WAYCROSS — In 1968 a young woman stood in the parking lot of a mill, waiting for a young man to get off work.
Once he did and they met, their conversation quickly became emotional, heated even. She told him she was pregnant and the baby was his. He told her to get an abortion. He didn’t want to have anything to do with her … or the baby. Already the mother of a three-year-old son at 20, she was working nights grating cloth for a local manufacturer. During the day she took business classes at a nearby technical college in hopes for a better life.
However, she knew that hope couldn’t come at the expense of the life inside her.
“I rejected the idea of an abortion,” says Sandra Stone, who today lives near Greenville, South Carolina. “I never considered it. The life of my child … I could never consider taking that. It just wasn’t in me.”
And there it happened. A singular decision made at a dark time would lead to something bigger. Something better.
Stone’s resolve granted life to that little boy and a son to another family. But she had no idea how it would echo to countless others. Years later that little boy, who Bill and Pat Wheeler would name John, answered a call into the ministry and eventually became minister to families of First Baptist Church in Waycross.
Loving someone you’ve never met
In 2007 John Wheeler was helping extinguish a fire alongside fellow members of the Ware County Fire Department when he sat down to rest. His chief took a closer look at him, saw something besides the simple fatigue Wheeler claimed to be experiencing, and upon further checking Wheeler realized his heart was out of rhythm.
For Wheeler to find out more about his health, he needed information on his biological family. While it’s common today for there to be varying levels of openness between biological and adoptive parents, in 1968 that was far from the case.
Nevertheless, the Wheelers made sure John and his older sister, Suzanne, also adopted, knew they had other mothers “somewhere else.” Those mothers loved them, too.
“I was raised to know I was created in God’s image and that’s where my identity comes from,” Wheeler says. “My parents … man, I was raised in the best, most godly home. Even growing up, I didn’t give them a lot of grief because I knew how good I had it. We didn’t have a lot of money, but it was the best home, and I knew I was blessed.”
Praying alongside his mother for his birth mom every night reinforced to young John the decision made on his behalf.
“I knew it must have been a horrible sacrifice for my birth mother to make. She gave up a lot for me because she couldn’t provide the life she wanted for me. I loved her even though I knew nothing about her. Loved her to my core.”
But in 2007, after Wheeler grew tired fighting one of the largest fires in Georgia history, he gained an extra reason for looking into his past.
“I wanted to know more about my condition and how my family medical history related to it, but couldn’t because my adoption records had been sealed,” Wheeler told The Index. Through several phone calls and attempts to reach various organizations, he found his records had ended up in the possession of Compass of Carolina, a family and children’s services agency.
His only course of action, he was told, was to sign an affidavit authorizing his birth mother to provide information. This would only happen should she want to take the steps to seek out the records herself. Wheeler was told to not get his hopes up.
“I didn’t put much thought into it ever happening. I sent in the affidavit and forgot about it. I didn’t even tell my wife,” he recollects.
Five years later, he got a phone call.
A special surprise
Pat Wheeler had always wanted a big family. She told her husband, Bill, even before they got married. He was on board with the idea, but then they decided to wait so Pat could help her mother, who had been diagnosed with cancer.
But later on, the Wheelers found out conceiving children would be next to impossible. Bill’s aunt and uncle asked if they had considered adoption. The Wheelers liked the idea and soon, Suzanne joined their home.
“Suzanne was the cutest kid, so much that I felt bad for other parents,” says Pat. “It was about two years before I realized all mothers felt that way about their children.”
In 1968 the Wheelers learned they’d been matched with a baby boy, but he wouldn’t be able to join their home until January. After a few calls asking if there was any way he could be home by Christmas, plans were made for one final wellness check Dec. 24.
“My family always had a big Christmas Eve dinner,” says Pat. “I told my brother to be ready to take pictures when we came through the door with a ‘special surprise.’ But when we walked in, he was so excited with everyone else that he forgot to take the pictures!”
They named the baby John Curtis Wheeler, after Pat and Bill’s grandfathers.
Rambling (little) man
John, Pat said, was a “very inquisitive” baby. Translation – he got into stuff, a lot.
At 18 months old John learned he could snatch a sucker by pushing a chair to the kitchen counter. A month later Bill left an unobserved ladder for a moment while he was painting the house. John took it as an opportunity to see what the world looked like from the roof.
“At church people just started asking us, ‘What did John do this week?’” Pat remembers.
As a little boy, John was comfortable talking with older men as if he were one of them. Pat’s father would take him to different shops, where other men would be carrying on about the latest news. Upon John’s arrival they’d soon stop just to listen to him. Later on when his pops was instructed to stop spoiling his grandson, John would inform him when they were alone in the car: “I can’t ask you to buy me anything, but anything you’d want to buy me is okay.”
On John’s eighth birthday, Pat told him there was another lady thinking of him that day. She said they were going to pray for her and thank her for giving John life. “Bill and I were determined from the very beginning that our children would know they were adopted and had birth parents,” says Pat.
Spurred by her experience in adoption, Pat would go on to be the first employee at the Greenville, South Carolina location of Bethany Christian Services, an adoption agency. For 21 years, she would work with women with unplanned pregnancies.
