Wingate Faces

Richard and Stephanye Yadkowski

Richard Yadkowski was already on his sixth foster home in five years when a kindly older man named Truett Cathy met the then-12-year-old through a social worker.

The year was 1987 and Cathy, already the well-known founder of Chick-fil-A, had started WinShape Homes, a network of foster homes intended to give children such as Yadkowski a chance in life.

Cathy, then 66, was immediately taken with Yadkowski’s spark.

“The boy was on the verge of stepping into manhood without ever having an appropriate role model,” said Cathy, now 90.

Over the intervening years, the once parentless boy from Conyers and the restaurant titan forged a deep and personal bond; Yadkowski became like a grandson to Cathy, and Cathy was best man at Yadkowski’s wedding in 1995.

Today, however, Yadkowski is fulfilling Cathy’s legacy in a role that he’d once had a hard time imagining for himself: parent to 11 children — three of his own and eight foster kids — in a WinShape home.

“I was scared of the foster care cycle,” said Yadkowski, 37. “And then my heart totally changed. ... I thought about the life I led. I was almost a throwaway kid, and yet, the opportunities were there.”

Parceled out

The eldest of three siblings, Yadkowski’s home life crumbled when his father developed irreversible blindness. His mother left when he was a child.

Yadkowski and his siblings were parceled out to foster homes when their father could no longer take care of them. Yadkowski was just 7.

One set of foster parents was interested in adopting Yadkowski but wanted him to sever ties with his father. Yadkowski was unwilling. Social workers moved him to another family.

Truett Cathy was no foster child. But he knew hardship growing up in rural Georgia in the 1920s. Cathy’s father lost his job when Truett Cathy was young, and his parents rented rooms to pay the bills.

He said he realized early that “if I had anything in life, I would need to work at it.” At age 8, he bought six packs of Coke for 25 cents and sold each can for a nickel, making a profit of 5 cents on every six pack.

As he built one of the most successful fast-food chains in American history, Cathy turned later in life to helping foster children find nurturing homes.

In 1987, he founded WinShape with four foster homes in Georgia. Each home had two parents whose full-time jobs, paid for by Chick-fil-A, were to raise foster children.

“One of the things that gives me the most joy is seeing young people develop,” he said. “They want to be winners despite the odds against them.”

Cathy told Yadkowski that he would honor his desire to keep in touch with his father if he moved to a WinShape home.

That year, Cathy drove Yadkowski to a home in Rome. His new parents were Doug and Julie Bowling.

Yadkowski sensed something special the moment he first visited the large home near the Berry College campus.

“Everyone was giving me hugs. Everyone seemed so happy,” said Yadkowski. “My initial thought was this is kind of hookey.”

A perfect household

At first, his new home life seemed almost too perfect. The Bowlings made family dinners a priority. They read the Bible together. They played games in the backyard. They went on beach vacations.

“Over time, I realized this was just family, a normal family, the way a family should be,” he said.

There were rules of the house. All of the children had chores — one took care of the animals; another dusted.

“There was this very big sense of ‘we can’t keep this machine going without helping’ and it was cool to have something you were responsible for,” Yadkowski said.

He did well in school, getting mostly A’s. He got help as needed from tutors. Living three miles away from Berry’s main campus, Yadkowski rode his bike, played in vast open fields, studied, did his chores.

Not long after Yadkowski moved into the Bowlings’ home, his foster mom gave birth to a baby boy. Three more children followed.

“Doug and Julie did an amazing job of caring for all of us and providing love and opportunities for all of us,” he said. The Bowlings’ parents became Yadkowski’s grandparents. They gave him gifts during the holidays just like they did with their biological offspring.

Yadkowski also spent a lot of time with Cathy and they often went fishing together.

“I told Richard I wanted him to be my chosen grandson,” said Cathy.

“He would say to me things like, ‘If it’s meant to be, it’s up to me,’” said Yadkowski. “and I hear myself now saying that. ... He was developing my character. That is who he is. He is a developer of people.”

Cathy also instilled in his young charge a work ethic.

“He told me no matter what job I did, if I was washing the toilets, to do the very best job I could,” said Yadkowski.

Yadkowski was the first one in his family to graduate from high school. Cathy gave him a gold watch engraved with his name. After Yadkowski graduated from college, Cathy gave him a gold ring.

Yadkowski’s named his first-born son Samuel, Cathy’s first name.

Cathy said he’s “enormously proud” of Yadkowski and called him “my trophy.”

“We’ve had more than 350 children in our homes, and we’ve had a lot of winners,” said Cathy. “Richard is the very best.”

