The Gagnon family of Camp Verde is a special family: two amazing parents with six kids whose journey through foster care has brought them a house full of love.
In November 2016, FOX 10 Phoenix did a report on the Gagnons, when they traveled half a world a way to save little Israel from a Bulgarian orphanage. Israel was tied to a crib, and left to die, when the Gagnons adopted him, and took him home to Camp Verde. Israel is now flourishing in this loving family.
In 2017, the Gagnons found themselves making news around the country, when one of Stacy's Facebook posts about her son, Joel, went viral.
The post was made on July 16.
(Can't see this Facebook post? Click here)
Joel was born with a cranio-facial impairment.
Stacey's post went viral. It explained what it feels like to be a child who's different, from a mother's perspective. Normally, Stacey Gagnon would have taken a moment to educate the kids in the room on differences.
On that day, however, she didn't have it in her.
"I said, 'do you want to leave?'" recounted Stacey. "He just ran out. He sat with me in church."
With a pen, Joel sat with his tears drying on his cheek, and scrawled a message inside his mom's hand.
"He had written 'Joel Loves Mom', and it just broke me," said Stacey. "And I realized that I, as a mom, can't do this on my own. I need other moms to prep their kids for this stuff, because these weren't mean children in this classroom. I just realized that we don't teach our kids to accept differences."
Stacey made that plea in a post, and it resonated with so many people. Some wrote back to say they also looked different, and wanted to let Joel know he's got lots of friends.
It started the hashtag #joelsfriends.
"I showed Joel that. He's like, 'I'm not alone. There are kids like me,'" said Stacey.
Joel also caught the eye of a specialty eyeglass maker, who noticed his glasses weren't fitting well.
"His glasses were always crooked, and it just made it almost look more pronounced," said Stacey. "A man reached out to me from Spokey's Eyewear . He does glasses for kids with cranial facial impairment, which he's wearing now, and they're fantastic and he's so proud. It has been a game changer for him."
Joel is in a family mixed with biological, adopted and foster kids. This It happened. after a conversation Stacey had with a middle school girl she was homeschooling.
"At the time, I was homeschooling a young lady who had been severely burned over 90% of her body," said Stacey. "She said, 'do you think you'd ever love and adopt and love a kid that looks like me?' And I just like, 'of course I would', and she said I hope someday that you might, because I think a kid like me that looks so different would love to be in your home."
The Gagnons decided they definitely had room in their hearts and home for another child.
"I reached out to our licensing worker and said we would like to adopt a child that maybe not a lot of people want to adopt at this time, maybe that looks different," said Stacey. "We had prayed about it. We felt like, 'yeah, we're supposed to do one more, and whoever they're gonna call us with, we're gonna step out in faith and do this.'"
The social worker told her there was a little boy in need of a home, and then began listing all of his medical issues.
"They bring in this box, and it's full of papers," recounted Stacey. "And they're like, 'this is everything he's been diagnosed with', I guess, wrong with him, and we need you to read all that, before you sign that you want him. And after they left, my husband and I both sat there and said, 'can you fathom if everything wrong with me was put on a paper, who would pick me?'"
Joel ended up becoming their son.
"He doesn't look or reflect anything that was on paper," said Stacey.
The paperwork ended up in a backyard bonfire.
"We started to learn to ignore all that was told to us, and just see the child," said Stacey.
When they look at Joel, they see that he is amazing, and that's all.
"Darren was bathing the boys in the bathtub, and he was pouring water on their head, and all of a sudden Isaac freaked out and yelled, 'Joel's ear is gone!'" recounted Stacey. "It had been months and suddenly he realized, 'oh my gosh, he doesn't have an ear.'"
They talk less about differences, and more about what binds people together. It's something Stacey wishes more parents would discuss with their kids, and remind them staring is not cool.
"It is not excusable," said Stacey. "You might ask me later, 'hey, I noticed someone, and this is what I saw', and I will tell you about it, and we will research it, and talk about it."
And Joel has a message for everyone, something he knows is true.
"Everybody is cool on the inside," said Joel.
Currently, there are 1,800 kids in need of foster families in Arizona.
The Gagnons have started a non-profit called "Lost Sparrows" to help biological moms care for and deal with the stigma in Bulgaria of having a child with special needs, so that those babies don't end up in orphanages.
Arizona Department of Child Safety - Foster Care and Adoption