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A movie-maker, a teacher-turned-cop and their multicultural family

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Florence Starzynski faces an unusual problem when people ask her how many children or grandchildren she has. She’s never really sure how to answer. There are the two children she and her husband Paul raised from childhood: her natural-born son, Father Stefan P. Starzynski, chaplain at Inova Fairfax Hospital, and her adopted Korean daughter, Kim. There’s the pregnant teenager she housed and mentored, and the three children she fostered through the diocese’s unaccompanied minor program. 

But she is sure of one thing. Though she and Paul have accomplished much in their careers and in their half-century of marriage, the “kids” have been the most meaningful part of it all. 

Love and marriage

Florence was born and raised in Buffalo, and graduated from State University of New York at Oneonta with a teaching degree. She worked for a year in Buffalo before joining the Peace Corps, where they sent her to teach in South Korea. Both Paul and Florence were raised Catholic, but only Florence continued to practice her faith into adulthood.

Paul was born in Pittsburgh and graduated from Duquesne University with a degree in English. Through a scholarship, he earned a master’s at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. After a brief stint in the Army, he was hired to make movies for the U.S. Information Agency. He worked there for 30 years, “beyond my capabilities,” he joked. 

In 1966, the couple met after Paul was sent to make nation-building films in Korea, a strategy used by the U.S. government to encourage countries to embrace their own identities and resist foreign influence, particularly communist ideologies. Unbeknownst to him, Paul’s Korean employers played matchmaker and arranged picnics for the Peace Corps volunteers and their students to allow him to meet people, including Florence. 

Paul and Florence were engaged after three months of dating and married on a military base in Seoul April 1, April Fool’s Day. “So many people thought (the announcement) was a joke,” said Paul.

Florence rented her wedding dress for $25 from a beauty shop. Of their family, only Florence’s mother was able to make the trip. After the Mass, Paul’s boss threw them a reception. “We just showed up,” he said. 

Bringing up babies, stateside

Shortly after they were married, Paul’s job moved them to Laos. Florence left the Peace Corps and began teaching English as a second language there. In 1969, Father Stefan was born in Bangkok, where most of the women Florence knew went to give birth, she said. 

Both Paul and Florence had visited orphanages in Korea during their time there and felt called to adopt after Father Stefan was born. As any adoptive parent will tell you, Florence said, when you’re completing the paperwork, waiting for your child isn’t hard. But once you know who you’re going to adopt, the waiting is unbearable. Florence wanted her daughter to be home by Christmas, but the paperwork dragged on. So she went to Seoul to see if she could speed up the process.

“I was prepared to sit (in the orphanage) until the paperwork was ready,” she said. Fortunately, with her intervention Kim was with them in no time. Both Kim and Father Stefan were about a year old. 

In 1971, Paul was transferred to Washington and the family moved to Arlington. They joined St. Ann Church and moved into a house a stone’s throw away, where they live today. Father Stefan attended Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, then an all-boys school, and Kim attended Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington. After seeing an ad in the paper for women police officers, Florence joined the Arlington Police Department, where she worked in patrol and as an administrator for the next 22 years.

Welcoming the stranger

Around this time, Florence began to volunteer at a nearby homeless shelter. Soon, she was housing women whose time at the shelter had expired but still needed a place to stay. Over the years, a total of 12 women and their children stayed in the family’s basement. 

The situation was sometimes a little disorienting for Father Stefan and Kim. I never knew who would be in my house when I walked in, said Father Stefan. One of Florence’s coworkers joked, “Am I the only person in Northern Virginia without a key to your house?”

After they graduated high school, Father Stefan attended Gannon University in Erie, Pa., and Kim got a job in banking. Florence began to foster two Cambodian brothers, Vibol and Visal Huynh, and later Ayalew Gebreamlake, an Ethiopian teen. Florence put the money the government gave her to care for the boys to them after graduating from high school to be used for college.

The Starzynskis also housed a pregnant teen named Megan as she finished high school and made the difficult decision to place her child for adoption. They still see them all on a regular basis. 

Florence knows adoption and fostering isn’t for everyone. “It’s something you know you want to do, or not. You just know if it’s right for you,” she said. But for the Starzynskis, taking care of non-related children, meeting their foster child’s mother, sharing a home with another family or any number of unusual occurrences that happened because they opened their home to others eventually felt normal. But more than that, they were deeply enriching experiences. 

“We opened our home to all kinds of people (and) we never had any problems,” said Florence. Well, except for that one time. A Cuban refugee who had been placed with them stole their car and was on his way to Miami when the police pulled him over for running a red light. The Starzynskis didn’t even realize the car was missing until the police showed up at their door.

But they don’t hold a grudge. “Poor Pedro,” said Florence. He was just lonely and wanted to go home. 

Finding his faith

From 1985 to 1989, Paul and Florence had a long-distance marriage when Paul became the “attaché for television” in Japan. While there, he visited a Franciscan chapel. At that time, he said, “I didn’t understand what the Catholic Church was. I thought it was a branch of the Democratic Party,” he joked.

Then, the priest at the church handed him a folded piece of paper that said, “Called to be disciples of Christ.” All over Japan, Paul had seen people call themselves disciples of this or that guru. 

“If you have to be a disciple of someone, might as well pick the best,” he said. “(With Jesus), you couldn’t find a better role model.” Authors such as C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton helped him learn more about Jesus. “It changed my life,” he said.

After Japan, Paul returned to the United States, then worked in India, where he had the chance to meet St. Teresa of Kolkata. In 1995, both he and Florence retired. Florence went on to teach middle school for several years in inner city Catholic schools in Washington. She donated her salary back to the schools. Now, she runs the GED certificate program at a Washington jail. 

“I spend my time learning, and antagonizing people with my arguments,” said Paul.

They also spend time with their family and friends. This year, 50 years to the day after they were married, Paul and Florence gathered with their children, grandchildren and everyone in between to celebrate their anniversary.

“One of the things I tried to emphasize to the children (is that) you are what made the 50 years worthwhile. You are the ones that give us something to celebrate,” said Florence.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017