PENINSULA PROFILE: She helps families to grow with adoption, fostering

By Diane Urbani de la Paz
Peninsula Daily News

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ADOPTION ADVOCATES INTERNATIONAL, 709 S. Peabody St., can be reached at 360-452-4777 and via

The website has information about the Grace Fund, which helps families with adoption costs; about the foster-to-adopt program for children in Washington state; and how to begin the process of adopting children domestically or internationally.

The offices are open to the public too, from
8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Peninsula Daily News
PORT ANGELES — Walk in on Gay Knutson, and you might find her corresponding in French with an orphanage in Burkina Faso or chatting on the phone with a single dad in Port Angeles.

For Knutson, family has a meaning that is ever-expanding. And after 30 years at Adoption Advocates International, the agency inside the yellow house on Peabody Street, she is as fierce as ever in her mission.

When a parent — or a potential parent — comes into Adoption Advocates, Knutson will stop what she's doing. Like a proud grandma, she'll pull out some new photographs: first a single mother with her adopted boy and girl in Selah, Yakima County, and then a silver-haired 75-year-old who cares for foster children in Port Angeles.

Knutson joined Adoption Advocates at the beginning, when Merrily Ripley opened the agency in 1983. She has since matched children from Bulgaria and Thailand to Ethiopia, Ghana and Uganda — as well as from the foster care system in Washington state.

She got this job after seeing a notice in the Peninsula Daily News: an ad calling for someone not afraid of arduous travel. So began her long path as a caseworker. She's been to Burkina Faso, where the temperature can hit 120 degrees Fahrenheit, four times now — but that's only one of her many countries.

This November, National Adoption Awareness Month, Knutson proudly notes that over the past three decades, her agency has placed nearly 4,500 kids in adoptive families. Last year, the total reached 211 children matched with new parents.

In an illustration of how a fostering or adoptive family need not be the traditional husband-and-wife household, Knutson points out that the Selah mom is a single woman who had never parented before. And Jim Cornell, a retired Port Angeles High School teacher and foster dad to 5-year-old Devlin, is also unmarried.

Cornell, 75, jokes that these days, he wouldn't mind meeting a “single great-grandma type.”

The rewards of this work, Knutson said, are “the families we get to meet . . . and seeing children doing well.” But the path to that point can be long, with blind corners and hairpin turns.

When asked to name the most challenging part of her work, Knutson takes a breath, then laughs a little.

“Government bureaucracy,” hands down.

“We deal with state and federal [laws],” she said. “And they're changing the rules every day.

“We're people who like to get things done,” Knutson said of her colleagues: Ky Bower, who runs the China and Thailand adoption program; foster-to-adopt coordinator Yvette Nichols; Ethiopia program coordinator Jessica Shriner and office manager-foster-to-adopt staffer Kathy Sculley.

“But we're at the mercy of things like wars,” Knutson said.

Then there are governmental policy changes. Adoption Advocates ran an Ethiopian orphanage, Layla House, for many years but saw it shut down when that nation's leaders wanted institutions to be government-run.

The agency now works directly with a handful of orphanages in Ethiopia rather than operating its own, Knutson said.

Oscar Cowgill, 3, is one of the many children adopted from Ethiopia.

He came home to his adoptive parents, Stormy Howell and Chris Cowgill of Port Angeles, in May 2012. The Howell-Cowgill family also adopted Jake, a 3-year-old from Eastern Washington, so they have two boys who are, Howell said, inseparable.

Howell hailed Knutson's “unwavering” dedication throughout Oscar's adoption, which took 30 months.

The regulations and red tape of adoption have quadrupled, Knutson said, since she began this work. Many of the restrictions are beneficial. They safeguard the rights of children and parents.

But the laws cannot do everything. Adoption is built on trust, Knutson said.

“We have to trust ourselves and trust our families. We're dealing with different religious perspectives and parenting perspectives,” she said.

International adoption is costly — expenses can go north of $20,000 — so Adoption Advocates gathers support for the Grace Fund, a provider of financial assistance to adoptive parents.

If you cannot adopt a child, Knutson and her team emphasize, you may be able to help other families through the Grace Fund.

Knutson, a woman who does not like to take no for an answer, recently called for help from a longtime associate. Brad Collins, a month into retirement after a career that has included working at Serenity House of Clallam County, was visiting friends in North Carolina when his cellphone rang.

It was Knutson, telling him Adoption Advocates was in serious need of an interim executive director. Ripley had retired in 2011, and since then the agency hasn't been able to hire a permanent leader.

Knutson is well aware of Collins' resume: deputy director for resource development with Serenity House; 15 years as Port Angeles' Community Development Director. Now the deputy mayor, Collins was re-elected this month to his position on the Port Angeles City Council.

Collins took on the job of interim director at Adoption Advocates. It wasn't the money, he said with a smile. It was Knutson, and the work the agency has done over the years.

While he will tackle the financial side of the operation, Collins said the tributes must go to Knutson and her team.

The support they give families — before, during and after their adopted children arrive — is good for the whole community, Collins believes. As with Serenity House, he added, this work, while not especially well-paying, has “a huge social benefit.”

In addition to the scores of families in Port Angeles and across the North Olympic Peninsula that have adopted children through the agency, parents, including singles and same-sex couples, from California to New York have worked with Adoption Advocates.

“Gay's legacy is a wonderful testament,” he added. “Our community is incredibly blessed to have people like her.”

Knutson, 61, isn't ready to rest on any legacy, though. She's too busy talking with prospective parents. To one 50-year-old single woman, for example, she said: “You have time” to adopt.

Yet “all of us deal with a lot of stress,” Knutson acknowledged.

The staffers turn to one another as sounding boards. And Knutson finds great relief in caring for her “farmlet” west of Port Angeles, and in playing her cello. She has been a member of the Port Angeles Symphony Orchestra for 36 years, and has toured four continents with the Port Angeles Symphony Players.

Every three years since 1985, the Players have taken a big trip, and in June 2014, they'll take off for London, Wales, Cornwall, Scotland and Ireland. With their mission summarized as “music, a bridge between cultures,” the Port Angeles ensemble will spend two weeks in the British Isles; music lovers from the Peninsula and beyond are invited on the sojourn.

For now, though, Knutson is celebrating her workplace's 30th anniversary — along with Thanksgiving. She and the staff have produced the 2013 Adoption Advocates International Cookbook, now available at the offices on Peabody Street.

Collins, for his part, hopes local families, while giving thanks, will think about the youngsters who don't yet have a place to be.

“Kids, when they're given a chance, can really blossom,” said Collins, adding that this is the chance Knutson and Adoption Advocates seek to provide.

Last modified: November 23. 2013 6:19PM
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