Florida

She’s rescued dozens of at-risk foster kids over the years. But never quite like this.

Deena Ruth Cruce and Amanda Williams Cruce with their nine-year-old foster son.
Deena Ruth Cruce and Amanda Williams Cruce with their nine-year-old foster son.

Amanda Williams Cruce has given her heart and soul to 40 foster children. She’s given them thousands of hugs. She and her wife have given the neediest kids in the system a home, food, clothes, medical care, stability, love.

On Tuesday, Cruce will give again. One of her kidneys will be lifted out of her abdomen and transplanted into the body of her nine-year-old foster son.

“I’m excited, nervous and really hopeful,” Williams said. “He can’t wait to live life unhooked.”

The boy, who does not want to be identified by name, was born in the Bahamas with hypernephrotic kidney disease and has been on dialysis since age 2. He is hooked up by a peritoneal line in his belly to a machine 10 hours per night, every single night. The fourth grader can’t rough-house with other kids, participate in sports, swim or eat cheese, ice cream or salt. Once his foster mom’s kidney begins filtering his blood, he plans to play baseball.

“Everything will be different for him,” Cruce said.

When Cruce and her wife, Deena Ruth Cruce, took him into their Gainesville home two and a half years ago, he had been a patient at Shands Children’s Hospital for six months. His biological mother did not have the means to take care of him. He was placed on the transplant waiting list, but Cruce discovered that her universal donor O blood type was compatible with his B blood type. Tissue-typing tests revealed that she was a perfect match.

“I never hesitated — except maybe when I had to lose 40 pounds,” Cruce said, laughing. “It’s the same reason we’re foster parents, but in this case it happens to be an organ. It should be mandatory to help any human being in need. It’s a blessing he is our foster son.”

Rescuing at-risk children and reuniting fractured families has become the couple’s purpose. They often take in the most unwanted — the misfits or the seriously ill. They have fostered a boy with a brain tumor who went blind, a girl who had been trapped in a sex-trafficking ring, malnourished babies, mentally ill kids, sexually abused kids and kids whose parents are in prison. They have had as many as seven and currently have five children in their home, including a wheelchair-bound girl with muscular dystrophy who requires assistance with all her basic needs. They installed a wheelchair-accessible shower for her by the kitchen.

They are white and they foster black children, such as the boy receiving the kidney, without a second thought. They adopted their second and third foster children and plan to adopt the boy.

“He’s a real trooper and he is very funny and sweet considering all he’s gone through,” Deena said of the nine-year-old. “When he came home with us, he ran to the backyard and jumped into one of our hammocks, started swinging and said, ‘This is the best day of my life.’ The joy on his face was beautiful.”

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Amanda Williams Cruce, top, and her wife Deena Ruth Cruce decided to become foster parents seven years ago and initially opened their home to teenagers, who are typically difficult to place.

When they started as foster parents seven years ago, Cruce, 36, and Deena, 41, focused on teenagers, especially gay and transgender teens.

“We were younger and could relate to an age when kids are questioning things and searching for their identity,” Cruce said. “We wanted to provide a safe place for LGBTQ youth.”

They are mothers to many, but please don’t compare them to Mother Teresa or other saints.

“When people tell me I’m a hero I tell them that’s ridiculous because if they have two kidneys they could do the same thing,” Cruce said. “I tell them to join me in helping children and the foster system would be less broken. I wish I didn’t have to have five children, but there are not enough homes willing to take them.”

Said Deena: “I don’t see myself as an angel. I know my own faults. I am not nice sometimes. I’ll ask, loudly, ‘Who the heck didn’t put their bowl in the sink? Who left the cap off the toothpaste again?’”

Cruce and Deena both grew up in Alachua, in the country outside Gainesville but had vastly different childhoods, which they believe shaped them into adults with complementary parenting traits.

Deena’s mother left her five children when they were young and her alcoholic father left when she was 16. A neighbor took her in.

“We were dirt poor and basically abandoned,” she said. “I always said if I was able to help teens I would. But I never thought I’d be a good parent.”

Cruce’s father was an obstetrician/gynecologist and her mother was a midwife. Together they ran a progressive community health clinic.

“My parents raised me to help others and fight injustices,” she said. “They were givers. I have two adopted brothers. We always had people staying with us, eating with us; we had tons of visitors every Thanksgiving. A friend of mine got kicked out by his parents, so my parents converted our barn into a room for him.”

The two women started conversing at a roller derby bout eight years ago and couldn’t stop. Cruce’s male date left without her. Cruce and Deena got married in 2016.

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Amanda Williams Cruce and Deena Ruth Cruce currently have five foster kids in their home. Here are four on a restaurant outing.

“Amanda is a workaholic and a helpaholic and can calmly handle very stressful situations,” Deena said. “I came from a chaotic, yelling environment. I had the kind of tough life many of our kids have had, and they trust me.

“I learned to forgive my parents because the anger I held inside wasn’t healthy. I try to teach our kids how to move on from trauma or neglect.”

Cruce, trained as a medical social worker, works for a managed healthcare company and is an outspoken advocate for reform of the foster care system. She’s fought for new policies and laws that give foster parents more decision-making power — like the “Let Kids Be Kids” measure passed in 2013 by the Florida Legislature that enabled one of her foster daughters to go to her high school prom; she was prohibited the previous year because of complicated background-check rules.

“Fixing families is important to me, and foster care should be about bringing families back together and lifting them up,” Cruce said. “We want to provide programs to help birth parents so kids can return home more quickly. The longer kids are in the system, the more barriers they build around themselves.”

Said Deena: “We need more services and funding devoted to the preventative side so a child doesn’t have to be removed from his home in the first place.”

Deena used to be the only female cable company technician in her region, but she gave up her job to be a full-time mom. That means lots of cooking, cleaning, lifeguarding at the backyard pool, supervising homework, shuttling to doctors’ and therapists’ appointments, performing home medical treatments.

“This is not what I imagined for myself, but I knew I didn’t want to be like my family,” she said. “We’ve got a crazy life but a happy life. There’s a lot of love to go around.”

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