Full-time parents

Yadkowski and his wife, Stephanye, have lived in WinShape’s Kimbell Cottage in Rome for four years. They have three biological children: Samuel, 11; Anna Kate, 9; and Julia, 7.

They also have eight foster children, ranging from 9 to 17 in age.

All 11 children, along with Richard and Stephanye, fit at the dining room table, which stretches 17 feet.

The table is surrounded by framed pictures on deep lime walls. One says, “Family is Forever.” Another, “Let us Give Thanks.” Framed school pictures line console tables.

On a recent afternoon, as the children nibbled on pizza, apples and yogurt, they discussed school activities, upcoming field trips. They talked about basketball practice, karate. Stephanye keeps track of it all in a pink calendar book. On any given day, they’ve got one child going to karate, two going to ballet and four to basketball.

This wasn’t the life Yadkowski imagined for himself when he was young. He graduated from college with a business degree and got his first job managing a Chick-fil-A in the Rome area.

Then he met Stephanye and had an epiphany a few years into their marriage. He wanted children. And he realized he had learned how to be a father in foster care living with the Bowlings.

He told Cathy he wanted to be a foster parent in a WinShape home.

Cathy said no — not yet.

He told Yadkowski he needed to start his own family, get some life experience under his wing — and be sure foster parenting was what he really wanted.

About a decade later, Cathy offered Yadkowski the chance to own his own Chick-fil-A franchise, a job that all but guaranteed a salary of more than $100,000.

Yadkowski repeated his wish to take over a WinShape home. This time, Cathy agreed.

As house parents, the Yadkowskis receive a modest salary of about $2,000 a month. But with most of their housing expenses covered, the salary is plenty, Yadkowski said. They live in a large comfortable home.

“We feel like we have everything we need,” he said.

There are now 110 children living in 11 WinShape homes — eight in Georgia, two in Tennessee and one in Alabama. All the funding comes from Chick-Fil-A, including about $450,000 every year from the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Cathy said Chick-fil-A spends about $3 million every year on the homes. That includes paying for private school tuition, braces, tutors and vacations.

The foster care parents are both full-time parents; neither works outside the home.

That means both often go on field trips with the kids and both meet with teachers for school conferences.

Children moving into the homes are between the ages of 6 and 13. They are voluntary placements, with many of the children having been raised by grandparents; many of the biological parents are battling drug addiction.

Many of the children stay in touch with their biological family members. Some talk on the phone with their biological parents or meet with them once a month.

All of the children living with the Yadkowskis go to private school. Some have tutors; one is getting speech therapy. The Yadkowskis estimate they spend close to $3,000 a month on food, lunches and dining out for the family of 13.

None of the children has a cellphone. None has a Facebook account. There’s no TV until after homework is finished, and no cussing is allowed. The family goes to church every Sunday morning and Wednesday evening.

With so many kids, the parents try to be intentional about one-on-one time or going on outings with just a few kids at a time. Stephanye recently took a few of the young girls to American Girl Cafe.

The couple said they are “big on experiences.” They go to Falcons games and shows at the Fox Theatre. Traveling in a 15-passenger bus, they go to New Smyrna Beach, Fla., every year and stay at a home owned by Cathy. It’s the same beach where Yadkowski vacationed with the Bowlings.

Not long after the Yadkowskis became foster parents, one of the boys, who had been living with them three weeks, approached Richard in the kitchen.

He could tell the child was nervous. He knew the child had something on his mind but wasn’t sure what.

“And he asked me, ‘Can I call you dad?’ I told him, ‘Yes, of course,’ and gave him a hug. And he just walked away. ... Those are the moments you remember.”

Their 17-year-old, the oldest of the 11 children, has had severe challenges. Shy and timid when she first arrived four years ago, she is now more confident and outspoken, Yadkowski said.

“She was a child who would whisper her name and duck her head,” he said. “And we recently hosted a get-together and we were having a theological conversation and she didn’t miss a beat.”

Yadkowski said the potential he’s helped develop in his 17-year-old is what Cathy saw in him. “I give credit to Truett Cathy,” he said. “He was the one who saw that hope in me.”

Cathy returned the compliment.

“Richard always has a smile on his face,” said Cathy. “He is always grateful and thankful. I think the sacrifices he is making to give back is wonderful. He is doing a wonderful job.”

Thanks to Cathy, Yadkowski said his work with WinShape foster homes has become a true calling.

“It’s that hope to change lives,” he said. “I know it because it happened to me.”

By Helena Oliviero
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution