Bigger Love

November 28, 2017 – No one has to tell Orlando police officer Adam Gruler that life is precious — and sometimes fleeting. When the 16-year OPD veteran and then-father of six confronted a heavily armed gunman at Pulse nightclub in June 2016, he knew what it might cost him.

“I had to tell myself: I will not die tonight,” he said. “Going through something like that, it changes your priorities.”

Adam, 41, and his wife, Jaimi, 39, an educator for Florida Virtual School, had already talked about expanding their blended family of six kids — three boys each from previous marriages — by adopting a girl. But in the process of healing from Pulse, and the journey of meeting children in the state foster-care system, they realized the love they had to share was bigger.

On Friday, in an Orange County courtroom, they officially became parents to 6-year-old twins, Rachel and Stephanie, and the girls’ brother, Jonathan, 8. His birthday is just 11 days from Jaimi’s youngest.

“It’s like we have two sets of twins,” she said. “I guess God had other plans for us.”

On National Adoption Day, the Grulers celebrated with families of 26 other Orange County children whose ties became finalized — posing for pictures, shaking hands with the judge, hugging and laughing and crying.

“Our foster and adoptive parents are some of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met,” said Glen Casel, CEO of Community Based Care of Central Florida, the nonprofit agency that oversees adoptions. “But these two are amazing.”

The Gruler clan is now a household of nine — seven kids from 6 to 17, plus Adam and Jaimi. Two other kids, a 19-year-old in the Marines and a 16-year-old who lives with his mom, will visit.

They share a four-bedroom, two-bath suburban home in east Orange County, where they’re shuttled to football games and scouting and band practice. The older kids now help shepherd the younger ones.

Though they only met in early June, the adopted children have bonded to their parents and siblings quickly. When Rachel wants attention, she crawls into Jaimi’s lap. “Mommy…” she starts.

“It’s like they’ve always been there,” Jaimi said. “Sometimes you wonder if you can love a child unconditionally who isn’t yours biologically. But it’s hard to imagine how life was before, without them.”

“The biggest concern has been over bathroom time,” Adam said.

Adam, a former Little League coach, met Jaimi through one of his player’s moms in 2010. They married in April 2013 and soon after began talking about adoption. They signed up for classes and — despite Adam’s career as a police officer — endured all the usual background checks, finger-printing and home visits.

For a long time, it seemed like nothing would come of it.

“The boys had been pretty excited, but then I think they figured it wasn’t really going to happen,” Jaimi said.

After Pulse, the family decided to take a two-month break from looking. Everyone, especially Adam, needed time to heal. They didn’t want to bring in another child until they could give him or her all of their attention.

When they resumed their search, they met an adoption recruiter who eventually introduced them to the three siblings.

Though the state adoption process can sometimes move slowly, theirs did not.

The girls, it turned out, lived in a foster home less than a mile away. Their brother, who was in another home, was also nearby. But all were about to be transferred to other homes, on the west side of the county, meaning they would have to change schools.

“We really wanted to avoid that,” Adam said. “They’ve already had several school changes in their short lives.”

In late July, the kids joined them for their first overnight visit — on a family vacation in South Florida. One week later, just before school started, they moved in for good. Adam and Jaimi spent the days painting, assembling bunk beds and building lofts in two of the bedrooms to create more space.

“There was a point as I was painting where I just started laughing,” Adam said. “I said, ‘Do you realize that our daughters will graduate high school in the year 2030?'”

There was also a moment — brief but sobering — when the two looked at each other expectedly. “OK, this is happening,” Jaimi said. “Can we really do this?”

The grocery bill these days runs $500 a week and up. They’ve joined a wholesale club to shop. There is a schedule for showering. And the stomach flu has already made its way through the entire family. Three of them, including Adam and Jaimi, were up all Thursday night before heading to court.

“I don’t really remember the words” of the adoption ceremony, Adam said. “But I will always remember the feeling.”

Credit for this story goes to Kate Santich and the Orlando Sentinel