Most people are solemn and attentive in front of a judge.

But Alden is 3 years old, and he has the strings of four shiny balloons in his hands. So nothing else in the world matters, not even the judge who is sitting at the bench above the toddler.

“Welcome to District Court,” Judge Keith Powers says. “We are going to do a nice adoption today. Something very pleasant, which doesn’t always happen in court.”

Alden is in court today to be adopted by his foster parents, Rich and Napthali Maynard. As the hearing begins, he sits on Napthali’s lap and watches the balloons bob in the air. Their messages read, “Congrats!” and “It’s a Boy!”

Rich, 40, and Napthali, 35, met while working at a summer camp in upstate New York in 2006. She was a high school English teacher and he was a cook. They married three months later. Together, they decided to sell their belongings and travel the country. They eventually moved to Maine when Rich got a job at a resort. In 2011, the couple opened the first location of their quick-service sandwich shop called Mainely Wraps.

As the business grew, the Maynards decided they also wanted to grow their family.

When they learned they could not have children of their own, they began to explore other options. In vitro fertilization was too expensive. Overseas adoption required a long wait and also cost thousands of dollars. So they attended an information meeting on foster care and adoption in Maine in 2014. They went in planning to adopt a newborn baby, but they left feeling struck by the need for foster families.

“Once we knew the business was going to make it, we just sensed this responsibility,” Napthali said. “I thought, is my life really going to be just about selling sandwiches? There’s got to be more. We feel in a real sense that we were called to do this.”

Rich Maynard with his son, Alden. The Maynards began looking into foster care in 2014 once they felt that their business, the Mainely Wraps sandwich shop, was on solid ground. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

A TODDLER WHO ‘LOOKED SO LOST’

The Maynards became licensed foster parents.

They briefly hosted a pair of sisters who were eventually placed out of state with relatives. Then, in July 2015, Rich realized he had missed a voice mail about an 18-month-old boy who needed a foster family. He returned the call, and the Maynards picked Alden up from another foster home one week later, on July 12. At their home in Portland, they introduced the toddler to their two dogs. They brought him to his new bedroom full of toys.

“I remember we didn’t know what to do,” Napthali said. “He was looking at the tons of toys. There was a bike. There was a bear. There was a soft blanket he touched. He just looked so lost.”

But within days, Alden was calling Rich “Dad.” He got anxious if he was alone at bedtime, so Napthali slept on the floor in his bedroom with one hand in his crib. They learned Alden needs what is called a high-sensory diet, or a personalized activity plan to help him stay calm and focused. They hired extra staff for Mainely Wraps so they could be available to drive Alden to visits with his birth mom two to three times a week.

“He was excited to see her, but we were already crazy about him, so it was hard to see that,” Napthali said.

MOTHER MAKES A DIFFICULT CHOICE

When Alden was born, Ashley Lane named her baby after her favorite country singer, Jason Aldean.

On warm summer days, Ashley would push his stroller around Deering Oaks in Portland. They would listen to lullabies on her cellphone until it was time for the evening bus. At the time, they were living with her relatives in Westbrook.

Lane has four older children who have all been placed in foster care and adopted. She once struggled with addiction to crack cocaine but said she has been sober for five years. Lane said she doesn’t completely understand the reasons Alden was removed from her care, but she thinks the decision was related to her unstable housing and family situation. She was at work on June 26, 2015, when she learned that the state was taking her son.

“I tried everything to get my son back,” said Lane, now 27. “Anything and everything.”

Lane began living at the Oxford Street Shelter in Portland. She received parent coaching from the state in hopes of reuniting with her son. While Alden was in foster care, she described the state as fair and the Maynards as respectful. She was able to see Alden regularly and attend his medical appointments.

But after a year, she decided that the Maynards could provide a better life for Alden than she could. She voluntarily gave up her parental rights to her son. They spent a final visit together in August 2016, feeding ducks at the pond in Deering Oaks.

“I wasn’t really ready to sign him over, but I had to do what was better for my son,” Lane said.

Lane said her life is more stable now. She lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Portland and works at a convenience store. She keeps a gift from the Maynards in her new home – a quilt with pictures of Alden.

“I want him to know the truth,” Ashley said. “I tried my hardest. I tried my best to do right by him. He deserves it all.”

Ashley Lane, 27, Alden’s birth mother, works at a convenience store in Portland. When she was living at the Oxford Street Shelter, Lane chose to give up her parental rights. The Maynards gave her a quilt with pictures of Alden that she now keeps in her Portland apartment. Staff photo by Jill Brady

Napthali Maynard said she thinks of Lane’s sacrifice often. The day Lane gave up her rights to Alden last year, the two women cried together in the courtroom.

“It’s such a blessing, but I’m so aware of the tragedy that gave us this blessing,” Napthali said. “There’s a mom out there who doesn’t have her little boy anymore. That part sits with me really heavy. I feel like I have this responsibility to be everything for him, and I’m so thankful for it.”

She said the family will be open with Alden about his adoption and his birth mother.

“I’m excited to be able to tell him he was loved, and she wanted him,” Napthali said. “She just knew that he would be better in a different place. I hope that makes the story a little easier when those questions come.”

