“To adopt a child is a great work of love. When it is done, much is given, but much is also received,” St. John Paul II stated in 2000.
“I’m flying!” Dorothy Okey yells as she jumps from her family’s couch to her dad’s back, gripping him tightly around his neck. And her dad is loving every minute of it.
Even before they were married, Dr. Stephen Okey and Paige Cargioli talked of one day adopting a child. Both have family members who were adopted, and this way of growing their family appealed to them.
Today, on National Adoption Day (November 18 in 2023), Okey and Cargioli share their adoption journey — one that led them to their daughter, Dorothy Marie, who will be 4 in January. Okey is an associate professor of theology and religion and director of Saint Leo’s new Doctor of Theology in Applied Theology Program while Cargioli is a holistic therapist practicing in South Tampa.
The couple chose to use Catholic Charities Adoption Services because the agency’s primary goal is caring for women. “A woman can get free prenatal care through Catholic Charities regardless of whether they make any kind of adoption plan,” Cargioli said.
“One of the things Catholic Charities said at the orientation meeting was that their mission was to help pregnant women, and that those of us pursuing adoption were there to help with that mission,” Okey added.
This aligned perfectly with the couple’s faith as did one of Saint Leo University’s employee benefits. Those working at Saint Leo have the opportunity to apply to use a benefit which pays up to $5,000 in adoption expenses for up to two adoptions.
The university first started offering the adoption benefit in 2010, in keeping with the university’s Catholic values as well as its core values.
“This made a big difference in our being able to afford adoption,” Okey said. “It was a pretty straightforward process, and the people in Human Resources were quite excited and helpful. It is one example of the way that Saint Leo is supportive of families.”
The Adoption Process
Once they selected Catholic Charities Adoption Services through the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, the adoption process took about two years. “We had to do a home study and create a photo book,” Okey said. “If the social worker at Catholic Charities thought that we might be a possible match for an adoption, they showed the mom a few of the photo books. We were picked by Dorothy’s birth mom that way. And we actually met her [the birth mother] on the due date of a miscarriage that we had earlier in 2019.”
The selection of the family is entirely up to the birth mothers, Cargioli added.
They met Dorothy’s birth mother along with a social worker in December 2019 at an Olive Garden restaurant. “It was a wonderful and awkward time for us to get to know one another and make sure this was something we all wanted to do, and I think we felt good by the end,” the Saint Leo faculty member said.
Unsure of the baby’s due date, the couple was “on pins and needles” all through January 2020. “We finally got the call that the birth might be imminent, so we headed to the hospital in Lakeland, met the social worker, the birth mother, and the nurses,” Okey said. “We spent most of the day hanging out, but the baby was not born that day. We went home in the evening and were told it would probably be the next morning.”
They were awakened at 4 a.m. with a call from the social worker, saying the birth mother had gone into labor. When they were only a minute or two from the hospital, the social worker called and said, “it’s a girl!”
“When we got into the hospital, the baby girl was all cleaned up, swaddled, and under a lamp,” Okey said. “As we walked down the hall to the room, we finalized the name — Dorothy Marie —and went to see her.”
Okey and Cargioli spent the next two days in the hospital with Dorothy and her biological mother, with the couple having their own room in order to provide the birth mother with privacy. Florida law does not allow birth mothers to surrender their parental rights for 48 hours, so that was an additional part of the process.
The adoption of Dorothy Marie was finalized in June 2020. “Because this was the peak days of the COVID pandemic, our court hearing was done over Zoom,” Okey said. “The nice part about that was some of our friends from elsewhere in the country were able to join as well.”
Catholic Charities encourages “open adoptions” in which birth mothers can have contact with the child and the adoptive parents. Cargioli regularly emails and sends photos of Dorothy to her biological mother. “She is happy that Dorothy is in a safe, stable family, and that she is in a great place,” Cargioli said.
And life with Dorothy is fulfilling, happy, and of course, chaotic at times — just like raising any child. “We’ve always been praying for the growth and safety of any children that come into our family,” Okey said.
Adding To The Family
The couple decided to again adopt, creating a new photo book, which was complete with photos of Dorothy. Then they learned that Cargioli was pregnant, and Catholic Charities requires any birth child to be at least a year old before beginning the adoption process of another child.
Francis Paul, AKA “Frank,” was born at home in October 2022. Like any older sibling, Dorothy “both loves her baby brother and finds him annoying sometimes,” Okey said. “She likes to show him things, but also not let him be in charge.”
As a family, they take a walk daily, enjoy tea parties with real tea, reading books, playing games, coloring, and more. And of course, Dorothy likes jumping from the sofa to “attack” her dad.
“One of the best parts is watching them love each other,” Okey said of the interaction between Dorothy and Frank. “We try to model for the children good communication, and what it means to be a family.”
Advice For Prospective Adoptive Parents
The couple received a lot of support through Catholic Charities Adoption Services as well as through friends, family, and Saint Leo University.
Catholic Charities required some training and provided information on different kinds of adoption. “And we have friends who have adopted in different ways such as through foster care,” Okey said.
One of his classmates adopted one child through foster care, who was 4 years old when he came to them, plus he and his wife had two children naturally after. “We had talked a lot with them even before we started our process formally, which was a great help,” he said.
“I don’t think that adoption is for everyone,” Okey added. “It can be a roller coaster. Luckily for us, it was pretty straightforward. I would say that if you want to adopt, don’t let fear or finances get in the way, but know that it can be more work.”
Employers, such as Saint Leo University, can help. “I think it’s important for Saint Leo, as a Catholic institution, to support that mission in ways large and small,” the faculty member said. “Finding ways to support families is a key part of that, and the adoption benefit helps.”
The couple advises those interested in adoption to know that patience is involved. And paperwork. “And just like with the birth of any child, you don’t know what you will get,” Okey said. “That’s part of the excitement, joy, and blessing. It’s a wonderful way to be a parent to a child who really needs a home.”
“There are so many ways to adopt,” Cargioli said. “Just do it.”