The paths that our lives can take are often not exactly the way we might have planned them. Unforeseen challenges, tragedies, and triumphs affect the roadmap that leads us through the many adventures of life. For Cordillera Ranch residents Ken and Julie Styskal, their path has taken them from the humblest of beginnings…to adventures around the world that they never would have imagined.
Ken begins, “I was born in Kearney, Nebraska. My father was a manufacturing engineer, and my mother was a school teacher. I was into all the sports, and was the Captain of the football team. Eventually, the family moved to Colorado, and I graduated in ’83.”
Initially intending to follow in his father’s steps, Ken enrolled in the University of Colorado and pursued a degree in Chemical Engineering, however, he quickly altered his course. “I’m a chemical engineer at this point. My dad was an engineer, and I figured I could do anything with the degree. At the time, the bottom fell out of the oil industry. I found that I was much more into the biology side of engineering so I went to medical school. I wanted to be a heart surgeon initially. However, I met a bunch of surgeons that weren’t very happy people, and so I went away from there. As a surgeon, it’s hard to have a life. It consumes you. But I found that as an emergency doctor, you work shifts, so you can actually exist and have a life. So in 1991, I graduated from medical school.”
At the same time that Ken was attending medical school, a young lady named Julie was going through a difficult time, and was living in her car in the Phoenix heat with her two children. Julie begins, “I got married right after high school and had two kids. The marriage wasn’t a great thing, and I ended up living on the streets for a while. My husband was abusive so for safety’s sake I felt it best to leave. A women’s auxiliary group came to help us occasionally. They would show up on the streets and bring us food and help us in most any way. We had a great bond over my pride in my children. They were also the first people that thought I was smart, and that meant a lot to me.”
Even though Julie had moved to Phoenix when she was 5, and had family in the area, she felt the streets were her only options. “My parents were very concerned with how we looked to the outside world. They did not approve of my divorce at all. I just did whatever it took to get through that time. We went to some friends’ houses, but it was never a long term solution. And so we simply survived as best we could.”
The Women’s Auxilliary Group that helped Julie began to have a very serious impact on her life and would eventually get her off the streets. “When you are living on the streets, everyone wants you to accept Christ, Buddha, Monkeys, whatever. When I met the women’s group, I really saw Christ in them. So I knew God cared about my kids, but I had done a lot of bad stuff. However, they didn’t give up on me. Eventually they even paid for a significant amount of nursing school, which is how I eventually got my degree and was able to really pull my life together.”
Armed with her degree, Julie began work as a nurse and was focused on simply moving on from some rough chapters in her life. At the same time, Ken had recently taken an internship at the same hospital Julie was working as he completed the requirements for his medical license.
Ken laughs, “I met Julie on June 23, 1991. I remember this because it was the first night of my internship. I had pulled call for the night. Julie adds, “I worked the night shift with a bunch of other nurses. We were a pretty wild bunch and we were all just being silly one night and making resolutions for the coming year. We decided to pick the person that would be the hardest for us to date. I am extremely loud and out-going, and so the other girls picked Ken as the most shy. And so the bet was made – if I could get a date with Ken, I would win the pot!” However, Ken proved a worthy adversary. “I tried so hard to flirt with him and turn on the charm, but none of it seemed to work. Later I found out that he hadn’t seen the Phoenix Zoo, so I asked him if he’d like to come along with me and my children. He said yes, and there you have it, I had won the pot!”
They dated, their relationship began to grow, eventually leading to marriage in 1993. Ken explains, “It was mainly just Julie’s openness. She is an open book and I so enjoyed learning everything about her. She is so unencumbered with life in general and I found it simply beautiful.” Julie adds, “I was such a hard soul at that time. I loved that Ken truly believed that marriage could work if two people worked at it, and I never would have believed that until I met him. He always sees the best in things and his dreams were not only big, but they were beautiful. I can honestly say that Ken is the most wonderful person I’ve ever met. Everything about him…his aura is simply beautiful.”
