Kadir LaLena pushed his finger against the glass of the small tank in his mother's living room. Michelangelo, his pet turtle, was hiding. Gina LaLena guided the boy's hand.
He'll come out, she said. He'll think it's food.
Five years ago, Kadir came to LaLena as another foster child who required a bed for the weekend. She was divorced before age 25, was unable to conceive a child, and felt adrift. Hers was 5-year-old Kadir's 16th long-term home. He is autistic. He suffers from ADHD, sensory processing disorder, and other developmental delays.
Slow down! Slow down.
Kadir is black. LaLena is Italian, raised in Berlin, where her parents grew up as next-door neighbors, married at 21, and never left the Camden County town. Her ex-husband did not want to adopt. LaLena struggled with the idea of raising a child as a single mother.
Here he comes. Slow down. Don't confuse him.
At first, Kadir kicked her. He cursed and spit. A weekend turned into a week. Then months. There was something about this boy, all 24 pounds of him. Basic tasks like using the bathroom and wielding a fork were onerous. Over Kadir's progress in seven months of structure they forged a bond.
You're going to scare him. Slow down.
The National Adoption Center featured Kadir on its weekly segment with NBC10 called Wednesday's Child. Vai Sikahema played pop-a-shot and squeezed into a kiddie ride with Kadir. The show aired March 2, 2011, and soon the calls came. Parents were interested in Kadir. LaLena was hysterical.
These people didn't know what this boy has been through. He needed her. She needed him.
There he is!
Michelangelo appeared. The turtle glided toward Kadir's finger. The little boy giggled and pressed his face against the tank.
Every Christmas, a dozen LaLenas gather and celebrate the strange and unlikely ways that people find love and family in this world. Tina LaLena, Gina's mother, cooks the Feast of the Seven Fishes.
Kadir loves seafood.
He is 10 now, and has made strides while enveloped in the embrace of this gregarious Italian family.
The Division of Youth and Family Services once told LaLena that Kadir would never be independent. This year, just 60 percent of Kadir's fourth-grade classes are special education. Challenges persist; Kadir is overstimulated at times and has his meltdowns. He receives occupational therapy, speech therapy, and physical therapy at school.
Still, Kadir's neurologist recently told LaLena that by high school, her son may not need special ed.
"It's just amazing," said LaLena, 29, "to see that growth."
Kadir and LaLena became a family on Nov. 18, 2011 - National Adoption Day. They took the train to the courthouse in Camden. The judge asked Kadir to recite his new name. Beautiful, the judge told Kadir Frank LaLena.
"Yeah," Kadir said, "I'm Italian."
The room roared, said Rich LaLena, his grandfather.
After Gina LaLena adopted Kadir, she heard him tell a friend, "Oh, we got adopted last week." She liked the way it sounded.
"You know what, that makes perfect sense," LaLena said. "I didn't just adopt him. They all did, too. My parents, my brother. And Kadir adopted us."
Kadir likes it when his grandfather, a 59-year-old entertainer who croons at local bars and senior centers, sings Louis Prima tunes. Once, when Prima's son performed at the Mercer County Italian Festival, the energetic Kadir ended up on stage. He waved a white towel and danced.
Kadir loves to hug strangers. He wanted to be a cowboy, but his Uncle Nick is a policeman in Mount Laurel, and Kadir likes that idea now. He recites movie quotes. When he talks, he flaps his arms.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are his favorites. Kadir found Michelangelo in the Italian Market, on the back of a vendor's truck. The turtle was tiny then, with orange eyes, and Gina LaLena warned her son that it might not last the weekend. That was July.
For 252 days, Gina was not Mom. Rich and Tina became Pop Pop and Nana, but Gina was Gina.
She planned a Gettysburg trip for Kadir. LaLena is a Civil War buff. They piled into the car on July 27, 2012, with a friend.
Kadir spoke up from the backseat.
"Mom, can I have something?" he asked.
"Yeah," LaLena said, "you can have anything you want."
That night, LaLena excitedly called her father.
"Guess what happened?" she said.
More single people are choosing to adopt, federal statistics show, with greater acceptance of nontraditional families. In 2014, nearly one-third of adoptions from foster care were by single men or women, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The National Adoption Center, based on Walnut Street, has placed about 24,000 children with families since 1972.
"For some of these children, this is the last stop," said Gloria Hochman, director of communications at the center. "If we don't find a family for them, they probably won't have one."
How would LaLena explain to Kadir what adoption is? His disabilities complicate things. HIs classmates are a different color from him. Some of them have two parents. Most of them have parents that look like them.
Once Kadir called her Mom, he was ready. She'd earned Mom.
"That means that you're stuck with me now," LaLena told Kadir. "You can't ever leave me again. And I'm never going to leave you."
It was late one night this week, and Kadir was hungry. "Go find your reading log," said LaLena, who works at a nearby day-care center. Mother and son completed it together.
Amanda Welsh, a friend of LaLena's since high school, marvels at how LaLena has made Kadir her world. LaLena does not date. She is more mature, Welsh said. But she was always destined to be a mother.
"Soul mates come in different forms," Welsh said. "They really were meant to be together."
For Kadir, tasks like holding a pencil are sometimes difficult. LaLena watched as Kadir carefully formed each letter.
"Booyakasha!" Kadir said when he finished. The Ninja Turtles say booyakasha; so does Kadir.
The only thing left was to put his name and date on the log. Now Kadir rushed. He scribbled at the top of the page.
"Uh, uh, uh, what is that?" LaLena asked.
"Booyakasha!" Kadir yelled.
Try again, LaLena said. Kadir whispered as he wrote each letter.
LaLena was in the shower one day not too long ago when she heard Kadir scream. She dashed to the living room.
Michelangelo had climbed a decorative dock placed inside the tank. It looked as if the turtle was standing on a wall. Kadir knew what that meant. Michelangelo, once minuscule and meek, was mutating into a crime fighter just like in the cartoon.
"It's happening!" he said. "It's happening!"
LaLena laughed. The turtle won't stop growing. But no, she told Kadir, he will not mutate.