It was never Tracey and Brian Hartzog’s intention when they adopted their daughter to also become a second family to their daughter’s biological older brother.
The Fort Mill couple adopted their daughter Cassidy in 2011 through an adoption agency in Greenville. The couple kept in regular contact with Cassidy’s birth mom, who told them her son, Raheem Watts, who was 16 at the time, was living in Charlotte while attending a charter school for talented basketball players. The Hartzog’s went to visit Watts one day and were disheartened at what they found.
“They came and saw where I was living and the living conditions weren’t great,” Watts, now 22, recalls. “I didn’t have everything I needed for school. I didn’t have much to eat.”
One of the first things they did was get Watts set up with a mini-fridge stocked with food. It wasn’t long before he was spending weekends at the Hartzogs’ home and cementing a place in their hearts.
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“(Tracey) fusses at him like a mom, when he needs it,” Brian Hartzog said. “She takes care of him when he needs it, makes sure he has what he needs.”
“I just kind of became the second child that they got out of that deal,” Watts said.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
The Hartzogs say they are happy their daughter’s birth family is a part of her life.
“Their whole family is like family to us,” Brian said.
Watts said he is grateful for the opportunity to be a part of Cassidy’s life.
“Nine times out of ten, families who adopt kids, they get the kid and they really don’t talk to the family anymore,” he said.
“I was over there about two weeks ago and when I had to leave, my little sister kept telling me she didn’t want me to leave,” Watts said. “I really thank them for allowing (Cassidy) to know who we are.”
The Hartzogs’ biological son, Devin, 12, was an only child for several years before Cassidy’s adoption and wanted a brother badly.
When Watts entered the picture, Devin was thrilled to have an older brother figure to do guy things with, she said.
One day, Devin asked what a stepbrother is and then what a brother-in-law is.
I asked him, “Are you trying to figure out what Raheem is to you?” Tracey said
Yes, he said.
“I told him, ‘He’s your brother.’”
CHASING A DREAM
Fast forward five years and it was time for Watts – the first in his family to attend college – to leave for The University of Southern Mississippi.
Tracey drove him and Devin came along for the ride.
“When you’re going away to college, it’s a big deal. You need someone to take you,” Tracey said.
The day she dropped him off at college was special for another reason, too.
“(Raheem) was turning 21, so I made him wear this big pin that said, ‘Birthday Boy.’’
She smiled. “He’s six (feet)-eight (tall).”
Watts graduated Friday from Southern Miss, where he played basketball on a full tuition scholarship. Next up is moving abroad this fall to play professional basketball.
On this Mother’s Day weekend, Tracey Hartzog said she is “insanely” proud of the young man she never thought would be in her life and whom now she can’t imagine life without.
“We’re just family now. We feel really lucky,” Brian said.
The Hartzogs always encouraged him to be his best, Watts said.
“They were constantly telling me that what I’m doing is a really big thing,” he said.
They can’t wait to cheer on their “tallest child” – as Tracey calls him in a Facebook post with his picture and a graduation tribute – as he embarks on his next adventure.
“I really feel like people come into your life for a reason,” Tracey said. “We all just dropped into each other’s lives at the best time.”
“They’ve done everything they could for me,” Watts said. “It’s people like Tracey and Brian that make the world a much better place to live in.”
Kelly Lessard: email@example.com, @KellyLessardFMT