At 18 years old, college freshman Darrick “Rizzo” Rizzo had the life that others his age would be envy. Being the well-rounded athlete that he was, Rizzo was on his university’s basketball, cross-country and track team. Although sports were an important part of who Rizzo was and what he lived for, his relationship with his high school sweetheart Sherri was what he cherished most. In high school Sherri and Rizzo were inseparable, they were going to spend the rest of their lives together. Rizzo was one year ahead of Sherri in high school, at graduation the two made a pact with one another that they would not let distance get in the way of their love. It was not until one day in November when an unexpected pregnancy reveal would test the young couple’s commitment to each other.
When Sherri initially found out she was pregnant she kept it to herself out of shock and fear. It was hard to muster up the strength and confidence to tell Rizzo about her pregnancy, however she knew she needed to tell him as soon as possible. According to Rizzo, Sherri was struggling to keep her composure and not shed a tear the moment she broke the news to him. Sherri was absolutely set in her decision of moving forward with her pregnancy and then their baby. Rizzo was filled with as much anxiety and panic as Sherri, but he loved her and was in awe of her strength. From that point on it was an easy decision that Rizzo would drop his sports, and get a job to provide for his soon to be family unit.
“We were going to be parents. I hugged her fiercely, suddenly so proud so my Sherri who could so calmly accept this fate. I took strength from her. We weren’t just going to be parents. We were going to be great parents,” said Rizzo.
Although it was not easy for Rizzo, he kept to his promise to not say a word about Sherri’s pregnancy until she was ready. The decision not to say anything about the pregnancy was a terrible mistake that caused major disgust and friction with Sherri’s family. Sherri was forced to disclose that she was pregnant after her sister confronted her about her stomach in the locker room after a basketball game at five months pregnant. At this stage in her pregnancy it was evident that she did not have a protruding belly, she noticeable baby bump. She had no choice but to come clean about her pregnancy in that less than ideal moment. Her parents were filled with outrage and disappointment about her pregnancy. Sherri’s parents were not only upset with their daughter, they were also furious with Rizzo. The young couple’s optimism of starting a happy family vanished.
One day as Rizzo was walking from one class to the next, he received a call from Sherri saying something he would have never expected to hear from her before the day of that basketball game. Sherri had said the word Rizzo feared “adoption.”
After countless conversations with her mother, she had been convinced that placing the child for adoption was the right thing to do for the sake of what was best for everyone. Sherri explained to Rizzo that it would be an open adoption, and all the benefits that went into it. Rizzo and Sherri had learned at this point that they were expecting a baby boy. Sherri explained how the two of them could pick their son’s parents with an open adoption plan. In an open adoption birth parents are able to have a relationship with the children they place for adoption.
Rizzo and Sherri met with their adoption social worker Miss Williams to talk about adoptive parents. Rizzo told Miss Williams he wanted a biracial couple to raise his son, since he and his son were biracial. Miss Williams found a biracial couple who Rizzo felt were the perfect people to raise their son, Jackie and Mike.
The first meeting with Jackie and Mike could not have been better. Rizzo loved Jackie and Mike, he started to get excited about the open adoption plan. This was definitely the right couple to raise his baby. Jackie’s answer was “yes” to everything Rizzo was asking her.
“Would I be able to come watch him if he’s playing in a state championship game? Her answer was ‘yes.’ She even said we could have Thanksgiving dinner together.”
The day came for Rizzo to sign the papers and give consent to terminate his parental rights. His family was very saddened by this when he told him he had signed those papers. Although he would not be there physically to parent his son, he was excited about the open adoption relationship he was promised by Jackie and Mike.
When Rizzo’s son was born it was both the best and hardest day of his life. His son Ethyn was born on June 18, 1996. Rizzo had only three days with his son before he was forced to say goodbye. For the next 10 years Rizzo would get pictures of his son as he grew. “Those letters felt like Christmas,” said Rizzo.
For the first 10 years of Ethyn’s life Jackie would honor her commitment to send letter updates along with pictures. However something was peculiar about the letter situation. Jackie would never respond back to Rizzo’s reply to the letters. He would tell Jackie about all of his accomplishments that he would want her to share with their son. Besides Jackie ‘s odd behavior with the letters, she was not honoring her verbal promise to meet up for yearly visits. Jackie would always make up excuses the day before to cancel the visit. Rizzo was starting to feel Jackie was intentionally avoiding contact with him. At this point he decided to he needed to set up an appointment with Ms. Williams, their adoption social worker.
At the meeting with Ms. Williams Rizzo had explained all of the communication issues he was having with Jackie. Ms. Williams realized that Jackie was lying to Rizzo, and she was about to drop another heartbreaking fact on Rizzo. Ms. Williams explained that the adoption was a semi-open adoption, the complete opposite of what Rizzo wanted.
“I wish there was a signing agreement,” said Rizzo.
It became clear to Rizzo that in order to connect with his son he needed to do his own investigating. Before Ethyn was born, Sherri and Rizzo insisted that Jackie and Mike spell his name Ethyn untraditionally with a “y.” Putting a twist on the original spelling of the name would make it easier for them to search for him late in life. Turns out that spelling Ethyn with a “y” would come in handy.
In the beginning of Rizzo’s quest to find Ethyn, the social media platform Myspace was at its peak point in popularity. Aside from his son’s name, he knew the family resided in the greater Pittsburgh, PA area so he used this information to search for his son through the social media platform. Thanks to Myspace Rizzo found Ethyn and found more helpful information about who he was through his profile.
Rizzo found Jackie’s phone number and got her to confess about lying to both him and their son. Rizzo even told her second husband that although he was hurt, he believed in second chances. He would forgive her.
After many long hard years of not being able to get together with his son, his dream finally came true. Rizzo’s mother, wife and daughter all traveled to western Pennsylvania to have dinner with Ethyn at a pizza restaurant. Ethyn even bought his young half sister a chain necklace, which she loves. Rizzo met Jackie’s father while he was in Pittsburgh, a man who Ethyn has a lot of respect for.
“The Grandfather was so excited to meet me. He told me ‘he uses his hands well and is a hard worker. We kept telling Jackie she was wrong for not telling Ethyn about you and letting you into his life.”
The Adoptions From The Heart staff asked what advice Rizzo would give to prospective adoptive parents. Rizzo’s reply to our question was to simply “tell the truth and not make promises you cannot keep.” We can not agree more with Rizzo’s advice.