CLEARWATER — Joanne had her eye on him at Pinellas Community Church well before she learned he sometimes house-sat. So when she was going to be out of town for a few days, she asked him to watch her two dogs and two cats.
She told him he would never see one of the cats, Bernie, because he was a recluse. When she learned Bernie followed him down the hallway and sat next to him on the couch, she called her mother in England and told her he was the one.
Joanne and Gary Sastamoinen were married three months later. They eventually found that they couldn’t have children of their own.
Now they now have five.
As adoptive parents, Joanne, 45, and Gary, 63, recently were featured at Pinellas County’s 10th annual Adoption Day at the Pinellas County Justice Center.
At the ceremony on Nov. 22, J. Thomas McGrady, chief administrative judge for the judicial circuit comprising Pinellas and Pasco counties, noted that 120 foster children were waiting to be adopted in the two counties, at an average of 8 years old. Statewide, 750 children are waiting to be adopted, and 104,000 are waiting nationwide, he said.
The Sastamoinens tried having children for eight years after their 2002 nuptials, though Joanne said adopting a child was always in her mind, in part because of missionary work she did in India. A medical nurse, Joanne went to India twice, taking medication with her, as part of the Good News India program. There she was exposed to orphaned, destitute and diseased children.
The Sastamoinens decided to become foster parents in 2010, then underwent an exhaustive weeks-long program that Gary said included extensive research into the couple’s background and home visits.
The tone of the process, however, changes once a couple is certified to take in children, Gary said.
“The joke is, ‘Once you’ve passed, can you take a kid?” he said after the ceremony.
After nine foster children passed through their house, the couple decided to adopt Lucius in March 2012.
He was almost 3 years old.
Since then, the couple has adopted a sister and brother: 10-week-old Addison and 2-year-old Aidan.
The couple also agreed to adopt another pair of siblings: Damien, now 21/2, and Ian, 16 months, who has albinism. Because of his pale features, there was some joking about him being from Finland, like Gary’s family.
The couple does not judge any of their adopted children’s parents.
“There has been evident love for all of their children,” Joanne said. “They weren’t just able to raise them.”
The couple is able to care for the five children partly because of their work schedules. Joanne is a nurse practitioner at St. Petersburg General Hospital, and works day shifts generally, Gary, an audio engineer, works mainly nights. Recently he worked on the sound boards at the Roger McGuinn concert at the Largo Cultural Center.
To make room for the children, the Sastamoinens gave up the master bedroom in their St. Pete Beach home and converted what was a three-bedroom house into a four-bedroom house.
Still, they are not going it entirely alone.
Unlike some adoptive parents, the Sastamoinens are making an effort to include their adopted children’s biological relatives, particularly the grandparents, in their lives as much as possible.
Lucius’ grandmother, who was at the ceremony, babysits the children.