Emily, Jadie, Lilly and Poppy Cassella pause their rock climbing fun for a family pose.  Courtesy photo
Emily, Jadie, Lilly and Poppy Cassella pause their rock climbing fun for a family pose. Courtesy photo

When God asks one to respond with an extraordinary yes, those who agree often have no idea how deep that yes will go.

Such was the case for Molly and John Cassella, members of St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Long Beach Island, who thought their home was complete with one 12-year-old daughter and fulfilling jobs – Molly as a preschool teacher and John as a police officer. Then God invited them to something more.

“We were happy with one child and were super busy,” Molly recalled, when in 2006, she was approached by her close friend Sandy. “She had adopted two children from one birth mother who was going to have her eighth baby that December. Sandy said her home was full and that she was trying to think of a family where the new baby could go that would have a sibling relationship with hers.”

At first, the Cassellas were hesitant, but then decided, “We will take this one baby.”

The couple went through the extensive licensing process to become foster parents, and in August 2006, they began receiving calls from the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency.

“They just started saying, ‘We have this child available, and this child,’ etc. We kept saying ‘No, we have a baby we are waiting for,’” Molly recalled. “Then on Halloween, there was an early evening phone call.”

A three-year-old girl needed temporary placement. The couple hesitated, as they were planning for their baby’s arrival in December. The agency said, “‘If you don’t take her, we have to take her to a group home. We promise it’s only for two weeks,” Molly recalled.

The Cassellas’ daughter Emily, in sixth grade at the time, sealed the deal with “Mom, just say yes.”

“Then they told me it would be a few hours because she had lice!” Molly mused.

That night, Jadie came into the Cassellas’ home, and “we immediately connected – we bonded and fell in love with her,” Molly remembered. “And we all got lice!”

An Expanding Family

Unbeknownst to the family or the state agency was that Jadie had a serious medical condition that took 10 days of doctor appointments and observation to diagnose, ending in a November trip to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for emergency neurosurgery. The condition changed the fostering agreement instantly.

“The primary goal of the division is to reunite children with their birth families,” Molly explained, “but when a significant medical issue [arises] and the parent is already struggling with a typical child, it raises the bar much higher.”

The Cassellas had to ask themselves what this meant, as did the state. “Can you hold onto her longer?” CP&P staff asked.

“Jadie would need all sorts of intervention and therapy on a weekly and even daily basis,” Molly said. “My husband and I said, ‘We’re in – we’re committed.’”

Home from the hospital, caring for Jadie post-surgery, the phone call came – the Cassellas’ soon-to-be daughter Lilly was born Dec. 4 and would be in a Lakewood hospital going through detox for a week.

“In six weeks, we went from having one healthy 12-year-old to having another child with neurosurgery, we all had lice, and now we have a baby going through withdrawal,” Molly said.

The silver lining, she said, was the experience of picking up a baby at the hospital. “There are no words to express it,” she said. “I had been through birth; this is a different process … when you give birth, you’re physically exhausted – but here you are with a newborn, and you’re rested, and all of your being is focused on that baby, and you can fully enjoy it.”

The Cassellas’ entire family bonded immediately with Lilly and Jadie, fully welcoming them as grandchildren and nieces, and helping with the emotional roller coaster that would ensue.

“Lilly was on the path for adoption because of her history, [and we were just waiting for] legal timelines to expire,” Molly recalled. “With Jadie, we didn’t know for two years that she would be adopted.”

Court-appointed visits with Jadie’s birth mother were a challenge, but from the beginning, Molly said, the couple worked to foster a good relationship.

An Unexpected Gift

As the years passed and Jadie became an official member of the Cassella family at age 6, Lilly’s birth mother gave birth to two more babies, both of whom were adopted by Sandy’s cousin. The three family units treated each other like close cousins, sharing weekends and vacations as one giant family. Lilly was diagnosed on the autism spectrum with some cognitive impairment, and needed more assistance, so Molly and John were certain that their home was now closed.

Then came another phone call from their caseworker, and a photo of a five-pound baby in the hospital on a ventilator. Lilly’s birth mother had just had baby number 11, her last one.

“I said, ‘You’re going to send that picture and expect me to say no?’” Molly exclaimed. “I asked my husband, ‘What are we going to do?’ He said, ‘I guess we’re going to buy a minivan.’”

They brought Emily into the decision, knowing she would be assisting with baby care, and that Lilly’s lifelong need for intervention would be an ongoing family responsibility. “She was like, ‘100 percent, let’s do it.’”

Poppy, who completed their family, “is a firecracker; she brought in so much humor, from a young age,” Molly emphasized. “She was meant to come to us.”

Grace Through the Years

Emily, now 26, recently married her college sweetheart, Ryan Novak-Smith.

“I had asked Emily if she had told her future husband about Lilly and her responsibility toward her through the ages, and she said, ‘Oh yes,’” Molly said. “He’s making this commitment to all of us, that he’s going to be there. He’s in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and Lilly loves all things military, so he sends her military pictures and gifts – it’s so heartwarming.”

Jadie, 17, will be going to college soon; Lilly is now 14, and Poppy is 9. Looking back on how their Catholic faith played into their decisions to adopt, Molly acknowledged that some days can be very challenging. But having the Church as a support has been like another extended family.

“Because my mom, JoAnne Reeder, worked at St. Francis [as director of worship] ever since I was tiny, it was always a second home,” she said.

 “My kids get to see the Franciscan priests and the work they do, which is so important. And when I took Jade and Lilly to All Saints Regional Catholic School [now St. Mary Academy] where Emily was, they were immediately accepted by the teachers and priests.”

Molly recalled the first time Jadie came to church with the family. “For a kid who had never experienced anything except neglect, to come to a place where people are friendly and loving and singing – she said, ‘What is this place? I like it here!’ Whether adopted, special needs or not, who wouldn’t want that for their kids?”