Upon marriage, the Styskals welcomed Megan to the family in 1994, and followed with Eric in 1995, in addition to JennaLynn and Joshua from Julie’s previous marriage. (Ken would eventually adopt Julie’s children officially as his own). “We had Eric right as I was finishing up my residency. We had been looking for someplace to live as I began my career, and I had grown up in Nebraska where it can get really cold, so we wanted some place warmer. We came down to San Antonio to visit Julie’s brother who lived in Fair Oaks. We really liked the area, and so we were happy that I became one of the Emergency Medicine doctors at Baptist Health Systems. I was confident in my training and eager to finally get out and do what I was trained to do.”
So in 1995, the Styskals became the newest residents of the area. Julie had stopped her nursing career in 1995 while undergoing a rough pregnancy with Eric, so newly transplanted to Texas, she looked for areas to get involved. She explains, “The first group I volunteered with was hospice. One of my favorite parts about nursing was helping the family through the dying process. It’s a part of life and there is a way to do it with grace and dignity.” She laughs, “But I soon realized that all of my friends were dying, so I began to look at other ways to help in the area, and eventually I landed with Meadowlands (group home for troubled kids). I was part of a group of Cordillera Ranch women who started an education incentive program there and I wanted them to know that your past is your past and your parents are your parents, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It was important to me for them to know they were in charge of their future, and only they can decide it. So we would bring in people that would speak about where they were in life and how they got there so that the kids could set goals.”
In 1998, the Styskals began to add to their family by becoming foster parents. As they both worked in a medical capacity, the Styskals quickly became the foster parents of choice for children that were born addicted to drugs or had other health problems. Julie explains, “When you become a foster parent, you have to understand that you’re not permanent. The ultimate, greatest goal would be to get them back with their parents. So we would go in for weekly visits with the parents and try to love on them and help them get to a better place. We worked with them to try and help them through it, however, none of our foster parents ever were able to regain custody of their children.” While they knew that being a foster parent was a temporary duty, it didn’t make it any easier to give the kids up. Julie continues, “Anabel came to us in August of 2000. She was born with drugs in her system. The family had many interventions with CPS, and the last straw was that one of the members of the house stabbed himself in front of all the kids. So she came straight to me from the hospital. We fostered her for years and we had a lot of specialists that worked with her through a lot of her physical issues. Her parent’s rights were terminated when she was 1 and I had to go in and testify against the mother, even though I had tried so hard to help the mom. As we were leaving, my phone rang and it was my dad saying that he was in the ER with my mom, and then the ER doc came on the phone and said that my mom had died. So Anabel and I both lost our mom on the same day. We had a special bond, and we officially adopted her when she was 2.”
After relocating to Cordillera Ranch in 2000, the Styskals were enjoying their new home, as well as being free of infants for the first time in a long time. They were becoming more and more involved with local non-profits and simply enjoying life. Cordillera Ranch was a big part of the involvement that they felt, Julie explains, “The deeper truth about the Cordillera Ranch community is its genuine heart of compassion, warmth and acceptance. We cannot go a day without hearing stories of acts of compassion, folks going out of their way to volunteer, families adopting from here and abroad, doctors, nurses and youth going on mission trips, and just basic neighbors helping neighbors through good times and bad. We love the fact that our daughter has had the opportunity to “talk books” with an amazing author across the street, or the fact that one of our neighbors has the incredible job of transplanting organs to give sick people a new lease on life. What we love most however is the melting pot of retired military, school teachers (elementary-university), retired police officers, pharmacists, dentists, orthodontists, pilots, veterinarians, realtors, the list goes on and on. Not all are “famous” but each is a treasure and we are proud to call them our neighbors.”
