- Associated Press - Saturday, May 28, 2016

EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) - When Memorial High School art teacher Mark Schoenbaum and his wife Sondra started the adoption process, they never thought a student would give them the child they’d wanted for a decade.

But in 1997 Memorial senior Liz Haury was praying for guidance. She discovered she was pregnant, but knew that keeping the baby wasn’t the right option for her. When she heard Mark spreading the word about he and his wife’s desire to adopt, Liz knew it was the answer to her prayers.

“I knew he’d be a good father,” said Liz Stanton, now a 36-year-old mom of two boys. “So I went up to him and asked.”

Liz hadn’t been in any of Mark’s classes, but she knew him. Most students at Memorial did. He was the kind of teacher students wanted to be around; he cared about them, had a passion for what he was doing and was a lot of fun.

This one conversation in the hallway of Memorial High would change all of their lives. The Schoenbaums would finally be parents.

Dave and Berny Heitzman said the teacher and his wife were an answer to their prayers too. Having a daughter get pregnant her senior year of high school wasn’t what they’d expected.

“We did a lot of praying about all of this,” Berny said. “The Schoenbaums were a real blessing. There are so many ways this could have gone, but this was the best one possible.”

Approaching a teacher, at a Catholic high school no less, to offer your baby for adoption wasn’t easy.

“It was awkward,” Liz said. “I didn’t even know how to say it. I just said, ‘Would you and your wife like to adopt my baby?’ He said he probably would have fallen over; it wasn’t something he was expecting.”

Mark said he was excited but didn’t want to get his hopes up. He’d heard so many stories of families going through disappointment, and he and Sondra were trying to protect themselves. But they were hopeful when they started the legal process.

And after Sondra met Liz, she knew it was the right fit.

Just a few weeks later Liz, completely distraught, approached Mark again. He was certain she’d changed his mind, or even worse, maybe something was wrong with the baby.

“It’s twins,” Liz told him through tears. “Do you still want to adopt them?”

He was terrified at the prospect, but relieved everything was OK.

“I was shocked,” he said with a laugh. “But I told her, ‘They aren’t puppies. We won’t split them up. We’ll adopt them both.’ “

It took no convincing to get Sondra on board with the idea of becoming a mom to two at once. But Mark did have to tell her several times before the news truly sank in.

Now, more than 18 years later, the Schoenbaums are trying to comprehend a new bit of news: their daughters - Ann Marie and Elizabeth - graduated from Memorial High this month, 18 years after their birth mother did the same. And in just a few months the girls will be starting their college careers at Purdue University.

Elizabeth and Ann Marie just looked at each other and smiled as their dad retold the story of their “coming to be.”

As Mark told the tale he’d woven more times than they can remember - the part about the puppies, how tiny they were when born prematurely, the medical adventures they went through in those first few years - the identical twins predict his phrases and even his hand motions.

“They were this big,” he said, gesturing to the space between his wrist and elbow. Elizabeth, born first, was 3 pounds, 12 ounces, and 16.5 inches long. Ann Marie was born four minutes later, weighing 3 pounds, 9.5 ounces and 16.75 inches long.

“They couldn’t even wrap their hands around my finger,” he said. “They were so tiny and fragile.”

The two giggled at each other as they predict his movements.

“When I hear them tell other people, it’s so strange because they are talking about me,” Elizabeth said, with a smile. “Then I get this warm, fuzzy feeling.”

The adoption couldn’t be official until 48 hours after birth. Because the girls required so much NICU care, and to save her time off for when they’d come home, Sondra was back at work when she got the call about the adoption paperwork officially being signed.

“I ran around the office saying, ‘I’m a mom, I’m a mom,’” Sondra said, the glow of motherhood still bright. “It was incredible.”

Although they had grown to know, love and trust Liz, there was still a lot of worry in the corners of their mind.

“You just don’t ever know what’s going to happen,” Mark said. “There’s always a chance that she could change her mind. We were both so afraid of that.”

Even with the adoption finalized, there was still a lot of stress. Both of the girls in those first few weeks and months had an uphill battle. They spent four weeks in the NICU, requiring monitoring of their heart rate and breathing overnight for about nine months. They required caffeine supplements to keep their heart rates up as well as special feeding requirements. And at 13 months came a diagnosis of hip dysplasia - something Liz had as well - requiring two sets of hip to chest casts and eventually braces for a year.

“I wanted to cry I was so happy,” Sondra said. “I had been waiting for 10 years and finally I was a mom. I didn’t even know what to do, how to act. So many people prayed for us, and our prayers were answered.”

Mark said the first feeling, after glee, was anxiety. At 40, he was scared about what it would be like to become a dad to two babies.

“I knew life was about to change, a lot,” he said. “I worried about all the things new dads worried about.”

The adoption was a secret until after the papers were signed. To avoid any complications stemming from Liz being a student, very few people knew. But once the papers were signed Mark shared the news with friends from the school and church. Everyone was receptive, even throwing the Schoenbaums a baby shower.

From the very beginning, Liz knew she wanted an open adoption.

“I wanted to know what happened to them,” she said. “I wanted them to know that I wasn’t just giving them up. I was giving them a life that I couldn’t have given them. I wanted to be involved in their lives in some way. And I’m thankful we’ve had a good relationship over the years.”

Anne Marie and Elizabeth describe the relationship they have with their birth mother as good - one they are grateful to have.

They see her a few times a year. The relationship with the Heitzmens is even stronger. The girls call their birth grandparents mémère and pépère - French to go along with Berny’s ancestry. And Mark and Sondra quickly grew a strong friendship with their daughters’ birth grandparents, finding they have several things in common. They’ve even gone on several vacations together, with a group of other couples.

“It’s always been so easy,” Berny said. “It’s always felt like the right thing. It was the best decision for Liz and the girls. They’ve had a wonderful, love-filled life. I’m grateful for all they’ve been able to experience. And the advantage is that I’ve been able to see all that and be a part of their lives from the get go.”

Dave said staying connected with the family all these years was important.

“It gives the girls a sense of grounding, knowing where they’ve come from,” he said. “So often you hear about people who learn they are adopted and then have this insatiable drive to understand their history and past. We never wanted them to think they were unwanted. They’ve always been loved and supported by us, just in the background.”

Sondra said like Liz, they also wanted an open adoption. They wanted everything about the experience to be something that was out in the open with the girls as soon as they’d be old enough to understand. They even found storybooks explaining the process.

And Ann Marie and Elizabeth are grateful for that.

“I’d rather know than not know,” Ann Marie said. “I’m glad we are able to have a relationship with (Liz). I’m grateful to be able to be brought into the world, and it’s nice to be able to - face to face - acknowledge what she’s done for our family.”

Elizabeth said it’s always been a part of their story. They’ve never known life without both a mother and a birth mother.

The option of adoption isn’t one always considered, Mark said.

“I think abortion is seen as an easy and quick thing to do,” he said. “But there are so many people who desperately want a family. We’ve been so blessed by her giving us her babies. I admire her for that decision.”

Ann Marie said they didn’t ever feel unwanted. They’ve always felt lucky and know Liz made the best decision.

“You don’t have to be a real parent to be a good parent,” she said.

And as the girls celebrate their baccalaureate tonight, they’ll have both “parents” in the stands. The Schoenbaums and other family will be there, but so will Liz and her family.

“It’s amazing to me that it’s been this long,” Liz said. “It doesn’t seem that long ago. But they’ve come so far and have been able to do so much. I’m just so proud. And I have no idea where they’d be today. … Where they are is all because of the Schoenbaums.”

As Ann Marie and Elizabeth prepare to graduate from Memorial, they are leaving behind a place that has been a huge part of their story. They’ve roamed the halls even before they were born. They zoomed around in their brand new Barbie Jeeps that one Christmas when it snowed so hard they couldn’t ride them outside.

And the school has an interactive screen on the wall with past yearbooks in it. Over the years the girls several times found themselves wandering over there to scroll back to 1998, the year their birth mother graduated, to look at Liz’s senior portrait.

“It’s cool to know we can go up to it anytime and see her picture,” Ann Marie said.

And Mark remembers exactly where he was when Liz told him - right outside room 120 at Memorial - she was pregnant with twins. He’s taken his daughters to that very spot.

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Source: Evansville Courier & Press, http://bit.ly/1U9MchW

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Information from: Evansville Courier & Press, http://www.courierpress.com

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