The phone call from his brother came as a warning. Or at least a heads-up.
They’re looking for a home for the boys.
Ken Hunt hadn’t seen them — his two great-nephews, now 15 and 13 — in six or seven years. They had to be much bigger than the last time he’d seen them, at a downtown Kansas City bus stop with their mother, his niece.
He knew something about how things had turned badly for them. Their home broken. Split up into separate foster homes.
But why call him? He was past the age of 60 when the phone rang a year ago April. He was more than a generation removed — their great uncle.
“I didn’t know if they’d remember me,” he said.
Desperate is probably too strong a word. But the team members at the Midwest Foster Care and Adoption Association were certainly going deep into the boys’ family tree in search of potential permanent homes when they reached out to Hunt.
The boys’ “genogram” had well more than 50 names, said Alicia Nolte, a member of the adoption association’s Extreme Recruitment team that takes on harder-to-place cases.
A genogram, more than a family tree, may look more like a computer circuit, with symbols interconnected by lines that attempt to track relationships that might be promising or could be broken, fractured or otherwise complicated.
It’s hard to find a home for one teenage boy, Nolte said, and harder when they’re trying to unite two boys, and one of them with some mental disabilities.
In these and other difficult adoption searches, “it is frustrating when you are talking to family you know are able (to consider adoption) but not willing,” she said.
But when they got hold of Hunt, what they found, as Hunt describes himself, was “an honest-to-goodness cowboy.”
And this was a good thing.
It didn’t happen right away. Hunt was living with his girlfriend at the time. He waited for her to move, and then there would have to be background checks and training.
But he knew it was going to happen. He had pictures of their faces put in his hand. He could see them together again, sharing the horses he helps tend at a former dairy farm just down the road from his Grandview home.
“It wasn’t a matter of ‘I need to do this,’” he said. “I had to do this.”
The younger brother, who just came flopping onto the couch in his new home after school this week, agreed with his older brother and uncle.
This new arrangement in life works best of all for him. He’s “the chatterbox,” as his uncle called him.
He’s also the one who needed the most help. He’s the one who relied most on his older brother and hurt the most when they were separated. (Their names are not being used at the request of their court-appointed advocate.)
When he was troubled, the 13-year-old said, “the person I talked to was him.”
He nodded to his brother.
“He didn’t always know how to talk about it, but he would try to cheer me up, which was good.”
The younger boy is also the one who really likes being with the horses.
The older brother? He goes along.
“I always took care of him,” the 15-year-old said.
For a while, the agency had made arrangements so the brothers could get together once a week, at a park or a McDonald’s. But it could only do so much to ease the drifting feeling, the older boy said.
“I needed family,” he said.
The boys have lived in their uncle’s home for a month. The adoption itself is still going through the legal process. So they’re still learning about one another.
Now, as Hunt walks with his boys among the elegant and nuzzling horses, he teases them with a hint at some of the life he led.
“I never did make enough money rodeoing,” he said.
In one sense, he looks the part, with a worn and bent-brimmed cowboy hat atop his head, a vest over his shirt, and jeans and boots.
But he is 62, and the mustache rounding down to his jaw is grizzled. The older boy’s comment on his first impressions of the new head of his family was: “I thought you’d be younger.”
He was a bull rider, Hunt tells them — the last one just 10 years ago at the old Benjamin Ranch rodeo, although that bull “showed me the light” and put that fun finally to rest.
This was the kind of stuff the younger boy was talking about when he said that “it’s fun and awesome to get family members … and learn about them.”
“My grandpa — your great-grandpa — got me riding horses when I was 5,” Hunt said. “I was a kid, too, believe it or not.”
There are difficult times for them, Hunt said. And perplexing things to understand like teenagers and their phones and all that texting.
But he doesn’t doubt the rightness of what he’s doing, taking these boys in together with his “rusty parenting skills.”
The thing about cowboying and horses, Hunt tells them, is “my grandpa said that once it gets in your blood, you never get it out.”
The younger boy, with his hand around a horse’s brown muzzle, says, “I’m never going to get it out?”
No, Hunt says. Not in this family.