updated 10/12/2007 AT 12:00 PM ET
•originally published 10/26/2007 AT 6:00 PM ET
On a recent Wednesday evening, Joseph Democko had already clocked a full day as a medical billing clerk. Then his real work began. In the kitchen of his Anaheim, Calif., apartment, he tossed chicken breasts onto a skillet, dumped a packet of freeze-dried potatoes into boiling water and kept a watchful eye on his three boys – Chris, 6, Anthony, 5, and George, 3 – who scooted crazily in and out of the ground-floor flat on Razors. Clearing the table of Spider-Man toys, he set out three plates and juice boxes and called out, “Dinner’s ready!”
He was sure – and proved it by attending a parenting class, taking Chris to physical therapy, even getting a night-janitor job at Disneyland so his days were free for the boys. On May 3, 2004, Democko brought home 3-month-old George, becoming the youngest foster parent in Orange County. Helped by his mom (who died in 2005) and roommates, he recalls the time as a blur of diaper changes and late-night feedings. “I was a zombie,” he says. Several months later, Democko also brought home Chris and Anthony, adopting them last fall. “Twenty is very young to take on something like this, and what’s so unusual is that there are three children,” says Linda Reuter, adoption program manager for the Orange County Social Services Agency. Julie Akau, a social worker there, adds, “He’s always been very committed to the boys – and they adore him.”
Relying on himself is nothing new. He was just 6 when his father walked out, leaving the family to fend for themselves, living for years in a cramped motel room. Though his grandfather supported them, Democko helped out with chores and a part-time job. “That experience made me realize what kind of person I wanted to be,” Democko says now. He and Jody, once close, drifted apart after she ran away at 15 and eloped in Las Vegas – but that didn’t stop Democko from falling in love with his nephews from the moment they were born. “The bond was instant,” he says.
Now, Democko is doing his best to be the kind of father he never had. Between his $14-an-hour job and his $2,000 monthly stipend from social services, many weeks it’s a stretch to make ends meet. He’s also put some dreams of his own on hold. In a few years, when Chris is old enough to catheterize himself, Democko hopes to start night classes, maybe learn about the film industry. “I didn’t get to go to college, but I want to,” he says. “My time will come.” For now, he’s too busy to think much beyond the boys’ immediate needs. “The only time to myself is from 9 p.m. to midnight,” he says. “I’ll check e-mail or watch a movie. When I need to scream, I walk out the front door and hold it shut.” Still, Democko has no regrets. “I enjoy being a dad so much,” he says. “I don’t want to miss a second of it.”