Christmas always has been a big deal in the Sobaszek home.
Wreaths adorn the house’s 75 windows. Hundreds of ornaments decorate a dozen trees inside. A life-size Santa Claus can be found tucked in a corner of the dining room. And there are multiple Nativity sets.
But the holiday means even more today for the Lackawanna family, now celebrating the adoptions of four siblings who had been in the protective custody of Cattaraugus County since 2008.
“Their journey is over. These kids can finally have a forever home. Before, they were in limbo land,” said Michael Sobaszek, who with his wife, Elizabeth, adopted Lucas, Willow, Annastasia and Thor. “Their memory of Christmas will now be that they got their forever family.”
After more than a year of fits and starts, the adoptions went through Dec. 20 in front of Cattaraugus County Judge Michael Nenno.
“It was like a sigh of relief,” said Gabriella Sobaszek, 16, a biological child of Michael and Elizabeth. “Now it’s official. We all have the same last name.”
Gabriella, a junior at Immaculata Academy, cried during the brief ceremony, as did 10-year-old Willow.
The siblings will share their third Christmas in the Sobaszek home, but Gabriella said this one will be a little different from the others.
“It’s going to be more of a celebration of being together and being us,” she said.
Some of the siblings bounced around two or three other foster homes before landing together with the Sobaszeks in 2011.
Just before then, Michael and Elizabeth noticed their house was getting quiet.
At one time, six children lived under their roof. But four children grew up and left the house. So the Sobaszeks were down to two children at home. With their purchase of a massive former rectory in Lackawanna, the Sobaszeks knew they had room to spare.
“We were blessed. We had this great house, and we were down to two kids,” Michael Sobaszek said. “There’s more than enough room for everyone here, plus some.”
So they decided to become therapeutic foster parents, with the intention of taking in a little boy to raise as their own.
They saw the impact that a friend’s adoption of a son with special needs had on the boy.
The friend, Maggie Dreyer, director of the therapeutic foster care program for GA Family Services, helped persuade them to take in Lucas, who was formerly known as Loki, and his sister, Willow, who had been removed in 2008 from their biological parents due to allegations of abuse and neglect.
Lucas was 10 at the time, and Willow was 8.
The Sobaszeks then learned the two had a younger brother, Thor, who was born prematurely in 2009.
Despite reservations about caring for a toddler, they ultimately agreed to take all three siblings. They arrived July 15, 2011, and “the first weekend was horrible, awful,” Elizabeth Sobaszek said.
The Sobaszeks were almost too welcoming, and the new kids ended up getting into everything. They dragged stuff out of boxes in the attic. Lucas ate three bags of candy he found in a bedroom.
“They were so nice, and wanting those kids to like it there, it was like a sleepover at grandma’s house,” Dreyer said.
The Sobaszeks huddled with Gabriella and their other biological child, Zackary, a freshman at St. Francis High School, to figure out whether they really wanted to forge ahead.
Gabriella admitted some skepticism initially about having more kids in the house.
“First it was like why? Am I not good enough anymore? What are we doing?” she said.
But it didn’t take long for her to come around to the idea.
“After the first weekend, with the two-year-old sitting in my arms looking at me, I said, ‘All right, we can do this,’ ” she recalled.
Early on, Annastasia lived in a separate foster home, although she would frequently visit the Sobaszek home.
Social workers hoped to keep the siblings together, so they approached the Sobaszeks about adopting Annastasia, as well.
“We were really concerned about the probability of having to separate them, which happens far too often,” Dreyer said.
Dreyer said the Sobaszeks got what they initially sought in Lucas, who was 10 at the time he moved in with them. “He just came with three siblings,” she said with a laugh.
Looking back, the Sobaszeks said they would not have had it any other way.
“I wasn’t going to have someone come to me for months and months and months and then have to leave. That probably would’ve killed me,” said Elizabeth Sobaszek, who works for HSBC Bank.
Once they bonded with the kids, the Sobaszeks were smitten.
“You know, they’ve always felt like mine,” said Michael Sobaszek, who is executive director of the Lackawanna Chamber of Commerce.
That’s not to say the child rearing has been easy.
All four siblings have special needs.
Lucas was diagnosed with autism. Willow has post-traumatic stress disorder and sometimes lashes out angrily. Annastasia has been identified as having failure to thrive. Thor was born at just 29 weeks and weighed three pounds.
“His original prognosis was that he wasn’t going to walk or talk and would be blind,” Michael Sobaszek said.
None of that happened, although he has to wear glasses to correct his impaired vision.
Just after the adoption proceedings, Michael posted a photograph on Facebook of the official new Sobaszek clan – something he couldn’t do before.
“They’re all excited because for the first time ever I posted a picture of them on Facebook,” he said. “Now they’re like everybody else. That’s what they want – to be like everyone else.”
The Sobaszeks might not be done with foster children quite yet.
They recently renewed their license, and an inspector came by this week to inspect their home for safety.
The foster care agency knows they have space in the 6,000-square-foot home on Ridge Road, which has seven bedrooms on the second floor alone. It formerly was the rectory for St. Barbara Church, which was closed in 2008 and razed in 2011.
“We can actually house 10 in here,” Elizabeth Sobaszek said.
Gabriella, for one, remains open to the prospect.
“Maybe not four more. But one or two,” she said.