SPECIAL COURT DATE INTERRUPTS ROUTINE

Alden will turn 4 in January.

The Maynards now have two other foster children – a 1-year-old girl and a 3-year-old boy. Their house in Portland has a host of stockings hanging from the mantle. Alden’s is decorated with “Paw Patrol” characters.

On a normal day, Rich gets to work at 4 a.m. Napthali handles the morning routine. She drops the three toddlers off at their respective day care centers by 9 a.m. and then darts between Mainely Wraps locations, delivering freshly baked cookies and roasted turkey. Rich leaves work at 2 p.m. to pick up Alden and makes dinner. Napthali brings the other two children home in time to eat together at 5 p.m. When the kids are in bed, usually by 6 or 7 p.m., Rich and Napthali look over their accounts for the business.

Rich usually works Saturday mornings while Napthali spends the day with the kids. Sunday mornings are for church, and then a baby sitter watches the little ones for a few hours while the Maynards cover a shift at their Scarborough store.

“When Rich and I work together, it feels like a date,” Napthali joked.

This particular Wednesday, Dec. 20, is special, however.

Everyone in the Maynard household is home from work or day care. Alden does wall push-ups, one of the tricks he has learned as a way to burn energy. The boys are wearing matching button-down shirts in red-and-blue plaid.

“Alden, why are we matching?” Napthali says, wrapping him in a hug. “Because we are a – what?”

“A family,” Alden says.

Napthali runs to find a headband for the little girl, who is bouncing around in a red tutu. Alden turns a snow globe over in his hands. It is 12:25 p.m. – almost time to leave.

“Alden, come on,” Rich says. “We’ve got to put your coat on.”

Napthali Maynard, 35, with her foster children, a 1-year-old girl and a 3-year-old boy, plus Alden, also 3, at far right. “We are always going to love you,” she told Alden on Wednesday at his adoption hearing in Portland. “Welcome to our family.” Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Alden slips his arms into the coat backwards, then giggles as Rich fixes it. Napthali’s heels clack on the hardwood as she searches for her cellphone. Rich brings the kids out to the minivan in the driveway, next to the Mainely Wraps catering van. The Maynards clip buckles over the toddlers’ puffy coats in their car seats.

“I’ll get everybody some snacks,” Napthali says, passing out mini bags of Cheez-Its. “Let’s do this.”

Rich parks the van on Pearl Street near the District Court in Portland.

Napthali hoists the two younger children on her hips and steps carefully down the icy sidewalk. Rich hoists Alden onto his shoulders. The boy’s smile seems wider for his missing front teeth. At the door of the courthouse, Rich puts Alden down. Inside, Alden shakes the bailiff’s hand.

“Is it happy court day?” the bailiff asks as the Maynards file through the metal detector.

“Adoption,” Napthali says, beaming.

DOTING PARENTS MAKE IT OFFICIAL

Alden’s adoption hearing will take less than 10 minutes, but it has drawn a crowd.

Outside the second-floor courtroom are staff from the kids’ day care centers and Woodfords Family Services, where Alden goes to preschool. They give him the bunch of balloons. There is a little cluster of attorneys representing the Maynards and the state. Alden’s caseworker gives him a teddy bear.

The boy hugs Rich’s leg, suddenly unsure why so many people are looking at him. A few minutes after 1 p.m., the group files into the courtroom.

Powers is waiting at the bench. Absorbed in his balloons, Alden sits with Rich and Napthali. The other two toddlers had climbed onto the back benches with the staff from their day care.

“Mama,” the girl calls to Napthali, who turns around to smile and reassure her.

The judge opens the hearing. He explains that the state has deemed the Maynards suitable parents, and the crowd in the benches breaks into applause. He asks whether anyone in the audience would like to speak.

“In our tenure together, what I’ve learned is that the Maynards have huge hearts,” Sue Hughes, Alden’s caseworker, says. “I’m just so happy for him. There could not have been a better outcome for him.”

The judge starts to rise from his seat to deliver the adoption paperwork, but Napthali asks to speak.

She stands and thanks the people who have gathered at the hearing. She turns to Alden and scoops him off Rich’s lap. He is fixated on the strings of the balloons, sliding them between his little fingers.

“Alden, I just want to promise you three things today,” Napthali begins.

“I want to promise you that Mom and Dad, we are always going to tell you the truth,” she says, her voice thick with emotion. “We know this is just the beginning and there’s going to be hard questions that come. We are going to answer those questions with you together.”

She moves to the second promise.

“We are going to choose you,” she says. “When it comes to the business or when it comes to things that we thought you wanted – Hey, can you look at Mom, please? – you are always going to come first.”

Napthali Maynard hugs her son, Alden, after speaking Wednesday at his adoption hearing. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Alden tangles her hair in the balloon strings.

“And the last thing I’m going to promise you, Alden, is that we are always going to love you,” Napthali says, smiling and crying at the same time.

“Welcome to our family,” Napthali says, squeezing her newly adopted son.

With her touch, Alden’s attention is momentarily diverted from the balloons. He throws his arms around her neck and then buries his face in Napthali’s shoulder.

Still clutching the balloon strings in his hands, Alden holds this full-body hug for just a moment, like nothing else in the world matters.