When Rita Marlow and Seth Lentchner of Bensalem, Pennsylvania, heard there was a child in need on their son's soccer team, they didn't think twice about offering a helping hand. Now, that boy is their son.
"We are still a little in shock," Rita Marlow told TODAY Parents. "We keep saying, 'It’s for real?'"
Marlow and Lentchner met Nate, now 16, for the first time about nine years ago when he played soccer with their son, Zachary. The young boys forged a close bond and the families became familiar with one another.
"As the years went on, we found out the family's struggles," Marlow explained. "We would pick Nate up on Friday, (and) he would hang out for the weekend. As they got older, we saw him a lot more and he spent a lot more time at our house."
During a soccer tournament in 2016, Marlow and Lentchner received news that would change their lives.
"We got a phone call that Nate had been removed from his home and they wanted to know if we could keep him connected to soccer," Marlow explained.
Just a few days later, Nate's case manager asked whether the family would consider becoming foster parents.
"This wasn’t something we had ever considered," Marlow told TODAY. "They said the reason they were asking is that Nate asked to come live at our house."
Marlow said the first person she asked was her son, Zach.
"I said, 'Zach, Nate needs our help, but you’re going to have to share a room,'" Marlow explained. "He said, 'Absolutely. We need to help Nate.'"
Marlow said she was initially a little nervous about how the family would make financial ends meet, but fellow soccer moms, family members and friends donated everything from gift cards to bunk beds.
"I was so worried, because we didn’t want to fail him," Marlow said. "But everybody immediately stepped up — and that’s why I sound so cliché about saying 'our village' — just to make sure this kid was going to succeed. That’s how it’s always been for five years. We provided the roof, but along the way, so many people have been here."
At 13, after being in Marlow's care for about a year and a half, Nate decided he wanted to stay with the family for good.
"He decided our home was where he wanted to be," Marlow said. "We had started the adoption process and then all of a sudden we stopped and it went back to being reunited (with his birth mother). Every time that happened, it was kind of defeating. (It felt like) he was never going to get what he wanted. He just wanted that piece of paper that said he was going to be adopted."
Finally, in November 2020, the family received a call from Nate's case manager.
"They said, 'It's happening,'" Marlow explained. "It was the best Thanksgiving ever."
On July 13, 2021, after 1,758 days — or nearly five years — of foster care, Nate officially became Marlow and Lentchner's son. But the excitement didn't end there.
"Initially we were told six people could be in court," Marlow said, adding that among their own family — which includes siblings JT, Kari and Cameron — they were going to have to choose who could attend. "But we got a phone call the Thursday before saying there was no limit, so Seth had extended the invitation to the soccer family to come out."
The family didn't expect to see 52 supportive adults and kids in matching blue shirts fill the Bucks County courtroom for the hearing.
"We started filing in and I’m facing the judge and with every single person that walked in, his smile just kept getting bigger and bigger," Marlow explained. "It was such a goosebump moment to see all these people who have supported Nate be there on that day."
When it was time for Nate to speak to the judge, Marlow said she could tell the 16-year-old was beginning to feel nervous.
"Zach put his hand on Nate’s shoulder, looked at the judge and said, 'Nate is a great student, a great soccer player and a great friend,'" Marlow said. "I was so afraid we were going to get in trouble, because initially they said only the three of us could talk."
Marlow said the judge simply replied, "Now that’s a real brother."
At home, Nedra McCormac, whose son plays soccer with Nate, had rallied friends and community members for one last surprise.
"Our goal was to just decorate their front yard," McCormac told TODAY Parents. "I reached out to a few people and it went from a few people to 120 people in this group."
A combination of generous donations from community members and businesses allowed McCormac not only to decorate the yard, but to present Nate with more than $1,000 worth of gifts cards.
"There are lots of memories from how it all began to becoming the family they are today," McCormac said.
Added Marlow, "Everybody being there to share in this joy ... it’s almost like they have all been through this with us."
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