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Unexpected health issues follow joyful adoption

The foster children arrived unexpectedly on Gabriel and Jeanette Lopez's wedding day.

Erie County Child Protective Services brought Justice, 6, Bishop, 2, and Angel, 3 months old, to the South Buffalo couple just hours before the ceremony in March 2015 at J's White Elephant in Lackawanna.

"I was getting my hair done for the wedding, and the social worker said they had an emergency situation with the children and were bringing them," Jeanette Lopez recalled.

The couple – the children's aunt and uncle – wasn't expecting the children until after tying the knot but say they wouldn't have had it any other way that day. Or any day since.

"Fostering is an amazing, amazing opportunity to do the ultimate sacrifice to help a child," Gabriel Lopez said. "I wouldn't take it back for anything in the world. Having this opportunity to be in their lives and go through this journey with them, and have them be all together is our greatest accomplishment in life."

Gabriel and Jeanette developed a close friendship growing up blocks from where they now live. It grew into a romantic relationship. The couple became foster parents, in part, because they wanted to ensure the children stayed together rather than run the risk of being separated. They formally adopted them three years later.

That was before Jeanette, who already had suffered from powerful migraines, came down with a debilitating health problem that has caused the family's finances to take a nosedive.

Jeanette Lopez planned events and weddings for a catering company when she came down with myasthenia gravis, a chronic autoimmune neuromuscular disease that was triggered by an injection of Botox in March 2017. Most of her immediate family suffers from autoimmune problems, too.

"She was thriving, got a nice big raise, and was well on her way to having a successful career when she got sick," Gabriel Lopez said.

For two years, Jeanette Lopez was barely able to talk and form words. Surgery to remove her thymus gland helped, but she still has trouble swallowing, suffers from memory loss and is often sapped of energy.

The 37-year-old woman collects Social Security disability insurance and is on Medicare. She's been told her health problems won't allow her to work again.

"I try to limit my activity during the day because I get really tired, and I want to make sure I have enough energy for dinner and to help with the children's homework," she said.

Gabriel Lopez, who works as a grill cook at Outback Steakhouse in Amherst, also has health issues. He is expecting to undergo a fifth hernia surgery in 2020, plus he has developed psoriasis and struggles with his weight.

The couple say it has taken a village to help them keep their heads above water.

They expressed gratitude to their landlord, Lopez's boss at Outback Steakhouse, friends, family and the Valley Community Association, where the children attend day care and after-school programs and attended summer programs, too.

"I don't know how we would have been able to do anything without them," said Jeanette Lopez.

"I can't tell you all the people who helped us along the way," Gabriel Lopez said. "Yesterday, a good friend I grew up with who is a barber came to my house and cut the kids' hair for me," he said, noting the barber charged only a nominal fee.

Lori Overdorf, the association's director of development and youth services, said the Lopezes are special people.

"The amount of grace, generosity, compassion and patience Gabe and Jeanette have displayed is truly remarkable," Overdorf said. "They took the kids in and, since Day One have only looked out for the kids' best interests, and taken every step possible to keep the kids together as a family unit."

The Valley Community Association is sponsoring the family for Christmas. Last year, a neighbor held a holiday party in which people donated gift cards to the Lopezes.

Still, even with all the help, this time of year is tough, the couple said.

"It's difficult because the bills don't stop because its the holidays," Gabriel Lopez said.

They are also aware that their children – Justice is now 11, Bishop is 7, and Angel is 4 – see other kids getting computers and other gadgets or toys as holiday presents and going on vacation.

"I would love to show them more than Buffalo," Jeanette Lopez said. "We haven't been able to even take them on a vacation ever, and that's our dream, to take them to Disney World.

"They never ask for anything crazy, but we would love to get them stuff that they really want," she said. "But sometimes it's hard to even get food, especially with the fixed income I'm on."

"It is a struggle, but there are a lot of other people who have it worse than we do," Gabriel Lopez said. "We're never ones to just lay down. We are both very hardworking people, and we try to do our best to still try to help other people and do anything we can to not just sit around and live a glass-is-half-empty kind of life," he said.

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