By Michael Curry
This is the mantra and enduring story of Sallie Grant DiVenuti and her late husband, Mark. That shared philosophy and commitment led to them become one of the most loving, caring and generous of parents. Together, Sallie and Mark fostered more than 50 children and adopted six.
“I wish there were more people like Mark and Sallie to become foster parents. Growing up in the foster care system isn’t an easy thing to deal with but when you have people who do it for the right reasons and actually care about the children that they take in, like the DiVenuti’s – life changes and it suddenly has meaning”
This is how Ashley, one of the more than 50 children fostered by Sallie and Mark, sees things.
When Sallie and Mark DiVenuti first met 33 years ago at the (then) Omni Hotel in downtown Norfolk, they fell in love. Not just an ordinary kind of love…a love which is an example, no, indeed an enduring benchmark.
Mark was from a large Italian family in Boston and Sallie had grown up right here in Norfolk. Both went on to enjoy highly successful careers in the hospitality industry. They both held Directors’ positions in Charleston and here in Hampton Roads. Mark was very much responsible for several landmark “openings” including the Renaissance Hotel in Portsmouth as well as on call events for the Virginia Opera and many other prestigious clients. He was also a teacher in the Portsmouth Schools system and served as a member of the Portsmouth School Board.
Meanwhile, Sallie excelled in a career which spanned almost 20 years as Director of the Hampton Convention and Visitors Bureau. She put Hampton on the map. Her crowning achievement has to be the impressive and innovative Hampton Roads Convention Center. It was Sallie who oversaw the birth of this major new regional facility (almost 350,000 square feet); she pulled out all the stops for the grand opening in 2005. Almost ,2500 people attended the glittering evening which even f featured a tropical jazz club. Sallie still gets calls asking how she did it!
It was in the Summer of 2014 that Sallie and Mark were embroiled in the sometimes lugubrious process of adopting their sixth child. Having faced head on many challenges before, they both knew that this particular child was more than a special case. He had been put into an institution at the age of 4 and had a history of disturbing and threatening behavior. But they formed an incredible bond. Stepping up with their signature compassion, fortitude and determination, they decided to adopt the lad who had been deemed “unadoptable” by the social services agencies. They brought him home to Portsmouth. knowing that is was going to take a full and concerted effort from both of them to give him the life he craved and deserved.
Sallie made the huge decision to take early retirement from her impressive career. She simply could not bear the thought that this young man might be taken back into some kind of institution. Just one month later Mark was diagnosed with an aggressive and terminal cancer. He passed away within less than a year, leaving Sallie as a single parent to the three adopted boys still living at home. Despite the ups and downs of being adopted, these young men are Sallie’s strength and living proof of how a loving couple have made a forever difference in the lives of so many youngsters.
FOSTERING AND ADOPTING
There is a significant difference between fostering children and adopting children. Sallie and Mark mastered the art of both. When children are fostered, they are given a safe and nurturing environment in a family setting primarily because their biological parent(s) cannot take care of them for a myriad of reasons. These might, and often do, include abuse, mental disorders, unemployment, divorce as well as all manner of other disturbances which lead to abandonment.
Adoption goes a step further in that the new parents accept full responsibility for the children which, of course, means college, insurance, automobiles, and all the other bills that parents are obliged to pay. The adoptees take the name of their new family and, in some cases, even change their first name. All six of Sallie and Mark’s adoptees have become DiVenuti’s. As parents, they always encouraged their foster children to seek out their biological parents, if they desired. Many of their foster kids have found their parents and are now enjoying a new life.
Just imagine for one second, taking more than 50 children into your home and intimate surroundings over a period of almost twenty years. Many, if not all, of these kids suffered from life threatening events such as neglect, abuse, living with drugs and alcohol, not being wanted, suffering from severe learning or growing disabilities, and so on and on. These are the children that society tends to leave behind and these are the children that carry the scars of bad experiences.
But not when Sallie and Mark appeared on the scene. Having learned that they could not have children of their own, they made a momentous decision in the late 1990’s to make a difference in young, seemingly hopeless lives, by taking so many into their home and giving them a real family life. At some points, there were as many as ten children living in the DiVenuti household.
The youngest they ever fostered was a mere four-year-old and the oldest to come to them was 16, so they learned fast how to nurture and deal with the generational progressions.
Remarkably they only ever had to “turn back” one child. He was severely disturbed emotionally and actually tried to set fire to his new foster home.
Working closely with social services agencies across the Commonwealth, Sallie and Mark would often have to travel for hours to meet their prospective kids. Once the decision was made to actually accept the child, then travel for hours back and forth again for training and counseling or whatever else was required. Sallie and Mark became very adept and effective at dealing with social service personnel, probation officers, incarcerating officers and a whole plethora of psychologists, counselors and physicians.
One of the most compelling and heart wrenching of Sallie and Mark’s stories involves a young lady whom they adopted. She had been sleeping on benches in Virginia Beach at the age of 15, totally abandoned and forlorn. Under Sallie and Mark’s guidance she earned a full scholarship to the College of William and Mary and is now guiding a whole new generation of youngsters as a counselor at Tidewater Community College.
Of the six that they adopted, two are actually biological brothers. Mark and Sallie made the wise decision not to separate the boys who were both great sportsmen and now are gainfully employed at the same company. Another, diagnosed with serious bipolar disorder at a terrifyingly young age is now back with her biological mother in Texas. Similarly, their (now) 18-year-old is back with his real mother in New Mexico.
Sallie beams with motherly pride when she recalls that one of her adopted sons was so proud of his new status as a real diVenuti that he had the family name tattooed onto his arm. He came home to show it off to Mum Sallie. She was so touched by his enthusiasm to embrace his new family name but had to point out, politely and gently, that is was spelled incorrectly! This was fixed, pronto, of course.
JUGGLING THE NEEDS OF FAMILY AND CAREER
Both Sallie and Mark were highly successful in their respective careers in Charleston and here in Hampton Roads. Sallie likes to talk of her almost 20-year tenure at the helm of the Hampton CVB as establishing her second family -.as if she needed another after fostering and adopting all those kids! She also likes to point out rather rapidly that it is always a team effort!
That second family, still very much intact, just last month won a major accolade – Convention South Magazine’s coveted Readers’ Choice Award for being “the best of the best.”
In the corridors of power at the City of Hampton, Sallie became known as the one who emailed and responded to her peers and bosses at all hours of the night and day. According to several Department Heads, it was not at all unusual to see an email from Sallie coming in at 1 or 2am. She was, after all, on the road promoting Hampton a great deal of the time as well as with being the Mum in a constantly busy (and often changing) household.
There is more. Not just content with establishing and guiding two huge families, they adopted several dogs from a rescue center which specializes in the breed known as bishon frise.
Mary Fugere, Sallie’s second in command in Hampton for many years and now Director of the Hampton Convention and Visitors Bureau, reflects with gratitude: “I will always admire Sallie for her vision for Hampton and I always marveled at her huge threshold for chaos! It takes a very special person to open their heart, their home and their life to benefit someone in need. To actually marry someone who shares the same desires is remarkable and the fact that both Sallie and Mark did so many time over is and always should be a tribute to them”.
And to quote Ashley again: “Sallie and Mark made an unforgettable imprint on not only my life but as well as my brother and sister and tons of other foster kids. We all hope many others will follow their amazing example.”
Sallie exudes a humble and humbling inner peace that comes from knowing that she and Mark changed so many lives through love, devotion and compassion. Undaunted by tragedy, pitfalls or setbacks, Sallie continues to nurture and build her families while all the time mastering the art and practice of being a single Mum. Brava!