OAKLAND -- When Doni DeBolt was 13 years old she emptied the contents of her wallet, what was left of her allowance, into a makeshift donation box for a yet to be built adoption agency. She even fished out her last penny, which had been stuck in her coin purse, to ensure she had given everything she could.
Almost 40 years later DeBolt has taken over as executive director of that very same agency, but she is investing more than money; she is investing the lessons learned from her stepmother, Dorothy DeBolt, founder of the Adopt A Special Kid.
Growing up an only child, 10-year-old Doni prayed every night for brothers and sisters. Then, when Dorothy and Bob DeBolt wed in 1970, six months after meeting on a blind date, Doni not only inherited one sibling, she inherited nine.
"I was the only kid on the street that didn't have brothers and sisters, and I just felt like I was at such a disadvantage," DeBolt said. "It was a destiny moment when our mom and dad met each other."
Before meeting Bob, Dorothy had adopted two boys from Korea in her previous marriage and then two more boys from Vietnam after her husband died of a brain tumor.
The two boys from Vietnam had severed spinal cords and only spoke Vietnamese. Despite the challenges, Dorothy adopted the two 14-year-old boys anyway. And she didn't stop there.
After Bob and Dorothy wed, the family adopted 10 more children from around the country and around the world. Each child was unique in their own way, and Doni said growing up with siblings that had disabilities helped her realize what was really important.
"It was such a wake-up call to me, that's how my whole life has been continually," Doni said. "You realize what's important to complain about, and what's important to focus on."
But adopting children wasn't enough for Dorothy, who dreamed of starting an adoption agency. Doni said that her mother credited this dream to her own experience of adopting, because there are so many children like her own who are not considered adoptable.
One day in 1973, Bob DeBolt came home from work and informed his wife that he had quit his job so she could realize her dream of opening an adoption agency. The DeBolt family proceeded to wipe out their savings account to help found AASK.
"We were pouring apple juice on top of Cheerios. We went real slim for a long time," Doni said. "But that was 40 years ago."
AASK was the first agency in California to ask for an adoption license in 63 years and, at the time, it focused mainly on placing special needs children with families, Doni said. Now, the agency has placed more than 3,400 kids from foster care into adoption, she added.
Not only does the agency disregard the notion of children who are not adoptable, it also doesn't place restrictions on who is an adoptable parent, Doni said. Whether someone is single, gay or elderly, the agency tries to create a 'forever family' based on the love parents have to offer.
"Family isn't what it looks like, it's what it feels like," Doni said. "Families come in all shapes and sizes and colors. Whether you're gay or you're single, you're a renter or you're wealthy, it has nothing to do with what type of parent you are."
Dennis Hanley always wanted to be a parent. Working through AASK, he attended an informational meeting, went to an orientation, participated in trainings and browsed books with pictures and biographies of children. At first he and his partner didn't match with any of the kids they were interested in.
Then, in 2006, Hanley and his partner were contacted about three brothers they could adopt if they were interested. When the couple first met the boys at a park in Sacramento, Hanley said it felt right from the start.
His boys are now 13, 11 and 10 years old, and Hanley is actively involved in their lives, as a PTA president and by helping with his oldest sons' all-star baseball team.
"It's been a long road here and we're very fortunate to have been able to create a family with the help of AASK," Hanley said.
Involvement with the agency didn't end after the adoption, as Hanley has attended parent training sessions and workshops since. His experience with the agency led him to serve on their board of directors for a short while and he regularly volunteers with them as well.
Hanley credits AASK with helping create his forever family when other agencies might not have been so willing.
"What I liked most was that I realized as an LGBT person, there was an agency willing to work with me so that I would be able to realize my dream of becoming a parent," Hanley said. "I want to support them because they're still there supporting my family whenever I need."
The agency's strength within the LGBT community proves true not only with Hanley's family, but with a variety of families in the Bay Area. After Felicia and Sara Steenhouse were married they knew they wanted to start a family and adoption was one of the options they considered.
The couple said AASK provided so much support that they were grateful to have its partnership throughout the adoption process. In 2011, the couple finalized the adoption of their two boys and they said when they adopt another child in the future, they will work with AASK once again.
"They have the children and the families at heart and nothing else really matters," Felicia Steenhouse said. "Now we couldn't imagine our lives any other way and would do it over again a million times just this way, even with all the challenges involved with adoption."
Despite the number of families AASK has helped create, the organization still deals with its own struggles when it comes to funds. The nonprofit organization is very dependent on donations and also tries to raise money through fundraising and grants. This weekend, the agency is holding a 5k fun run, in honor of Dorothy DeBolt, with all proceeds helping to support the AASK mission.
Regardless of funding challenges, Doni said that before her mother died in February, she told her she would continue working to ensure the dream lived on.
"On my mom's deathbed I said to her, 'I'm not going to let your dream die,'" Doni said. "It's an incredible blessing to be able to carry on her legacy."
What: Dorothy DeBolt 5K Family Fun Run/Walk
When: 9 a.m. Sunday
Where: Lake Merritt, starting at the bandstand
Info: Register at http://bit.ly/19Rn1cr