Trystan Reese and John Chaplow of Los Angeles knew they wanted to have a family one day; they just weren’t in a rush – until a phone call catapulted the young couple into parenthood.
On a Friday afternoon in August 2011, Chaplow, then 25, got a call from a social worker who told him that his sister’s children, Riley, then 3, and Hailey, then 1, would be put into foster care at the end of the weekend – unless he could take them.
According to a probate investigator’s report, Chaplow’s sister and her boyfriend were struggling with substance abuse issues that created a neglectful environment. Chaplow and Reese were given just two days to decide to either take emergency custody of the kids or allow them to be put into the foster care system.
Reese, who is transgender, admits he had no immediate plans to become a parent, but he felt there was no question that they needed to help the children.
“My parents taught me that if a kid is in trouble and needs your help, you step up and help them, no matter what,” Reese says. “What you wanted for your life matters so much less than caring for kids.”
The situation hit especially close to home for Reese, who grew up with a foster sister who had been abused while in foster care and group homes.
“I was like, ‘I will never let that happen to these kids. Over my dead body,’ ” he tells PEOPLE.
So after they got the call, the couple drove to Chaplow’s sister’s house and picked up Riley and Hailey.
“I felt really proud to do my parents justice, but we did not know how hard it was going to be,” Reese adds.
The children came into the young couple’s care with a host of issues, both physical and emotional.
“They had night terrors,” Reese says. “So they were up sometimes all night long with nightmares, just screaming. ”
Riley, then 3, was mostly non-verbal, and as Reese explains, “he had a lot of emotional difficulties.”
“Any hint of any disappointment or anger from us, he would crumble to pieces,” Chaplow tells PEOPLE.
“Even if we had said, ‘Oh, Riley, careful sweetheart, that stove is hot,’ with even that level of admonishment, he would roll his eyes up in his head and just lie down on the floor,” Reese adds.
The first few weeks were an emotional roller coaster as Chaplow and Reese tried their best to make the children feel safe.
“We did the zoo and the beach, and they both had never been,” Reese says. “They’d never been read to.”
Even as Chaplow and Reese grew more and more attached to the children, they remained open to the possibility that the biological parents would one day be able to provide a suitable home for them.
“We thought maybe [their parents] would get their lives together, and we really wanted to give them that chance,” Chaplow adds. “But then the family situation there deteriorated very quickly, and that’s when we went to court to file for emergency guardianship.”
After being granted emergency guardianship, Reese and Chaplow filed to become the children’s permanent guardians. The legal proceedings lasted four years – a long process that drained them both financially and emotionally.
“It makes you feel totally insecure, like your family could be called into question at any time,” Chaplow says. “That’s what makes court so terrifying – every time you go, it’s like these people have the power to tell me we’re not their parents anymore.”
After being granted permanent guardianship, the couple decided to buy a house for their new family in Portland, Oregon.
“Being more grounded in nature and the community was really important,” Chaplow says. “The kids have their own room and they have a yard with a garden.”
In 2013, Chaplow and Reese were married. During the ceremony, they made a lifelong commitment to each other – and their children.
“I would say it’s like a dream come true, but it’s like the dream I never dared to dream,” Reese tells PEOPLE.
“That day, we were at the point of no return,” Chaplow says. “Even if Riley and Hailey were to leave us, we would follow them. We would live in the city that they lived and be in their lives no matter what.”
Reese says making that commitment to his family was beyond anything he could have ever expected.
“When you are a gay person – or for me, if you are gay and transgender – you don’t think you are ever going to get married. I pretty much thought that meant I wouldn’t ever get to have a family,” Reese tells PEOPLE.
On July 6, Chaplow and Reese officially adopted the two children in a ceremony in Los Angeles. Chaplow tells PEOPLE that his family “feels like a fairy tale.”
“Our life could’ve looked very different [without the kids],” he says. “We could’ve been going on vacation and doing lots of things, and Trystan answered a call that I don’t know a lot of people would have answered.”
“He’s just the most amazing dad you could ever imagine – he’s funny and he cares and he just loves me endlessly. I’m constantly blown away by it,” he adds.