Shortly after, the Styskals began looking to find a local church home. Historically, both Julie and Ken had shunned formal church settings, but spurred on by their children, they began to seek a church they could attend. Julie says “Our kids wanted to go to church. We went to C4 (Cibolo Creek Community Church), and they were drinking coffee in church and the pastor read from the bible on a PDA. We walked out the door, and we both said ‘We’re not going back.’ However I coached soccer and I had an assistant coach whose life was just upside down, but he always had this outrageous faith. It started wearing on me and I knew he was a wild dog when he was young and I figured that if he could go to that church and they were ok with him, then we could go there. “
However, the family was quickly set to grow again. “I was so tired of diapers, and we had all the kids to school age, and my house was empty and I was so loving it. And then my phone rang and CPS told me that Anabel had a biological brother that was born and they wanted us to foster him. He had problems also, but we took him on too. This was around 2004. So we started the whole process over again and the same court sessions, and the family knew that we were going to be the best for the kids. So we were able to adopt Anabel’s younger brother as well.”
With a household of six children and free of infants, Julie made a decision that would ultimately change their lives. “I heard about some sort of husband/wife trip at church, so I signed us up. Later they told me it was some sort of mission trip, so I said ‘No way.’ I called them to cancel and they told me ‘No, you cannot cancel.’ It was a mission trip to Reynosa. I flew under the radar the whole time, but just really fell in love with serving under privileged kids. It was just so comfortable for me.” And so she quickly went to Sri Lanka after the tsunami of 2005 and assisted there. And followed that up with a trip to Nigeria. She laughs, “I just fell in love with Nigeria. I say all the time that my heart truly lives in Nigeria!”
On one of her trips to Nigeria, Julie met Hannah, and instantly fell in love with her. She had discussed adopting her with Ken, who initially resisted the idea. To further compound the discussion, the Styskals were given some terrible news that would shake any family: Julie has a genetic disorder that affects her lungs and liver, and is terminal unless a liver transplant can be found. Julie says, “My sister and brother both have the disease, and my sister is on the transplant list. My brother is in stage IV. I’m not on the list because now I’m too healthy. It’s kind of backwards, but they won’t put you on the transplant list until you get sick enough, and I’m not there yet. But without the transplant, I will definitely get sick, and without the transplant, it’s a terminal condition. So when I brought up Hannah’s adoption, it was done knowing that Ken might be left to raise her. He went with me on a trip to Nigeria, met Hannah, and instantly she fell in love with Ken. It was just downhill from there!” Ken adds, “The way that Julie responded to her diagnosis was just beautiful and so strong, and it just pulled me in even more. And I know that after I met Hannah, God just spoke to me and so I agreed, and we adopted her shortly thereafter.”
However, they weren’t done just quite yet.
“I was finishing the adoption for Hannah and I was in Nigeria, and this man on a motorcycle drove up and had a cloth under his arm, and I unrolled the cloth and there were two twins [Aiden and Hussana] in there that just looked terrible. They were emaciated, and they were soon to die. So we took them and somehow made it through the night. Every night I slept with Aiden on my chest just so he could hear a mother’s heartbeat. We had to leave to go home, but my friend Crystal took them in. Hussana died a few weeks later. Aiden obviously survived. We had no intention of adopting, but God kept knocking on our door. Somebody actually wanted to adopt him, but because he had a whiter face, they said that it was because he knew that he had a white mother. So they kept asking me if other people could adopt him. And every time I told them ‘Yes, they can adopt him.’ And for whatever reason, it never happened. We showed up down there on our next trip, they walked up with Aiden and said ‘here’s your son.’ We just laughed and said ‘Let’s just take him home.’ In 2009 we finalized Aiden’s adoption and he became the youngest of eight.”
And from there, the Styskals have maintained a close and vibrant relationship with the orphanage in Nigeria. Ken serves as a medical adviser to the facility, and via Skype and the internet, assists the patients there over a webcam. Julie coordinated the installation of the internet. She still visits three times a year, however, she’s acutely aware that her health might deteriorate to the point that she won’t be able to travel. Even when she couldn’t travel, she assisted four families with adopting children from Nigeria. And through it all, she continues to simply defy the odds. Julie laughs, “My doctor told me to quit coming in for checkups because I’m quite healthy. We know I’ve still got the genetic disorder, but I’m just not going to worry about it. I’m just going to live the best way I can and enjoy the life that God has given me.”
“Are we done yet? What’s next for us? I don’t know. It’s really just up to God. We think we’re done, but hey, you just never know.”