a shortage of good foster homes that many kids can’t get pulled from bad situations because there is nowhere for them to go. If you find it in your heart to bless someone else, you will really be the one blessed,” said Angie.
“I think teenagers get a stigma that they aren’t worth adopting since they aren’t a baby or a small child. On the other side of that, youth can feel unwanted. I hope this also inspires teenagers because being a teen in the system is hard. Being able to let your guard down to try and trust someone new. Hoping you will do the right thing and not get sent away,” said Conner. “It is a sense of belonging; it helps me through some of my past fears/trauma of feeling abandoned.”
Brandi hopes others will think about adoption and foster care and offers some advice.
“First and foremost, when you first meet them, do your best to try and make them feel welcome. Get them a stuffed animal, journal, etc. for the heck of it; find out their favorite meal; little things like that. Let them know it is okay to ask questions because they may be too scared to ask. Help them to have a voice. Most of all, encourage them and be their biggest fan. Positive attention goes so much further and helps build up their self-esteem,” said Conner.
She continued saying she never thought she would finish high school, let alone college, but she had a counselor who had positivity about him who confidently told her that she would graduate high school and could go to college.
“It was my mom who asked me to try at least one semester,” says Brandi “I ended up attending the four years and getting my Bachelor’s degree in Sociology.”
Conner said regardless of the child’s age, there will likely be challenges of some sort, and remember that it doesn’t matter how a person is raised; they still might have character traits of their biological family that come through. And remember that your “normal” may not be their “normal”. The foster care process can be complicated because people are complicated. There are different personalities and expectations, explains Conner.
“You may love the child the way you know, but their love language may be something else. i.e., you may feel loved by others doing chores, but they may need to be loved by getting hugs or spending time together.”
“Just because a child or teen isn’t being outspoken, don’t mistake that for them to be okay. I didn’t know how to advocate for myself or if it was okay to ask for things. I thought if I asked for something, I would be a burden and would cost too much money, so I rarely asked for money for things,” said Conner.
Brandi is now a wife, mother, and a Juvenile Probation Officer, a job she said she would have laughed at in her youth.
“I initially came into the Probation as an Investigation Assistant, gathering collateral information so the Probation Officer could do their investigation. Over time, I decided to apply to become a Probation Officer and was sworn in at the Capital on October 14th, 2005. I encourage my youth to make positive choices and help them see how their decisions can affect their future positively. Yes, sometimes they make poor choices, and I have to have honest conversations with them about where they want to see their life going. Overall, I try to be their cheerleader. So, when there are great successes, it makes what I do worth it,” Brandi said. “I have also helped with foster care recruiting events with Christian Heritage and Building Blocks. I enjoy sharing my story to try and help prepare future foster parents.”
Angie said she loves that her grandchildren could watch their mom be adopted.
“Of course, they know no different. I was there when they took their first breath and every moment since, so they have never known any different.”
Brandi said this experience has affected her family, but then again it hasn’t.
“They have been my mom, dad and brothers for over two decades; this just makes it official.”