Darren and Stacey Gagnon were living in Camp Verde, a little town in central Arizona, with two kids and blossoming professional careers. It was a good life, a sensible life — an American Dream life.
But God had more in store. The Gagnons began obeying His promptings and following Him into difficult places, where their sacrificial decisions often look foolish. It is a hard life, a beautiful life — an abundant life.
They are self-described American Dream Crushers.
Surrendering to Grace
Darren and Stacey began dating their freshman year at a community college in their home state of Arizona. They’d never heard of Grace College until Stacey’s roommate, Rebecca Macy decided to transfer to Grace. Interested in attending a Christian college, they began exploring ways to attend. Both landed athletic scholarships and set foot on campus for the first time in the fall of 1995.
“It was complete culture shock for me,” says Stacey. She was raised by a single mother and cherished her independence. “Grace felt restrictive to me with its rules.” Even though Stacey would have said at the time she was a Christian, she remembers the night she actually surrendered her life to Jesus after a confrontation with her volleyball coach, Candace Moats.
“She pulled me aside at the end of the year and said, ‘You are walking a line. You need to choose to believe or not, to step over to one side or the other.’ I remember walking by myself that night. I knew I’d been living a complete lie.” Stacey made Jesus the Lord of her life at that moment. “As an athlete, my life was about performing. I had sold myself out to my ambition. Grace completely transformed who I was as a person. I’m so thankful [Moats] called me out on the carpet.”
Making More Room
Stacey and Darren graduated from Grace in 1997 and moved back to Arizona where they married in 1998 and had two kids by 2003. Stacey remembers thinking, “We have our two kids, we’re done. I can concentrate on being a mom and having a career.”
One day in 2005, Stacey, who was a school teacher, noticed a new student crying. The student told her he was taken from his home the night before and didn’t know what bus to take because he didn’t know the woman he was staying with. Stacey’s heart was broken. She began doing research into the foster care system and realized one of the basic problems is a shortage of foster care homes.
“We have enough room,” thought Stacey. “We can take in a kid.” So Darren and Stacey began fostering children that year and quickly became certified to foster “medically fragile” children who require a higher level of care because of special needs.
Over the next decade, the Gagnons would foster over 30 children. Many of them were on feeding tubes or ventilators, undergoing heart surgeries or in extended hospital stays. Stacey eventually left teaching to stay home full time to care for them. “These are children who are emotionally hurting and physically broken, but the healing and beauty that comes from ashes is amazing,” insists Stacey. “Kids who should never walk and talk are jabbering and running. We got a front row seat to God’s miraculous touch in children’s lives.”
In 2009 and 2010, the Gagnons adopted three children from the Arizona foster care system, once again believing they were done.
A Global Calling
In 2010, Darren was teaching full time and Stacey had begun working part time while they raised their five children and continued to foster. With the cost of living in Arizona and their large family, they needed more income. Stacey went back to school, earned a nursing degree in 2013 and began working in the ICU. Her own experiences caring for children with trauma and extreme medical needs continued to be refined, so when she heard that about 80% of children with disabilities in eastern Europe die within the first five years — and if they don’t die are moved into adult institutions — she couldn’t believe it.
Darren and Stacey began to research the statistics and believed God was calling them to advocate for these children.
“We thought we could convince someone else to travel there and see what’s happening and become part of the solution, but it turns out no one would!” says Stacey. Darren’s solution: “Let’s go ourselves.”
Stacey soon boarded a plane for Bulgaria to meet their little boy. She knew that based on her research, what she would see at the orphanage would be horrendous. “But I’d already seen so much trauma between the medical foster care work and working in the ICU,” recounts Stacey. “I thought, ‘I can handle this.’”
A Heart Awakened
When Stacey arrived at the orphanage, it was a crumbling building that held between 300-400 children and was eerily quiet. When she met her son, Israel, she couldn’t believe her eyes. He was a skeleton with rotting teeth, unable to speak, with spina bifida and autism. All he did was scream.
When she got back to her hotel room, she lay on the floor of the bathroom crying out to God. “There is no way. I can’t do this. This is insane. This child will destroy our lives,” she remembers.
