Joseph Democko drifts into another world as he watches his three sons ride their bikes up and down the driveway of his Corona, Calif., home. Decompressing after an hour-long commute from his job as a medical billing clerk, he has only a few moments of peace before his youngest, George, 6, wipes out on his two-wheeler. “Hey, buddy, are you okay?” Democko asks as he rushes over and checks for bruises, then brushes the boy off and helps him back on his bike. “I still can’t believe,” Democko says, “these are my kids.”
If not for Democko, they’d be nobody’s children. Six years ago his twin sister, Jody, derailed by addiction to methamphetamine, had spent time in the county jail and faced auto-theft charges for which she’d spend nine months in prison. Her three boys-George, then 3 months old, Anthony, 2, and Christopher, 3, who has spina bifida-were placed in foster care.
Just 20, working a night-janitor job at Disneyland, Democko convinced skeptical children’s services officials that he could be a good dad to his nephews. He became the youngest foster parent in the history of Orange County, and three years later he adopted the boys. “I had to get them back, or I couldn’t live with myself,” Democko, now 27, recalls. “They’re my blood.” In 2007 PEOPLE named him one of the magazine’s Heroes of the Year.
But he didn’t stop there. Juggling a full-time job with a father’s responsibilities-helping George, now 6, learn to read, going over math homework with Anthony, 8, and taking 9-year-old Christopher to doctor appointments-Democko also helped Jody get back on her feet and into her sons’ lives again while she underwent drug counseling. “Joey has helped me so much,” says Jody, sober for three years now and working on her GED. Now living alone with Jasmine, her 4-year-old daughter from another relationship, in a two-bedroom apartment a 30-minute drive away, she says her brother made it possible for her to start over with her sons. “I constantly think of what I put the boys through and how hard it was on them,” Jody says. “I see how much they look up to Joey. One day I hope they have the same trust in me.”
On a recent July evening the grown-up siblings share laughs around the kitchen table while Anthony and Chris, wiped out from a marathon jumping session on the backyard trampoline Democko bought, settle down and play chess. They were planning a boating trip to Lake Meade in Nevada, one of the regular vacations the newly reunited family now takes. “I want,” Democko says, “these kids to have good memories of their childhood”-memories, that is to say, different than his and Jody’s. Inseparable as children, they grew up in a motel room in Anaheim with a mother who worked part-time at Walmart and a father who walked out when they were 6 and with whom Democko has had only sporadic contact. “I never told anybody except for close friends I lived in a motel,” he says. “I never had much growing up.”
Desperate to get out, Jody left home at 15, eloped with her boyfriend and had Christopher three years later. Democko stayed with his mom and grandfather, with whom he shared a bed, working odd jobs to help make ends meet. “Jody,” Democko says, “just disappeared. We used to be so close. And then I couldn’t count on her.”
So when Jody asked her brother for a second chance with her sons, Democko had to think twice. “I didn’t want the boys to get hurt,” says Democko, who initially made his sister take home drug tests. Yet as she completed parenting classes and attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, he began to invite her to family outings. These days Jody, who has no contact with the boys’ biological father, visits them at her brother’s place and attends their birthday parties. “I like spending time with her,” says Anthony, who alternately calls her Jody or Mom.
As for Dad, life is tiring but sweet. In 2008 Democko realized a lifelong dream of becoming a homeowner when he bought a three-bedroom ranch home-largely financed with donations, including $50,000 from PEOPLE readers and $50,000 from the Rachael Ray show, which invited him to appear on the show. He drops the boys off at school, reads to them after dinner and never misses a parent-teacher meeting. “Joseph is one of the most involved parents,” says Karen Hall, principal of Wilson Elementary School. “You’d never guess these boys had less than a picture-perfect beginning in life.”
Not that life with three young boys is ever exactly smooth. Christopher gets in trouble at school for fighting with kids who tease him about his braces. “He’s a handful,” says Democko. And after his exhausted babysitter quit last fall, “things got a little crazy,” Democko recalls. Fortunately Jody stepped in, began picking the kids up from school and now watches them until Democko comes home from work.
Whenever he feels low, however, the now seasoned father thinks about spring, when he plans to take the boys on a Disney cruise. Or he just creeps in to watch his boys sleeping. “When the house is dead silent, that’s when I really take in how much I have in life,” Democko says. “It still amazes me on a daily basis. And I am so grateful.”