Randy Pawlowski: One man, 25 boys, countless victories

Feb. 13, 2024 | By George Diaz

Randy Pawlowski had his foster care Epiphany in front of a television in 2006. Since then, he’s fostered 25 kids and adopted six, with one more adoption to go. It’s a commitment that pays it forward and lasts a lifetime.

On that life-changing day in 2006, Pawlowski was watching a Diane Sawyer special reporting on the crisis in America’s foster-care system. The program spotlighted a handful of kids from Central Florida.

As the show neared its end, a few questions were raised: Do you have experience working with young adults? Do you have room in your home? Do you have the patience and time to do it?

For Pawlowski, they felt more like answers than questions.

“I think I was at a point in my life, maybe I was 41 or so, and I was ready to do something different,” he said. “My answer was ‘yes’ to all three of those questions. I’ve always liked a lot of big challenges.”

(Left to right) Cameron, Brandon, Casey and Daniel celebrate Christmas in 2009 while in foster care with Randy Pawlowski. (Photo courtesy of Randy Pawlowski)

Inspired by those challenges, Pawlowski embarked on his transformative journey into the foster care system. He hasn’t just “dipped his toes.” He’s waded in deep, taking in 25 boys and adopting six since becoming a licensed foster parent in 2007.

Challenge accepted

“I’ve got to tell you that being a foster parent and an adoptive parent is by far the most difficult thing I’ve ever done,” Pawlowski said.

It’s also been both the most rewarding and bittersweet.

One of the teens he fostered died of a drug overdose after returning to his family. A few have been arrested. There have been fits of anger and screaming.

But the impact has been made through the pain and perseverance.

Randy Pawlowski lives in a fluid universe. He gives his kids the freedom to choose, to come and go as they please within reason in the confines of his five-bedroom home in Sanford. He draws on his experiences, living with his parents in New York State until he was “ready to fly.” And he did, working on a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree and then his Ph.D.

His focus on education led him to a natural career path: working as a college administrator. Pawlowski is now director of student development at Seminole State College.

Assuming all those kids will follow Pawlowski’s lead would be preposterous. Some have earned GEDs. Four of his kids were in college in the fall of 2017. By November, they all had quit. By 2019, two had restarted again, and another was thinking about it.

“If they don’t want to go to college, that’s fine, but then you must work, and you might have to work a couple of jobs to make enough money to pay the bills,” Pawlowski said. “It’s learning as we go.”

Blissful outcomes and happily ever after are simply fairy tales, given the trauma experienced by the adolescents and young adults who walk through Pawlowski’s door.

Julius, 24, with his newborn son, will be the seventh foster youth Randy Pawlowski has adopted. Julius began living with Pawloski shortly after his 18th birthday. It was his 30th home. (Photo courtesy of Randy Pawlowski)

At one point, there was an issue with the air-conditioner. It was constantly low on freon. Then the same thing happened with the neighbor’s unit. One of Pawlowski’s boys was stealing the freon to sniff it and get high.

And then there was Ricky. He lived with Pawlowski for 17 months as he started his senior year at Seminole High.

Eventually, he left the house and succumbed to bad influences and poor choices. He was at a party popping pills, including methadone, Xanax and Percocet. Ricky suffered a seizure and died of a heart attack. He was buried on his 20th birthday.

After hearing the news, Pawlowski drove to the trailer park where Ricky’s biological mother lived with her boyfriend. He bought them appropriate clothes and drove them to Ricky’s funeral service at Northland Church.

“One thing everyone underestimates is the amount of trauma foster kids experience,” Pawlowski said. “Ricky had a great deal of trauma being taken from his mother and sister. As a result, he self-medicated himself to death.”

Anna Buzard Brown, a foster parent trainer at Embrace Families in 2019, helped Pawlowski and others navigate the challenging dynamics.

“He’s a brilliant man with a huge heart,” Brown said. “He started coming to my training and always had a lot of questions. All of us who go into this have a particular idea of how to foster kids and help them succeed.

“And he always said, ‘I’m going to get them to high school and college.’ Then he realized this was a lot more complex than he originally thought, so it’s been fascinating to watch him evolve.”

The thrill of success

The heartbreak involving Ricky contrasts with the ones that make Pawlowski’s heart smile. Those include Luis Pawlowski.

Luis was 19 when he came into Pawlowski’s life in 2010. He was already coping with challenging family dynamics by then — his birth father had died when he was younger — and more were in store. After graduating from Pine Ridge High School in Daytona, Luis had planned on starting college, but his mother decided to move the family to Georgia because of the recession.

