THE PARENTS: Susan Guntz, 55, and Harold Guntz, 63, of Collegeville
THE KIDS: Erika, 37; Ben, 35; Jessica, 32; Logan, 29; Philip, 28; Christopher, 23; Zachary, 19; Alyssa, 11; Alexandra, 5; Austin, 2, adopted April 9, 2018
HAROLD'S TAKE ON BEING AN OLDER PARENT: "We have friends the ages of our oldest children. We have so much in common because our kids are best friends; the generations kind of slip away."
At first, it wasn't a spark that skipped between Susan and Harold—more like a rueful glimmer of recognition. They'd met back in 1990, a lifetime ago, when both were married, raising children with their spouses, and fostering other kids through a local agency.
The next year, Susan's husband left; their boys were 1 and 2 at the time. Two years later, she learned that Harold was in the same shaky boat — on the verge of divorce, with a 9-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter.
"I reached out because I'd been through a similar situation," Susan recalls. "I said if he needed somebody to talk to, that I was available."
They talked —about relationships and disappointment, about shared custody and religious faith and the struggle to find support at church as their marriages imploded. "I was wondering if I could trust somebody again," Harold recalls, "but I instinctively felt I could trust Susan."
They talked more. They met for lunch. Susan loved Harold's dry sense of humor — but even more, she valued his patience and loyalty. He waited for nearly three years, never pressuring or rushing her, while she wrestled over whether to reunite with her ex-husband.
Meanwhile, Susan was fostering kids on her own: a fiercely determined 13-year-old girl and a 2-month-old boy whose mother was incarcerated. The baby, Christopher, stood up at seven months and walked before he turned 1; he charmed strangers with his smile.
The teenager, Erika, was headed for a group home in Pittsburgh, but often returned to Susan's house for holidays and visits. "She ended up adopting us," Susan says, though the arrangement was never legalized.
In September 1996, Susan finally made up her mind: She would not rekindle her marriage. She and Harold became engaged on New Year's Eve of that year and married the following June.
"He's the tortoise and I'm the hare," Susan laughs. "He's methodical, logical, intellectual; I'm more the feeler, the emotional one." At their wedding, a simple church ceremony, they seated guests in a circle. "I wanted to feel like people were surrounding us with their love and encouragement to make it work," Susan says.
The children — Erika, Ben, Jessica, Logan, Philip and Christopher, ranging in age from 16 to 2 — joined them for a parent dedication. Together, they sang "Happy the Home When God Is There." And then Susan and her kids moved to the Collegeville farmhouse that had been in Harold's family for four generations.
Susan wanted another baby. When she floated that idea, Harold's response was diplomatic: "I wouldn't mind having more children, but if we don't have any more, I'm fine with that, too."
Susan had a miscarriage a few months after the wedding. In February 1998, on Valentine's Day, she handed Harold a wrapped box while they were out to dinner. He lifted the lid: a letter opener? Then he realized: Oh, a pregnancy test.
After Zachary was born, Susan had her tubes tied. No more biological children. But the couple opened their home to dozens of foster children: a teen mom with her baby, a 4-month-old girl who remained with them for two years, "every age and issue and type of kid you can imagine," Susan says.
It hurt when children left to return to their birth parents or the home of a relative, or to be reunited with a sibling. "But Harold and I can deal with the pain: We have each other, we have our supports, we have our faith. These children don't have that. When I speak about fostering, I say, 'If you're afraid of being hurt, you're exactly the people we need. If you think you're going to get attached, good.'"
Susan likes to say that March 4 is the only day on which the calendar directs you to do something: "March forth." It was on that date, in 2014, that Alyssa and Alexandra arrived. They'd already been in several foster homes; Alexandra, then 18 months, had tantrums and severe separation anxiety. She wept and screamed if Susan left the room.
The girls were supposed to return home after three months. But their biological father died suddenly, and their mother couldn't overcome her addictions. Susan and Harold did the math and hesitated. "How old would we be when they're adults?" Susan remembers thinking. "By the time [the court] was going to terminate their mother's rights, they'd been with us almost two years. We were not going to have these children go through the experience of having to relocate into another home."
Then they learned that the girls had a brother on the way; their mother was pregnant again, and the baby would likely end up in state custody. At first, Susan and Harold said no. Then they thought about the future—not just their own lives, but the years beyond.
Harold remembered his retirement fantasy of transforming the 220-year-old farmhouse into a charming little estate. "But we had an opportunity to make an impact that would last a long time beyond what buildings can do."
They said yes. When Susan met Austin for the first time — a tiny, drug-affected infant in the NICU at Abington Hospital — she held him close. "I whispered that he was made for a purpose, and that God loved him, and that he was going to be all right." The family adopted Austin in April.
Susan and Harold are different parents than they were a quarter-century ago. "I've learned that connecting with a child — playing with them, coloring with them — is so much more important than trying to teach them to eat with their fork," Susan says.