Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Never too old to open your heart to a child

Single mom who became a banker to raise a large brood reaches golden years. But she's not retiring. She's adopting.
Edward Guthmann. San Francisco Chronicle. San Francisco, Calif.:Aug 17, 2006. p. E.1

When Kit Cole decided to adopt a baby at 64, her children, all in their 30s and 40s, were anything but enthusiastic. "They said, 'You're right at a place where you can enjoy all the fruits of your labor. Why do you want to have an infant in your life? You'll never have any rest; you'll have to be dragging him around.' "

Cole saw their logic: A successful investment adviser and banker, she had built companies, developed real estate projects and broken the mold for community financial institutions by offering her customers children's play areas, Internet access and cozy furniture at Tamalpais Bank in Mill Valley, which she founded. It was time to chill. Travel. Spend time with her 11 grandchildren.

All of those arguments might have held sway if the 1-month-old boy, Nathaniel, wasn't the child of Cole's grandniece. "She called me to see if I could help her," Cole says in her spacious home at Strawberry Point in Mill Valley. "She and her partner, the father, are homeless meth addicts. They live in Sacramento and the county of Sacramento took the child away from them."

Cole testified in court in February 2005, and agreed to take Nathaniel while her grandniece went to rehab -- so he wouldn't be lost to an unreliable foster-care system. "I thought it was going to be temporary," she says. "I was just taking him so he would be protected while she got on her feet. But that never happened. Guess who came to dinner to stay?"

Nathaniel, now called Luke, is taking his morning nap in the nursery. He's 18 months old, has no concept of the huge leap from his parents' reduced lives -- of Dumpster diving, scoring speed, sleeping by the Sacramento River -- to the queenlike home provided by his adoptive mom.

"This was a chance to break the chain," Cole says. "Luke's parents are homeless, his grandparents were homeless -- so he would be third-generation homeless. It's a harsh thing for these children. You see it and you think, 'I want to fix it. I want to help.' "

Outside, Luke's half-brother and sister, Wesley and Valencia, are playing in Cole's tile-lined pool. The children of Luke's mother and another father, they're part of Sacramento County's foster-care system -- they've had three homes in the last year -- and frequently come for weeklong visits with their baby brother.

"They're just darling children," Cole says of Wesley and Valencia. "I've looked at them and I've thought, 'I'll adopt these children.' And that thought tempts me."

If she does, that would make 13 altogether. At 27, Cole was divorced with five children younger than 7. At 31, she remarried and acquired five stepchildren. The second marriage ended, but Cole, whose energy seems boundless and whose outlook is resolutely positive, has kept close contact with most of them.

The 5-foot-tall grandmother, who was raised in Oakland, says she went into banking because it paid the bills better than other professions.

When Luke came to live with Cole, he'd been living in a foster home and had respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a respiratory disease often fatal in infants. "He was so sick he could hardly breathe. The pediatrician told me to put him into Marin General Hospital ICU, which is where he was the next 10 days."

Luke was born with marijuana and methamphetamines in his system, Cole says, but so far is developing normally with no signs of brain impairment. Still, emotional connection came slowly: "For the first year, it was very difficult for Luke to bond. He'd been abandoned and it takes time to get over that trauma. Now, I see he has made that shift ... he's got lots of energy and he's much more expressive than he was when I first got him."

It takes no effort to get Cole talking. Forthright, focused, she makes a point of plugging Lilliput Children's Services, a Sacramento- and San Leandro-based nonprofit that places children with adoptive parents. She also describes a system she devised when Luke was still an infant, of combining work and childrearing.

"He'd been through this horrific experience, so I didn't want to leave him with a caregiver." So she took him to work every day at Epic Bancorp (the holding company for Epic Wealth Management and Tamalpais Bank). "And in my office, I'd put his bed and all his little playthings. I was still meeting with clients then" -- she recently retired as chief executive officer of Epic Bancorp, and now serves as executive chairman -- "so for six or seven months, he was actually raised by a community of my office.

"The men and the women both pitched in and took care of him if I had to be some place. The men would carry him up and down the stairs."

Cole has an open adoption -- meaning Luke's parents are free to visit. When I ask how the mother feels about her son's privileged life, she answers slowly. "I think she realizes that he has opportunities here that she would never be able to provide him. Both she and her partner have expressed how appreciative they are that I'm caring for him.

"When we had an adoption ceremony here, we thanked them for Luke and we acknowledged the fact that they were going to grieve." Cole breaks off here for a moment, fighting back tears.
"It was very emotional for me, because I understand what it's like - I mean, I can see how sad that might be that they've lost their child. And then there's grief because Luke has lost his birth mother and father and even if he has an open adoption, he'll have to deal with that all his life."

Marshaling the energy to care for a toddler -- lifting, feeding, diapering -- isn't a problem because Cole has two women, sisters, who care for Luke 12 hours a day. Still, she's mindful of the fact that she'll be in her 80s when Luke hits his teens, and says that's become an incentive for her to stay healthy and vigorous.

"I'm going to have this child in my life until I die." Beyond that, "I have a big family, so he's now got a big, extended family. If I'm not here, they will be here."

When she got the call from her grandniece, Cole recalls, "I knew I couldn't leave Luke in foster care. That's not part of my fact set; that would be unimaginable to me. I want to make a contribution in this world. And I can make it by either donating money or services to somebody, or I can make it by taking this child and creating a life for him that he wouldn't have if it weren't for my intervention.

"It's like a daily tithe. I'm not sending a check maybe to Hurricane Katrina, but I'm tithing myself every day as I take care of this child."

The contrast with her old life, with her 35 years as a driven businesswoman, amazes her: "You know, you're going from developing a strategic plan or taking your company public, and you're coming home to a goo-goo, ga-ga baby, changing diapers and dealing with that. It's a reality check.

"So, it's a good thing. I'm glad I did it and I think what I would like to see personally are other people doing the same thing."