Luis gave it a try for a few months, working in a boatyard, until he realized he had bigger dreams. So, with only $800 in his pocket, he moved back to Florida to attend Seminole State College and met Randy at a leadership retreat.

Luis would move in temporally after his living arrangements fell apart. He was living in his car when Randy said he could move into an open bedroom.

Randy Pawlowski enjoys a visit with his oldest adopted son, 33-year-old Luis, and grandson. (Photo courtesy of Randy Pawlowski)

Luis never left. He asked Randy to adopt him in 2012.

“It is a father-son relationship,” Luis said. “He wants us to think everything through and make the right decision. And that thinking requires we call and ask him for advice or have someone else provide (it). … He’s pretty much the definition of a father that anybody’s asked for.”

Luis is now a family man, and he considers himself one of the lucky ones.

“There are ones who don’t want to be coached,” Luis said. “I was always told when I was younger that you could take the horse to the river, but you can’t make the horse drink the water.

“You have all these kids that have been traumatized in the past that they don’t want to. … They’re stuck on that. They’re still trying to figure out why.”

Trauma and transformation

Pawlowski has taken on myriad roles — father figure, counselor, mentor — while integrating the boys into his universe. They have joined him on many adventures on the water, sharing Pawlowski’s affinity for sailing regattas. Rules are set, but they are also fluid.

“It is a great metaphor for life and any situation,” Luis said. “You don’t know where the wind could take you. But you can direct it. You have the power to make cognitive, conscious choices.”

Pawlowski’s choices for his extended family have a strong focus on education. He has pushed his kids to finish high school and pursue college degrees. He has made deals with them that he would buy them a new car if they raised $5,000 toward the purchase and had a 3.0 or higher cumulative high school grade point average.

“The whole reason behind that is I was trying to teach them to be excellent students,” he said.

The results? “A couple of kids took advantage of it. A couple of kids did not. They didn’t care,” Pawlowski said. “They were like, ‘I was raised poor. I’ve always been poor. I’ll figure out how to do it myself.’”

Faced with these unique challenges, Pawlowski is mindful of the unique dynamics facing foster youth and the pursuit of education.

According to Casey Family Programs — the nation’s largest operating foundation on foster care issues — an estimated 30% to 50% of youth exit the foster care system without a high school diploma or high school equivalent. And roughly 31% of children who grow up in foster care graduate from high school. Only 2.5 %will graduate with a four-year college degree.

Randy Pawlowski takes Casey (left) and Cameron sailing during their time with him as their foster dad. (Photo courtesy of Randy Pawlowski)

Pawlowski has done his homework, embracing the work of Dr. Bruce Perry, a child psychiatrist and founder of The Child Trauma Academy. Perry has helped children who experienced horrific abuse find ways to cope and heal.

His book, “The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog,” tells stories of trauma and transformation through the lens of science. Embrace Families has adopted some of Perry’s work into a program called CORE Teen, which focuses on the trauma experienced by foster children.

“What it’s looking at is how trauma influences kids’ brains,” Pawlowski said. “It could be babies or kids in elementary, middle and high school and how that affects their maturity level and growth and development.”

Under Brown’s stewardship, Embrace Families took the lead in Florida as one of the few programs in the country embracing this type of curriculum.

“In turn, this benefits our families,” Brown said. “It was gratifying to have Randy in our class because he wanted to discuss it and dissect it. He would take the information and read it to his kids at home. All of this infuses together.”

Pawlowski now has six adopted sons, ages 24 to 33, and three grandsons, ages 1 month, 4 and 5, and he’s preparing to adopt his seventh son, age 24.

That years-long commitment to changing people’s lives for the better was recognized by Family First and the Florida Department of Children and Families. Pawlowski and other foster families from around the state were honored at the third annual Foster Family Breakfast of Champions Feb. 3.

It’s clear Pawlowski has put in countless hours and effort, filled with both the heartbreak of tears and the warm feeling of happiness. And he continues to do so. It’s life for one man and 25 young men who have shared that journey.

Adults who are interested in becoming foster parents may contact Lisa Walters, Embrace Families’ foster parent recruitment and training manager, at recruitment@embracefamilies.org or visit Foster (embracefamilies.org) for more information.

* Top photo: Randy Pawlowski (right) attends a game with his adopted sons Brandon (left) and Alante. Diaz is a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel and former foster parent.