Any man can be a father, but it takes a real man to be a dad. 

By Suzanne Rust

Joe Toles is the full embodiment of that saying—the real thing. A product of the foster care system, Joe admits that while his experience wasn’t ideal, it did provide him with opportunities to continue his education and the emotional support to become the person he is today. It also spurred him to share his life with young men who might not be as hopeful about their future as he is, in particular teens who “age out” of or are “emancipated” from foster care just after 18, and basically launched into the world on their own. Through the New York City agency You Gotta Believe, Joe has been able to create a loving family with his four sons, each adopted between ages 14 and 20. Here’s a glimpse of what life is like in the Toles household.

You grew up in the foster care system until you aged out at 21. What was that like, and did it inspire you to adopt older kids?

My experience in foster care was not the best, although it provided me with opportunities to continue my education and become the person I am today. I lived with a family and I was one of six boys, two of which were my foster parents’ biological children. There were also several children who came and went as a result of their individual foster care situations.

The people who motivated me along the way were coaches, teachers, group leaders and neighbors who believed in me; I am lucky that I believed in them and what they thought about me. Their expectations were not only an inspiration but an example of the impact you can have on a child.

My experience in foster care prepared and moved me to adopt, and opting for older children was simply more practical for my situation. My familiarity with the process, the practicality of adopting and the desire to help all motivated me to share my life with those who might have not been as hopeful as I am about their future.

What does family mean to you?

No one really gets to choose their family, and even if you get to pick the individuals, that doesn’t make it a unit. Family means trust, comfort, safety and unconditional acceptance, even if conditions are not ideal. That takes familiarity and openness with oneself and others, which has to be developed over a period of time.

What do you love about each of your sons?

My sons are so different, and generally I love that about my adoption experience. I like to say that they were almost “fully baked” when we found each other, so it makes it more difficult to add ingredients.

Xavier is independent to a fault, my “cut off his nose to spite his face” child. He has not had someone in his life that he could consistently trust, so our relationship is uniquely challenging. Xavier makes me think about how to say I love you with actions rather than words. That makes our bond more solid because it is not based on guessing or interpretation. I love when I can see emotional growth in him. I look forward to transitioning into a relationship that is more abstract and being able to see him trusting his feelings more.

Johnathan is the son who is least like me, and although that can be frustrating, it is the thing I like the most about him. He is carefree, laissez-faire and unfocused at times. As a result of his foster care experience, he developed these coping mechanisms to help himself navigate through life. He has a heart of gold and would literally give the shirt off his back to someone in need. He, unlike me, has the ability to be less practical and spontaneous. This allows him to let things roll off his back. I love how he can insulate himself from frustration.

Ronny is the son who is most like me. We are both practical, introverted and deep thinkers. What I love most about him is that I understand him. He was also the youngest to be adopted. Ultimately I will have had more time with him and more of an impact on his development. I feel a lot of joy when he laughs because you can hear how genuine it is. It took him a while to relax enough to really enjoy his experience.

Creemel is my last adoption. He is so eager to be successful and has a great deal of motivation to get a job and have a career; he has been extremely willing to do what he can to get what he wants. He is always in the moment, and his innocent perception of the world is what I love the most about him and what makes me protective of him.

What have the biggest challenges been with the boys?

The biggest challenge has been trying to guide them in the right direction without doing for them what they can do for themselves. I tell them the best I can do is similar to the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. I can point them down the Yellow Brick Road and hope they don’t wander into the evil forest. If they do, I will always be there to guide them out.

What activities do you most like to do with your sons?

I love to travel with my sons, and we have been on several trips in and out of the country. I want them to see that the world is within their reach and that despite their journeys, they belong as much as anyone.

In addition, we go to the movies often and see a variety of films. They give us a safe way to talk about issues we have experienced.

How has fatherhood changed you?

Fatherhood has changed me in every way possible. My decisions are no longer about me but about us or them. I spend my time thinking about what is best for my sons and whether they will be okay. I never had to really contemplate being a role model, or worry about my actions being in the best interest of everyone. It’s taxing but the most satisfying thing ever, and it makes me want to be the best me I can be.

What surprises you most about being a parent?

I had no idea how time consuming and intricate parenting could be. I suppose that if I’d raised my children from birth there would be a lot that I would be accustomed to, but almost every week there is a new layer revealed. Conversely, I never knew how rewarding it could be. Parenting has made me more emotional.