Earlier this fall, Jill and I officially became empty nesters. Our oldest, Lindsey, began her third year at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton and our youngest, Parker, just started his first year at Baylor University in Waco. It seems like yesterday that we were bringing each of them home from the hospital. As babies, it felt like it would be a lifetime before they were flying the coop and heading off to college. The reality is that it has just been the blink of an eye … that day arrived and way too quickly.

How do we feel, how has it gone, and what do I think? “Weird” is the best single word I have to describe it. I had a very difficult time when Lindsey left for UMHB the very first time. I told her and others that she was just headed to camp. You know, kids go to camp and they return home. I could handle camp, but nothing anyone could have said or done would have prepared me for that day – leaving the nest for college. Fortunately, it only happens once. But wait, there’s a second child; surely it will be easier the second time around? When we took Parker to Baylor for his freshman year this fall, I quickly realized it’s not any easier when the last child goes off to college! As Yogi Berra once said, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.” And then you return home – quiet, still, empty bedrooms – it’s just weird.

We have had friends tell us, “Hang on, it gets better; you’re going to love it!” Now, don’t get me wrong, Jill and I are fine – but we do miss our kids. For 20+ years, they have been an everyday part of our life and home. It’s not like we have reached the end of a race and are at the finish line and suddenly we are done. On the other hand, I have been very quick to tell people when I’ve been asked how it is going that we would not want it any other way. This is normal, this is life, this is one of those next stages and to be anything different would mean that something was wrong physically, mentally, capability-wise, preventing them from reaching this next level in life. It would be tragic and heartbreaking were they not able to leave the nest. As you may guess, I know this with my mind and I am still working to convince myself of it with my heart. The other thing we realize in this process as parents, it will never be quiet the same again – it will be different.

Eleven days after we took Parker to college and officially became empty nesters, I had a meeting in downtown Oklahoma City with the leaders of several other children’s homes from all across the northeast and southern United States. The second night we were there, four of us drove down the street to visit the Oklahoma City National Memorial. It was a beautiful night, quiet, and almost serene. I could immediately hear God speaking to my heart. As I looked across the memorial of empty chairs representing lives lost in the Oklahoma City bombing, I was reminded anew of lives cut short, small chairs representing children’s lives taken extremely prematurely, and of what could have been. Jill was over 7 months pregnant with Lindsey when this tragedy occurred, and now Lindsey is a junior in college. I looked at the small chairs and was again reminded of lives not fully lived, not able to leave and move on to trade school, work, college, or even a family of their own. Suddenly the empty nest took on a very different perspective.

We have our children for a limited number of years and, as parents, we want to make the most of that time. We want to guide them through life, teaching them to be wise and make good decisions. We want to instill in them strong values and help them to know Jesus in a real way. We want them to become responsible adults who love God with all their heart and serve people well.

However, many of those we serve through the Children At Heart family haven’t had the benefit of a stable family life. They haven’t necessarily had parents to lovingly bring them up, imparting and hopefully instilling wisdom and knowledge throughout the different seasons of life. They haven’t had someone to walk the road with them through life’s ups and downs, helping them learn how to cope and how to thrive. Family and parental influence have been prematurely lost.

But thanks to your generosity, they find hope, guidance, and almost always the promise of a brighter tomorrow at Gracewood, Miracle Farm, STARRY, and Texas Baptist Children’s Home. At each of our ministries, those who have come from hard places find a welcoming staff that cares for them and faithfully offers wisdom and direction. For the first time in many of their lives, they find a group of people who rally around them and support them, cheering them on through life’s joys and challenges. For many, it’s the first time to even know of the love and care offered by the Heavenly Father. At Children At Heart Ministries, they find what they’ve needed all along!

From a reluctant empty nester, thank you for helping to make it possible for Children At Heart Ministries to serve children and strengthen families. Your support brings hope to those who need it most! You make a great difference in their lives by providing hope and a promising future for the children and families we serve.

Todd Roberson is President and CEO of Children At Heart Ministries. He and his wife, Jill, live in the Round Rock area and have two college-age children, Lindsey and Parker.