For 20 years, the Stark family has served faithfully as Holt-Sunny Ridge foster parents — caring for children as they wait to be united with their adoptive families. Nancy Crouch, Holt-Sunny Ridge’s director of domestic adoption and birth parent services, shares about the amazing, meaningful impact the Stark have made over the years.  

I never really knew the true meaning of guardian angels until I met Paul and Cindy Stark, licensed temporary foster parents for Holt-Sunny Ridge. For over 20 years, the Stark family has been providing a loving and caring home to children in need. The dream of being foster and adoptive parents all started when Cindy was a student at the University of Notre Dame and working part-time for the assistant dean of marketing, Joanne, who would often talk to Cindy about her passion for adoption. Joanne adopted two young boys of a different race who were in need of a family, which really touched Cindy’s heart. The love that she observed in Joanne’s family was truly amazing and life-changing for Cindy. It did not matter what differences the family had with race, education or need. They were family.


The Stark family with one of their foster babies.

In 1980, Cindy met Paul, four weeks before he would graduate from Notre Dame. Before Cindy would marry Paul, however, she needed to make sure he shared her passion of becoming a foster and adoptive parent. Committed to Cindy, Paul also demonstrated a shared passion for helping children and on September 11, 1982, Paul and Cindy were married at the University of Notre Dame. Cindy and Paul have three biological children, Mike, 29, Lauren, 27, and Matt, 25. Even though Cindy and Paul were busy establishing their careers and parenting three young children, they both knew their family was incomplete. In March 1995, they adopted Nicole (who was named by big brothers Mike and Matt and big sister, Lauren) from China through Sunny Ridge Family Center (now Holt-Sunny Ridge).

They traveled to China with ten other families and a Sunny Ridge staff member to bring nine-month-old Nicole home to Westmont, Illinois. The Stark children were anxiously waiting and embraced Nicole immediately. Little did the Stark family know that one year after Paul and Cindy brought Nicole home, they would once again open their hearts to children in need.


Lauren Stark with one of their foster babies.

In 1996, Cindy was reading a Sunny Ridge newsletter that indicated a need for foster families for a program called “Healing the Children.” The program brings children who need medical care to the United States. Foster families provide care while the child receives medical services, with the average length of stay in the United States of one year. Stephanie was the Starks’ first foster child through Healing the Children. She was 6 years old and needed surgery to correct her collapsing spine. Stephanie has dwarfism and if she did not receive surgery, she could possibly have died. While the Stark family provided her the loving care she needed, Stephanie also had an incredible impact on them. Paul shares that Stephanie was always smiling, even with her disability, pain and being away from her family, in a strange country. If Stephanie could be happy with all of the barriers she faced in life, then so could the Stark family. When asked who is the most influential person in his life, Paul said, “Stephanie, definitely Stephanie.” Through the years, seven more children joined the Stark family for love and care while they received medical care in the U.S. Cindy also acted as the committee chair for Healing the Children.

In addition to the children they cared for through this special program, Paul and Cindy have fostered 30 other children in their home through Holt-Sunny Ridge. They have cared for infants of all races, special needs and birth parent situations, many of them right from the hospital. On average, infants whose birth parents have made an adoption plan will stay with the Stark family 2-to-30 days — while waiting for their birth parents to sign legal paperwork surrendering their parental rights. For every child in their care, Cindy and Paul keep a daily journal of the infant’s experience. And when the infant leaves the Starks’ to go home to their adoptive family, Cindy and Paul will send the adoptive parents the journal and a new “going home” outfit. If the infant stays two weeks or longer, the Starks will even have professional photos taken.

Each child, says Cindy, is a “very special gift and a blessing” to our family. The 38 children who have each been a part of the Stark family have each left a significant impact on Mike, Matt, Lauren and Nicole. Mike, age 29, is the executive director of Holiday Heroes, a non-profit agency that helps terminally ill children enjoy life. Lauren, age 21, loved to stay up all night and care for the infants that stayed in her home and when she applied to college, she wrote a beautiful poem about one of the foster babies she cared for and submitted it with her applications. She is now a social worker at North Shore Senior Center and would like to work in the adoption field in the future. Matt, age 25, is pursuing a master’s degree in business and data analytics at Notre Dame. Cindy feels strongly that Matt learned kindness from the children that they cared for.


Nicole, soon after she came home from China.

Nicole, age 21, graduates in May 2016 with a degree in graphic design from Notre Dame. Nicole strives to be an example to others and enjoys doing acts of kindness for those in need. Nicole views both her adoption and foster care experiences as positive.

The Starks’ extended family has also been touched by adoption, as Cindy’s sister and brother completed international adoptions from Paraguay, Vietnam and Russia.

The Stark family learned about children who were less fortunate, lived in poverty, had severe medical needs, spoke other languages, needed love in the middle of the night, were scared, couldn’t be consoled and those children who just wanted to be a part of a family and accepted for who they are. Thank you Paul, Cindy, Mike, Lauren, Matt and Nicole for over 20 years of service to Holt-Sunny Ridge! You truly are guardian angels to our children.

Nancy Crouch | Domestic Adoption & Birth Parent Services Director