What better time than National Pay It Forward Day to tell about someone in our community who has a generous heart, who gladly gives their time to organizations like Box 100, and who has opened his home to foster children who are in need of a safe place?
Tony and his partner had a gorgeous 900-square foot home in Nashville, but lost it due to an illness. He moved into a rental home for about a year and mourned for the small house he used to call home. He mourned it until the day his best friend told him about the house next door to her in LaVergne. Tony did not want to move here because LaVergne took him out of his comfort zone in Nashville. However, when he saw the 2200 square foot home that came with two acres, he was compelled to get it. In hindsight, Tony realizes it was meant to be because raising seven children was a lot easier in the big house with lots of land than it would have been in the tiny house.
Because they are gay, Tony Vanatta and his partner of 20 years Tommy Gupton didn’t think they could get children, but they learned of the incredible need for homes for teens. They went through the process everyone goes through that consists of home visits, being interviewed, and taking the mandatory classes with the Department of Children’s Services. The classes offer training on how to parent and show what to expect from the children. Because getting someone else’s child is not like having your own, the classes teach how to cope with the situation and the role they play when children are reunited with their biological parents.
In 2004, Tony and Tommy opened their home to two children. Since then they’ve had 10 foster children in all, but consider seven to be “their kids”: siblings Katie, 19 and Cody, 18; siblings Michael, 20 and Christopher, 18; Alexis, 10; and siblings A.C., 18 and Austin, 11. Four still live at home.
Tony said they love having the kids around and they are a gift from God. “A lot of people think kids are blessed to have us, but we are blessed to have them,” he said. “If they were blessed, they’d be in their own home with their own parents and thriving with them. That’s a child’s blessing – to be raised by their Mom and Dad. We step into the role because there’s a real need, but we never tell them we’re their parents. No one can fill that biological connection, whether they’re adopted or not. I’m here if they need me, God has held his hands out to help me when I’ve fallen, so I’m here to help them if they do. I want to encourage them when they need it.”
The children are thriving. Tony formally adopted Austin, but A.C. is also like own child – in fact, all of them are. DCS is helping A.C. and Michael with college and will also help Christopher when he starts next year. A.C. wants to be a rapper, but through Tony’s guidance he is studying music and music management so he’ll have the education backing his talent.
Rap music? If you’re not a fan, you might as well accept that you’ve shifted into the older side of the generation gap! Part of being a parent is you let a child be who they want to be, but you’re there to guide them and allow them to make their own mistakes. Tony said one of his children once said to him, “You just don’t know how wrong something is until you’re no longer in it.”
Tony feels that when kids are around people who are involved with drugs, alcohol, and all the bad stuff, they learn it as a normal way of life. However, when they leave that environment and see how people work, buy their own food and earn their own money, they learn there are better ways to live.
Tony is passionate about telling people about the need for foster parents. He received the “Foster Parent of the Year” award in 2007 from Davidson County and believes it’s because he stays involved with his children. If there is a hearing in court, he doesn’t ask the case manager to go with the child. If there is a doctor appointment, he takes them rather than handing them to the case manager. Tony said what has helped tremendously has been the support system he has from family and friends in LaVergne. In addition, his church in Nashville – United Holy Trinity Community Church – has been a great help.
Tony is concerned that the news about foster children is rarely positive. Only 8 percent of children in the state foster care system are “problem” children, but 92 percent only want a good, loving home to live in. Children do not enter the foster system due to juvenile delinquency, but are there because of bad parenting. The need for parents to foster teenagers is big because most parents want young children.
Tony credits teenaged children with helping families as much as they are helped. He said that one of his kids actually set up his computer and taught him how to use it. In addition, with teenagers parents are not tied down to the same demands that infants have.
Being tied down would be challenging for Tony who runs his own business, Vanatta’s Cleaning Service. The residential cleaning business has remained steady even during this recession, but Tony is accepting new clients between LaVergne and Nashville.
When it comes to LaVergne, Tony wants all citizens and city workers to be treated fairly. He realizes that everyone in LaVergne can’t be satisfied and that the city can’t do everything because we just don’t have the money. However, he feels doing things for certain special people is not good either and that’s how the city is perceived.
Tony hopes voters will elect leaders who do their homework and research issues before making decisions. He would like to see all major policymakers and administrators actually live in the city because the decisions they make should affect them personally just like it affects the rest of the residents.
In addition, Tony would like sidewalks to be built on Cheney Drive going to LaVergne High School, “I see kids walking in the grass that comes up to their knees. I’ll also see kids walking in the middle of the road half asleep.” He worries that an inexperienced driver on the way to school might not be able to avoid hitting someone walking in the street if something unexpected happens.
If you are interested in being a foster parent, here is the contact information:
Department of Children’s Services
Deirdre Lackey, Team Coordinator
434 Jayhawk Court
Murfreesboro, Tennessee 37128
Phone: (615) 494-4540
Fax: (615) 898-8038
In addition, Tony recommends contacting Sarah Stephens who is his foster care support person at (877) 327 5437. Foster parents can be single or married, be with or without children of their own, be employed or not employed, but able to financially meet his/her own needs, must be in sufficient good health, should be at least 21 years of age, and be a homeowner or renter.
All potential foster parents must provide five references and will be fingerprinted and will have to undergo a complete background check. In addition, each potential foster parent daily participates in a home study that assists the department and the families in making decisions regarding the foster home approval process.