SARASOTA -- On the surface, Amanda Baxter appears to be an average teenager enjoying her first semester in high school.
But the 14-year-old from New Port Richey has had a life transformation, from living out of cars, never attending kindergarten, not knowing what a proper meal was, to having a home with two loving parents, a big brother, a good education, and sitting down to dinner at night.
Amanda was adopted at age 5 after living with her alcoholic/drug-addicted birth mother, who often was in trouble with the law.
Her grandparents both died in 2007, and other than their help, Amanda was a child living on her own until the Baxters made her a part of their family.
"I didn't know what was going to happen back then and it confused me a lot and it was very rough. I don't want to go through it again. In reality, you saved a child's life by adopting me," she said.
Amanda was one of several guest speakers who shared their stories of adoption and foster care, during the fourth annual Adoption Awareness event held Saturday at Bayside Community Church in Sarasota. The gathering of some 75 people from Sarasota and Manatee counties was hosted by Bridge a Life, an organization with a mission to bring Jesus-centered hope to orphans and supporting foster and adoptive families through awareness, outreach, education, training and partnerships.
"It takes a village and a community to do this. It's a partnership of people who understand and can go the journey with you. Our partnerships here today represent all facets of the adoption window. We've seen some amazing families here do some amazing things," Bridge of Life board member Danny Jones told the group during a welcoming address.
Jonathan Xavier of Palmetto, who attended the event with his pregnant wife and 4-year-old biological son, Jackson, said the couple is considering adoption.
"We felt the calling and it's something we are drawn to. Right now, it's information-gathering and we'll make a decision by the end of next summer."
Tyler Hudgins, an adoption specialist with Safe Children Coalition through the Sarasota Family YMCA, who is one of 10 adopted children from a military family from New York, said his life experience has been an eye-opener.
"My life wasn't always easy. There were days when I would wake up and go, 'Oh, no,' but there were pretty special days growing up which overshadow any of those bad days by a long shot," Hudgins said, adding that children in foster care have experienced trauma and what holds them back from healing is a loving family.
"All you have to do is find a bed for them to sleep in and the healing process can begin," he said.
Financially, Bridge a Life board member Tony Gamelin says that adoption is affordable if you go through certain channels.
"If you adopt through the foster-care system, it's typically no cost. The government provides benefits to the children such as free college and Medicaid paid to them throughout their life."
Gamelin added that adopting privately though a pregnant birth mother, such as a teenager, the cost is typically $14,000 to $18,000 and the government will pay about $13,000 of the cost. International adoptions are the costliest, varying from country to country.
Kathryn Moschella, Lakewood Ranch reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7010. Follow her on Twitter@MoschellaHerald.