GrandMother & GrandFather

Leroy and Donna Bleemel of Jasper started fostering their 6-year-old grandson, Dustin, when he was around 2 months old and later adopted him. “I’ve always taken care of people and I think that’s my calling,” Donna said about fostering children for 25 years. “You have your bad days, ups and downs, but that’s part of life.” Donna played around with Dustin before putting him to bed Jan. 16.

Story by Leann Burke
Photos by Brittney Lohmiller

Leroy and Donna Bleemel sat around the table in their Jasper home when their son, Dustin, 6, ran in and crawled up on Leroy’s lap and spread his activity book on the table. The two started looking for items in an I Spy activity.

“You have fives shoes to find,” Leroy, 73, told Dustin.

Leroy leaned in to try and hear Dustin better while the family sat down for dinner March 14. Leroy usually makes dinner after helping Dustin with his schoolwork.

“And four candles,” Dustin said.

Donna, 65, smiled watching them. It’s a normal scene in the Bleemel household where Leroy and Donna play a dual role for Dustin — they are both his grandparents and parents. The couple adopted Dustin — who is the biological son of their other adopted son, who is now an adult — when Dustin was around 2 years old.

Authorities first asked Leroy and Donna if they wanted to foster Dustin when he was about 2 months old. They agreed, and eventually discussions turned to adoption.

“We told the judge not that we wanted to adopt him; we just don’t want to abandon him,” Leroy recalled.

The couple thought about it, though, and decided that after fostering him for a year, they couldn’t not adopt him. With God’s help, they thought, they could become his parents.

“I asked to speak (in court),” Donna recalled. “I said, ‘Your honor, how can you have him all those months and say OK, now go to another couple? We bonded.”

Donna and Leroy tried to keep up with Dustin as they walked to see the giraffes at Evansville’s Mesker Park Zoo on May 27. “Dustin, you’re going to keep me young,” Donna said after she caught up to him.

The Court-Appointed Special Advocate assigned to Dustin’s case and some of Leroy and Donna’s friends and family thought they were too old to adopt a baby. The judge, however, didn’t have a problem with it.

For the second time in their lives, adoption made Donna and Leroy parents.

Donna and Leroy aren’t the only grandparents raising their grandchildren. According to a study released by the U.S. Census Bureau using data from the 2010 census, about 10 percent of the 65 million grandparents in the U.S. lived with at least one grandchild, and 2.7 million grandparents were raising grandchildren. Legal custody tends to be more common than adoption, though that varies state to state because of differing laws.

“When we got Dustin, I always sat in the back with him,” Donna said, explaining why she sits in the back, not the front, as she did on the drive home May 27.

By the time Leroy and Donna adopted Dustin, they’d had years of experience opening their home to children in need. The couple married in 1977 and began fostering children in 1978, offering solace to teenagers and older children over the course of 25 years while Leroy worked as a machinist for North American and served in the National Guard. Donna worked in nursing homes and home health care.

“I’ve always taken care of people,” Donna said. “I think it’s my calling.”

If she ever won the lottery, she said, she’d open a halfway house for young adults transitioning from foster care to adulthood.   

Leroy and Donna estimate they had about 100 kids placed with them through the years. The couple couldn’t have biological children, but that didn’t stop them from creating a family. Although they weren’t legally the children’s parents, Donna and Leroy considered every child that came to them for care their own, and they cared for them as such. They kept in contact with a handful of the kids they fostered, including Trent, their first placement. It’s been decades, but Donna still remembers the day Trent got emancipated and left their home to look for his mother in Florida. Donna describes the feeling as “a knife through the chest.”

Donna tried to get a reluctant Dustin to read with her before bed March 14. “I want him to read more so he doesn’t have to struggle later,” Donna said. “If you can read, you can do anything.”

“They always say you don’t have to be related to love and care,” she said. “That’s true.”

Trent wasn’t gone long before he called them, asking for help getting home to their house. They welcomed him back, and now they play grandparents to Trent’s three daughters.

Another boy they fostered wasn’t with them long, but he later called the couple to thank them for taking care of him when he needed someone.

Dustin’s father came to the Bleemels as a young teenager. He was the first child the couple adopted, though looking back, Donna said, she wishes they’d adopted more.

Dustin knows he’s adopted and that Donna and Leroy are his grandparents, but to him their primary role is mom and dad. That’s what he calls them. 

Adopting Dustin was natural for the Bleemels, a couple who spent their lives tending to children who needed someone to care about them.

“There is only one purpose in this life,” Leroy said. “That is to help somebody else out. If you don’t do that, your life’s wasted.”

Leroy teared up as he and Donna watched Dustin perform in Fifth Street School’s kindergarten completion program on May 22. The couple sat in the front row in seats they had to arrive early for.

As the days got longer and warmer, Leroy waited for the school bus to drop Dustin off so the pair could walk home together. After the short walk home March 14, Leroy sat down with Dustin to help him with his schoolwork.

Because of their age and some health problems in recent years, the reality that one or both of them may not be there to see Dustin graduate high school stays in the back of their minds. They’ve planned for the worst-case scenario, and have a plan for Dustin if something should happen to them. Dustin will also inherit the home, and they’ve got an investment portfolio set up for him. Donna and Leroy know they’ve set him up for a good life financially if something happens, but the doubt still lingers.

“I sometimes wonder if we’ve done him justice,” Donna said.

Leroy and Donna adopted Dustin because they wanted him to have a better life, but Donna knows other kids sometimes make fun of him because she and Leroy are older. She also worries that as he gets older, they won’t be able to support him the way younger parents could. Right now, he plays baseball, for example, and they can’t play catch with him the way his teammates’ younger parents can.

Donna also worried that Dustin wouldn’t have enough people his own age to play with. Since Leroy and Donna’s friends are all older, none of them have children Dustin’s age. But that worry has been assuaged.

Dustin has made friends at school and through the many activities Leroy and Donna sign him up for in the summer. Dustin also has a cousin about his age, Reed Thomasson, who lives in Evansville, and the two play together a lot.

While waiting in line to get lunch at Fifth Street School on Feb. 28, Dustin wrapped Donna’s hands around his shoulders. “I think we got him at an early enough age, at 2 1⁄2 months, that he’s bonded,” Donna said.

Reed and his mom, Amy, who is Leroy’s great-niece, attended Dustin’s kindergarten graduation. Reed saved Dustin a seat next to him at the Schnitzelbank Restaurant after the program, and the two played swords with the silverware until Amy and Donna told them to stop. When Dustin opened a present — a bubble machine — from Leroy’s niece, Cathy Lockridge, the two children chatted about playing with it over the summer. Cathy and her husband, Tom, act as grandparents to Dustin. Since Dustin and Reed are close, it fits.

Despite Donna’s worries, Dustin knows he’s loved, often saying he is as he crawls into their laps. Dinner at the Schnitzelbank was no different.

“Mom, can I come over and sit with you?” he asked Donna before running around the table and crawling into her lap.

“I am loved,” he said after settling in, though he denied saying it when everyone at the table asked him what he said.

And if the smile that spread across Dustin’s face when he saw Donna and Leroy in the audience for his kindergarten show is any indication, Dustin’s life is happier with Leroy and Donna as his parents than it would have been without them. As Donna says, sometimes kids just need someone to show they care. 

“You know you’re going to get old, but I don’t think anyone could give him any more love than us,” Donna said of she and Leroy being older parents. “We try to do right by him.” Leroy and Donna watched with all of the other kindergarten parents as their children crossed the stage during Fifth Street School’s kindergarten completion program.

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