“I’d encourage them to choose life for their babies,” she says. “Then I’d walk with them through the placement process and release.”
Pain in the decision
Sandra Stone says the policy of the location where she gave birth to John was for birth mothers to not hold their newborns if going through an adoption plan. It would be too painful. Perhaps through ignorance of that rule, however, a nurse allowed Stone to hold her newborn and even keep him for an hour.
“When I handed him back to her, I knew I likely would never see him again,” she remembers. “I kissed him all over his face and told him how much I loved him. Then, when they were gone, I cried. I cried about it every night for a long time.”
Despite that pain, she stands by her decision.
“I knew it wasn’t the right thing for me to keep him,” she asserts. “But this was the right thing for my baby.”
Stone says that although she was raised in church, she wasn’t a Christian. Later on, she would understand how she was lacking a relationship with Christ. She also met her future husband, Larry, at church, being open about her past.
…this was the right thing for my baby.”Sandra Stone
Now a mother of three, over time Stone nevertheless expressed to her husband her desire to learn something, anything, about the son she gave birth to in 1968. In 2010 she decided to go through the process of locating him.
Stone eventually came into contact with Nicole Shepherd, an employee at Compass of Carolina. Stone remembers that she spoke with Shepherd on a Wednesday. That Friday, Stone’s phone rang again. It was Shepherd asking, “Are you sitting down?”
Yes, Stone’s son had filed the affidavit to receive contact from his biological family. Stone didn’t know yet how the woman who had raised him had encouraged John to file the affidavit, beginning with the process to find his birth mother.
“She was the one responsible for him putting the affidavit in there,” says Stone.
Waiting on a phone call, then a meeting
Both parties were eager to meet each other. But the law still stipulated no further information could be given – no meeting could take place – for at least 30 days due to required counseling.
At the end of those 30 days, Stone was told to expect a call.
“I was so nervous,” she recalls. “How would I be able to explain to him why I gave him up for adoption? How do I make him realize I truly wanted him but also wanted what was best for him? I prayed for God to help me.”
Him: “Is this my mom?”
Her: “Is this my son?!”
Him: “I do believe it is.”
A four-hour conversation – with many bouts of crying – ensued, her at home and him at his office at First Baptist Waycross.
“We talked for two hours before I thought of asking what he did for a living,” Stone remembers. “When he said he was a minister I just lost it.”
All parties were eager to meet. They learned how both the Stones and Wheelers lived ten minutes from each other in Travelers Rest, north of Greenville, South Carolina. John’s sister, Suzanne, is practically a neighbor of the Stones. For several years John has taken youth groups to Centrifuge at North Greenville University and when he was in college would regularly ride his bicycle on a road that went right behind his birth mother’s home.
While John was supposed to visit Greenville the next week for his mom and dad’s birthday (Bill and Pat have birthdays two days apart), everyone agreed that was a week too long to wait. They all agreed to gather that weekend in Savannah at an Olive Garden.
Sandra and Larry got there first. Though she’d never seen a picture of John, she knew it was him. She ran to him. He picked her up.
“After all these years all I’d seen was that sweet baby’s face and couldn’t imagine what he looked like now,” Sandra told The Index.
“We hit it off,” said John, who calls Stone ‘Maw Maw.’ “It was instantaneous.”
Two mothers, supporting their son in a battle
Sandra Stone and Pat Wheeler also hit it off, become best friends. Now, John has two mothers very active in his life. They want to know how he’s doing, how his wife Lesley and their daughters are doing, how youth ministry is going.
“If I don’t call them 2-3 times a week I get in trouble with those ladies,” he says. “They get along great and talk all the time. I’ve got two little old women minding my business and I love it.”
But recently John had to break some hard news to them.
In early April he went to the doctor with what he thought was a slight fever, thinking he had the flu. Instead, he was diagnosed with leukemia. Since then he’s gone through two rounds of chemotherapy.
“Family” has become a much broader term for Wheeler. In addition to the extended family he met nine years ago, unwavering support has come from those at First Baptist Waycross as well as Ware County Fire and Rescue. Last month Station 1 of WCFR cooked over 250 Boston Butts in a fundraiser for mounting medical bills.
“In my life I have never experienced the kind of love that has been poured out on our family from the amazing community in which I live!!” John wrote on his blog. “It is truly humbling and overwhelming to see in such a personal way the love of Christ being played out!!!”
Tomorrow, June 25, John will go to Augusta for a biopsy. If all goes well, he’ll receive a bone marrow transplant in July.
“John is the type to think he doesn’t get sick and won’t go to the doctor like he should,” says Pat. “But he has responded well to the chemotherapy.
“He’ll need to be in isolation for 30 days until his new cells build up. Then, he’ll need to live in Augusta two or three months for someone at the clinic to be able to check on him.”
John is facing a big fight, but if he’s learned anything it’s to never underestimate the love, and faith, of a mother. He knows it twice as well as most people. Two little old ladies won’t let him forget it.
“We’re going to see him through it,” says Pat.
“God’s not done with John,” claims Sandra.
Their words mirror a decision made in favor of life more than 50 years ago. As then, it’s a belief that even when times are tough, God is in control. And following that road can echo for countless others.