Eight years ago, Randy Pawlowski was winding down after work one night, channel-surfing, when he flipped on a Diane Sawyer special: Crisis in America's foster-care system.
Pawlowski was in his early 40s. He was single, a dean at what's now called Seminole State College, and an accomplished sailor with a five-bedroom Sanford home, four boats and weekends filled with regattas and rock-climbing.
"But I'd begun to feel I wanted something more out of life," he says. "Something was just missing."
The show ended by asking: "Do you have room in your home?"
The question weighed on him. He decided to enroll in foster-parent training.
Now 49, Pawlowski has taken in 15 kids for varying lengths of time since then. He has adopted five of them, including one who was already 21 when he moved in.
"He was a student I had mentored who called me one day and said he was homeless," Pawlowski says. "I was between foster kids at the time, and he said he just needed a place for a week or two …"
Weeks turned into months and then a year, until the young man asked whether he could stay for good and, ultimately, whether Pawlowski would adopt him.
In fact, all Pawlowski's adoptive sons have been the ones to initiate the adoption discussion. On a single June day in 2012, they made it official for four of the five. The fifth, a sibling of one of the others, was finalized a few months later.
"I knew he was going to say yes," says Cameron, who, at 18, recently grew a beard and mustache much like his father's. "I knew I was going to live with Randy anyway. But I wanted it because I wanted to take his last name and give Randy the credit he deserved. He has truly been a dad in my life."
Unlike several of the kids, though, Cameron still calls Pawlowski by his first name — not "Dad." Pawlowski doesn't mind.
"I'm not their dad," he says matter-of-factly. "But we are family."
Not that it started out feeling that way. Pawlowski — who grew up in New York state, one of what he calls a perfectly average family of five — is still a relative rarity in a system more accustomed to single mothers. He initially took in one foster child, who stayed only 30 days. The next couple of kids stayed a few weeks. But gradually, child-welfare officials sent him kids who needed longer and more profound periods of care and healing.
"You're dealing with kids who have seen things and experienced things most of us can't imagine," he says. "There's a great deal of trauma that happens before the kids even enter the foster-care system."
For a man who prided himself on being a high achiever, who was used to succeeding in pretty much whatever he set out to do, the most jarring lesson was that some things can't be fixed.
One teen he fostered died of an overdose after returning to his birth family. A few have been arrested. Another simply disappeared for a while. They have at times run away, gotten into shouting matches and pushed his buttons in infinitely creative ways.
"Sometimes I have to go in my bedroom and just close the door," he says. "Or I go for a drive to get out of the house completely. Sometimes I just need a little time by myself."
It never lasts long.
A campus dean for Seminole State College in Oviedo, Pawlowski has a demanding job, and the family continues to grow. He currently has three of his adopted sons living with him — the two oldest have now moved out on their own — but two more foster kids have moved in.
Yet he not only makes time to take the family traveling, often racing and usually winning sailing regattas together, he also volunteers to talk to prospective foster and adoptive parents about the joys and challenges.
"Teens are tough under any circumstances, but he just seems to thrive with them," says Glen Casel, CEO of Community Based Care of Central Florida, the child-welfare agency that has worked with Pawlowski. "And most importantly, his kids seem to thrive. I'd take 300 more like Randy if I could."
His current kids — white, black, Asian — seem to sense they've hit a sort of adoptive-dad lottery.
"I still wanted to go back to living with my mom at first," admits Brandon, the youngest in a brood that spans from age 14 to 24. "But when I knew that wasn't possible, I realized this was the best place we could have ended up."
Pawlowski says five in the home at once is his "emotional and logistical" limit. The twice-weekly grocery runs easily reach $300. Then there's all the shuttling to orthodontists and counselors and school activities. It's a constantly tight, full schedule for which Pawlowski's precision as a sailboat racer comes in handy.
And when kids get off track, when they act out just to get his attention, it can feel overwhelming.
But on a scale weighing pros and cons, he says there's no question.
"I have a rocking chair in my bedroom, and sometimes at night I'll go in there and watch TV while they're playing video games," Pawlowski says. "I can hear them laughing and talking and just being happy. And that's the best feeling in the world."
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