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Globetrotting Grandmas Begin Ultimate Adventure as Adoptive Parents - A Hispanic Heritage Month Profile

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(Posted 2023 September)

Sharing their Hispanic Culture is one way these "Abuelas" Make a Difference for Children in Foster Care

gina-alejandro-antoinette-all-smilesWhen you first meet Gina Marquez-Rey and Antoinette Robilliard D'Onofrio, the first thing that strikes you is their shared warmth and open personalities. These Latina women have a lot of love to share with others around them and it shows particularly in the way they care for their young son Alejandro.

You see, Alejandro – or “Ale” as his moms affectionately call him – is only 2 years old, and he has been through more struggles in those two years than many people experience in a lifetime. His mothers, Antoinette and Gina relish every accomplishment and milestone that he achieves. At 50 and 58 years old, the time when many are winding down their parenting journey, these two are just embarking on the journey of a lifetime. 

A Career Leads to a Commitment
The couple decided to become foster parents and started the process in March 2017. Gina is a social worker by profession and while she did an internship in Child Protective Services, she was deeply impacted by the cases she encountered. Gina shared some stories with Antoinette about the children and families she met through her work. Antoinette was so moved by learning of the hundreds of children who had been abused or neglected and who needed support that she wanted to do something, to be a foster parent to help make a difference for the children and families. 

Gina has two grown children from a previous marriage, but for Antoinette, parenting would be a new experience. Two years after they wedded, Antoinette told Gina, “There are so many kids out there who are already in need.” Gina warned Antoinette that it would be hard, and probably temporary, but that’s when they decided to help and be a part of this group of people that provide foster care.

“In Peru, where we both come from, too often you find out about these cases after something fatal happens and it’s in the news,” said Antoinette. Both were eager to get involved here, so “We looked around and found Fairfax County social services, then we started the application process,” said Antoinette. Ultimately through the training process, they heard again and again that it would be hard, but they knew, “It’s not about us, it’s about giving a little bit of hope and a better life to these kids at least six months, four months, two months or so,” said Antoinette.

A Bittersweet Foster Placement 
empty cribOnce they were certified, they quickly got their first placement, a little boy. For six months they cared for him from the age of 18 months, and as Gina said, “It’s one thing to be a social worker, or working in the system and be on one side of the table, and another thing when you are on the other side as a foster parent.” He went home to his biological mother, and a few months later he was back in foster care with a baby brother who Gina and Antoinette took in as well. It was such a beautiful time for them to care for a newborn, and the older child they had grown to love. 

However, it was a disappointing experience for them, too. At the time Fairfax County Foster Care and Adoption was seeking a long-term placement for the boys, and Gina and Antoinette did not want to get their hopes up, so they wanted to wait for the judge to decide if the brothers would be legally adoptable. The children were ultimately placed with other families, and while they are able to still keep in touch, it was a difficult loss for them, and it took some time to heal and be open to another placement. 

Agreeing to Serve Again
They started back tentatively by answering the call to go daily to hold and comfort a baby boy in the hospital NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit). The child, Alejandro, had been born substance exposed, and he required a lot of specialized care. Antoinette and Gina visited him every day in the NICU for the first three months of his life until he was discharged in November 2021 and came home with them. For almost a year, they cared for him while his biological father tried to get himself to a place that he could be responsible for Alejandro. 

Tragically, just a few weeks before going to court, the father passed away due to an overdose, and at that time the biological mother signed away her parental rights. Antoinette and Gina were asked to consider adopting Alejandro. They were at a crossroads. 

Gina, Alejandro, Antoinette in RomeGina’s grown daughters had made them grandparents twice over in 2020 and they wanted time to dote on those babies. They knew adoption would be difficult and require a lot of them, because Alejandro had significant developmental delays requiring treatments and therapies to help him learn to walk, talk, and eat. Antoinette and Gina were afraid, but they were committed to giving Alejandro the best life possible. 

They compromised by taking him everywhere and raising him alongside those grandbabies. In the process, Alejandro has accomplished things the doctors doubted he could. They were told that he would never walk if he hadn’t started by age 2, but he is still making strides. He is sitting up, standing on his own, and getting stronger every day. 

According to Gina, “Now we are at a point in our lives that we love to travel and go everywhere, and he's part of it. Alejandro's the reason, he's not an excuse not to do things. He enjoys the trips as much as we do, and the therapists and doctors have commented that Ale comes back from vacations in a much better mood, more relaxed and willing to learn or practice more exercises.”

Forever a Family
Antoinette, Alejandro, Gina in court room on adoption dayThe adoption was finalized on July 25, 2023, and it was a very emotional ceremony. The couple is excited to legally call Alejandro their son. Gina said, “The foster care workers assigned to this placement have been amazing. Each of them has helped us during all the process, making our journey, especially Alejandro’s, smoother and easier.” He is just a part of the family now. Gina’s adult daughters, Aurora (35), and Claudia (33), have been a great support group, present in every step of Alejandro’s development. “They have also given us three wonderful grandsons who love Alejandro very much and are always going to be part of Ale’s life,” she said.

These ladies truly feel that age is just a number, and that they are blessed to have the opportunity to care for Alejandro. Antoinette has put her catering business on hold to be Alejandro’s primary caregiver. She said, “We think that with love everything is possible! Every time we were informed about any issue or possible challenge that Alejandro could experience during his life, it made us more sure that God has brought Alejandro in our lives to live and take care of him, and make sure he has all the tools he needs to have the best life, be always loved by us and our extended family, and always be happy.”

“You know, you don't have to be blood related if you really care, and I think he, even though he's struggling … you know he's thriving because of his environment,” said Gina.

Celebrating a Common Hispanic Culture
Gina, Alejandro, AntoinetteThe family just celebrated Alejandro’s second birthday. Relatives including Antoinette’s mother, sister, and nephew all came to visit from Peru for the adoption and birthday celebrations. The entire family including grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins speak Spanish to Alejandro to keep him grounded in his heritage. (He understands English through his various therapies.) His bio dad was of Colombian descent and really wanted Alejandro to be raised by a Latin American family. 

They have taken him to Peru twice as well, and Gina and Antoinette go out of their way to help him understand aspects of Latin culture, religion, language, and heritage. They can tell that he understands more and more, because he now makes eye contact, grabs the hands of those caring for him, gives hugs and kisses. These are milestones that doctors were not sure he would reach. Gina summed it up well, “It’s amazing to see what love can do.”

To learn more about this family in their own words, check out this video.

Fairfax County Foster Care and Adoption is always looking for families with room in their hearts and homes to become foster parents. To learn more, visit our website or email

This article posting is part of the Foster Family News monthly newsletter designed to keep foster parents informed about all the new and notable happenings in Fairfax County.

Learn about what the Foster Care and Adoption program has planned for foster families - stay on top of trends, participate in trainings and learn about policy changes.

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