By DUSTIN RACIOPPI
Jeff and Donna Clapp decided long ago they would never have children. The couple, who’ve been married 17 years, were busy with their careers, loved traveling and enjoyed life alone in their first-floor apartment in Red Bank.
But that all changed last year, when the Clapps fell hard for a long-haired boy who Donna Clapp says shares “spiritual DNA” with them.
Before they knew it, the couple were signing paperwork to officially adopt a son a 17-year-old on the edge of legal independence, making for a story that summons a Hollywood script a la The Blind Side.
Today, there would a be a hole in this unexpected family if that boy weren’t around telling jokes or playing video games in his bedroom.
“I can’t imagine what things would be without him,” Jeff Clapp, 42, said.
Their story begins in Asbury Park last spring, when Clapp, who with his wife owns Visitivity Media, a marketing firm, was making regular visits to the city as part of a mentoring program at Asbury Park High School. That’s where he met Cristopher Perez, then a 17-year-old native of Valparaiso, Chile who was living with his mother and helping her pay bills by working after-school jobs.
The two hit it off. They started with meetings in Asbury Park, then ventured out to lunch spots and eventually were making regular trips to museums in New York City.
“The minute I met Cristopher, we instantly had a rapport with each other,” Clapp said. “It fit.”
Perez’s mother, in the meantime, yearned to return to Chile to be with his sister, who was recently married. It left the Clapps with an opportunity that might normally cause a couple, especially one so content with their own life together, to spend serious time weighing their options.
“She asked us point blank, would you take him in as your own? Would you see him through college?” Jeff Clapp said. “Without even a blink we said yes.”
From there the two paths converged, and the Clapp’s and Perez’s lives took a turn, they say, for the best.
“Life just happens and you roll with it,” Donna Clapp said. “One moment, it was just the two of us, and the next moment Cris’s mom said, ‘I need to go to Chile.’ It was totally sudden. Everybody who has a kid, it’s totally sudden.”
Perez, who turned 18 in December, moved into their apartment, with their cat, on Rector Place, and enrolled in Red Bank Regional High School (where he’d make the honor roll). The Clapps took on the tricky task of laying down ground rules for Perez. He has chores to do, and there’s a rulebook that the entire family goes by, Donna Clapp said.
Not that it was such a difficult change to adapt to. The three sat down, thought about their own ideas of what a family should be and wrote up basic tenets based on that. After all, the Clapps were learning just as much about being parents as Perez was about being part of a new family.
“The bottom line is, has Cris broken the rules once or twice? Yes, but he’s a good kid,” Jeff Clapp said. “I’ve never had to worry, is Cris coming home tonight? Overall he’s just been great and he’s really active about being active in the family.”
If Perez, who wears his jet-black hair sweeping across his black-framed glasses, had any troubles transitioning, he does a good job of hiding it. When he started his senior year at RBR last year, he quickly made friends, met a girl he’s still seeing, found a part-time job and began playing bass in impromptu jam sessions with local musicians.
He has dreams of being a veterinarian, and is working with Donna Clapp, an adjunct professor at Brookdale Community College, to attend the Lincroft campus this fall. Eventually he’d like to move on to Penn State or Rutgers.
“When I was living with my mom it was a survival game. We had to pay rent and make sure there was food in the fridge. We didn’t worry about what was happening years down the road,” he said. “Now I’m just worrying about finishing college. Now I’m worrying about teenager stuff friends, girlfriends and not about having to survive.”
The experience for Perez has been bittersweet, he says. He holds nothing against his mother for returning to Chile, and he has a brother in Atlantic Highlands he keeps regular contact with. As for his new parents, he doesn’t call them mom and dad, and doesn’t look at them as replacements. Donna Clapp said they are more like friends who’ve become family they share interests, have similar sense of humor and like the same kind of music that brought them together.
Shortly after Perez moved in with the Clapps, he sat down and wrote a letter to Jeff Clapp.
“It said, ‘you’ve never been a dad and I’ve never been a son. So let’s try and see what happens,'” he said.
When the Clapps were in the process of taking legal custody of Perez, friends were probing them, wondering why in the world they’d want to take on the responsibility of a boy legally on the brink of becoming a man.
“One woman said, ‘you’ve got to get yourself a 10-year-old. He’ll be gone in a year,'” Donna Clapp, 44, said.
But for the couple, adopting Perez wasn’t about adopting a struggling kid from Asbury Park or even adoption at all. They fell in love with him, and the chance to bring him into their family was the reward, they said.
“It’s nothing to do with wanting a kid. It was about Cristopher. We loved Cristopher. It didn’t matter if he was 22,” Jeff Clapp said. “To know that he’s got a solid foundation and the opportunity to do whatever he wants, I can’t explain that.”