The next day, when she returned to the orphanage, she was taken back to his room. The section of the orphanage where her son was living was labeled “Malformations” and consisted of glass-walled rooms. “It’s completely quiet and sterile,” describes Stacey. “I walk into my son’s room, and he’s tied up in his crib just swaying. I can see other kids in other rooms banging their heads on walls. It’s the most horrifying thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life.” She was about to see worse. The staff proceeded to take her to what was known as the “dying room.” It was lined with beds and cribs with bodies in active states of dying. “These children are here to die,” she was told.
“I wanted to run screaming from the building,” says Stacey. “That was when God changed my vision for the world. That was the day that I became responsible to act. I knew my life was to be spent getting the word out and being a voice for the voiceless.”
A Voice for the Voiceless
Darren and Stacey eventually brought Israel home, and Stacey began using her voice to raise awareness through her blog “Ransom for Israel.” They also started the nonprofit, Lost Sparrows, in 2017 which supports families who want to adopt children or who have adopted children and provides training and education to families, educators and health professionals around children with trauma and disabilities.
Israel is now a third grader, attending the local elementary school, talking and writing and thriving. And Darren and Stacey thought they were once again done.
A year after Israel was home, they heard about another child in the same orphanage who was missing her left arm and right leg below the knee. Once again, the Gagnon’s invoked their mantra: “We have room for one more.” It turns out that when Stacey went to pick up Israel, Zorey, their eventual daughter, was four months old, lying right across the hall from Israel. Zorey came home to the Gagnons in 2018. “She’s five now, has a prosthetic leg and can run and jump and do it all!” says Stacey.
Darren and Stacey are brutally honest about how hard fostering and adopting are. Stacey’s blog has gained tens of thousands of followers and brought them national attention because of their transparency.
They were recently featured on “The Today Show” and interviewed by Focus on the Family. “These platforms allow us to be a voice for these children. They allow us to shine a light on what we don’t want to see. And we hope to nudge the church a little bit,” says Stacey.
A New Home
In 2019, the Gagnons made another unexpected decision. After living most of their lives in Arizona, they picked up their family of seven and moved to Winona Lake, Indiana. They reconnected with the area in 2017 after making a college visit when their oldest daughter was considering attending. “It’d been 20 years since we’d been there, and we weren’t sure what would have changed,” says Darren. “But it was a really tremendous visit, and I felt a lot of peace about her coming.” Upon their return home, Darren mentioned to Stacey how special he believed Winona Lake was and that it could be a place for them to move to someday. Stacey dismissed it quickly. Their jobs were secure, their families were all in Arizona, they were still fostering children, their nonprofit was growing — not to mention the weather. “I laughed at him. You’re crazy.”
Over the next two years, God made it clear that it was time for them to move. They quit their jobs, bought a house sight unseen in Winona Lake before they had even sold their existing home and moved to Indiana the summer of 2019. Darren quickly found a teaching job for the 2019-20 school year, and Stacey was able to secure remote contract work with a health company in Arizona. And in 2020, the board of Lost Sparrows voted to move Darren into a full-time role with the nonprofit. “God has been incredibly faithful in providing for our family; Lost Sparrows has had one of our best years ever in the middle of a pandemic,” says Darren.
Because of COVID-19, Darren and Stacey haven’t been able to travel internationally, but they’ve hosted more trainings and conferences than ever before by moving things virtual. “We want to continue to support adopting families internationally and in the U.S. while also working to drive policy changes around the world that help first families (biological parents) keep their children,” says Stacey.
A Dream Refined
“A lot of us have subscribed to the American Dream,” says Stacey. “Having two kids, the house and secure jobs. That’s what I wanted, but God did not call us to that. I write about hard and real stuff because we have to respond to a higher calling, not to the American Dream. It would be easy grace to paint it happily ever after. It’s not. We do hard things.”
“Let us be clear,” Darren adds. “A lot of people say we couldn’t do what you do. That is not the point. We don’t all have the same abilities. God calls us to different things. It’s about listening to God when He tells us to do something.” Stacey likens it to the conversation her coach had with her. “When she told me I need to choose, that I can’t just walk the line, I have to be all in or all out, that’s the same line a lot of us are walking right now. We aren’t giving ourselves completely over to what God is calling us to because of fear.”
Walking by faith is hard, attest the Gagnons, but there is beauty in following Jesus and witnessing Him do what feels and seems impossible.
(Editor’s Note: The Gagnons attend the Winona Lake, Ind., Grace Brethren Church, Kip Cone, lead pastor.)