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Cannelton couple answers call to adopt kids in need

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Every workday, Mitchell Willis, 2, stands at the door waiting for his father, Terry Willis, to come home from his job in the coal mines. He's already greeted his seven school-age siblings as they returned from their day in classroom and spend the rest of the day with his mother, Sherri, and infant brother Micah.

The Willis family is unusually large by modern standards. The children and their parents are special by any standard.

Terry and Sherri Willis have adopted four boys and two girls from South Korea, one girl from Guatemala and two American-born little boys. Including their biological daughter Megan Faith, they are a family of 12.

Most of their adopted children have special needs, ranging from a son at risk for fetal alcohol syndrome, a daughter whose chromosomal makeup could have resulted in mental retardation, a son born without a rectum and another with spina bifida.

The Willises' willingness to accept children with special needs fast-tracked the international adoption process, as well as their two recent domestic adoptions. Sherri researched her options with a group called Rainbow Kids. They found their youngest son, Micah, through Special Angels, a group that advocates special-needs adoptions.

Mitchell was born addicted to the morphine his birth mother abused during her pregnancy. He was released to the Willises when he was 3 days old. Sherri nursed him through withdrawal, including tremors and constant crying for more than two months. "He had to be rocked and swaddled all the time to comfort him," she said. Today he runs and tumbles with his siblings, usually with his characteristic shy smile.

Baby Micah has had numerous surgeries in his 5 1/2 months of life to insert the parts of his spine and nerves into their proper place in his back; they were outside his body when he was born. He has myelomeningocele, the most severe of the three types of spina bifida. His cerebellum sits low on the spine and fluid won't drain off his brain. Doctors inserted a shunt; a tube down his spine drains it. Doctors recently discovered a heart abnormality as well.

Plump and smiley, Micah is not paralyzed, but it's too soon to tell if he will walk because of the nerve damage he has suffered to his spine and nerves during surgery.

As might be expected, medical care for the children is expensive.

"It's not the everyday life that takes so much money, but it is the adoption fees, medical expenses and travel for surgeries and appointments. It's extra money that we really don't have," Sherri said.

Their eldest daughter, Megan, 20, recently set up an online account for people who might want to help with expenses associated with Micah's care. She also set up a Facebook site called "Miracles for Micah."

Accepting the call

The Willises believe they are uniquely suited for their challenging adoptions. "I am a nurse and I prayed that God would let my nursing somehow help kids. It's all faith-driven. It's like our ministry for the Lord," she said. "We do it because there are so many kids like this who need homes."

Just before Micah came to them, Terry's salary was significantly reduced during a downsizing at the mine. Sherri had given up her nursing job with its 12-hour shifts in November to care for Mitchell. People asked Sherri why they would proceed with Micah's adoption, which would entail extensive medical expenses.

"There are a hundred people out there who want perfect babies. We were the only people on our list who would take a special-needs baby when we got Micah," she said.

The Willises receive no public financial assistance for any of the children. People often assume they do, perhaps mistaking them for foster parents. Although it pains Sherri that people think they receive aid, she's always happy to field questions about her family in the hope that others might considered international and special-needs adoption.

"We do wonder how we'll pay for the adoptions, but somehow the money comes and it works out for us," Terry said. "You just can't put a price on a child's life."

In the beginning

When Terry, 44, and Sherri, 48, married 23 years ago, they both wanted to have a big family. They welcomed the birth of their daughter, but were devastated when Sherri suffered five subsequent miscarriages.

"We realized that God had other plans for us," said soft-spoken Sherri. "We prayed about it a lot and then decided we would adopt."

They considered foster parenting and signed up for the required classes but left before they completed the program because of a disturbing scene they witnessed.

During the class, a distraught foster family was in the hall outside the courtroom saying a tearful goodbye to little boy who they had fostered. A judge had ordered him returned to his birth parents.

"We found out later that they killed him. So I knew I couldn't get attached to a child then have to [return him or her to a bad situation]," she said.

The Willises chose international adoption because they were told the wait for domestic adoptions was 15 years. "We also decided to go internationally because it is more or less guaranteed that if you get matched with a child and you take one, they're not going to take him back."

The Willises adopted from Korea in part because adoptive parents were not required to undertake the expensive travel to pick up the child if the child was 2 years old or younger. At the time, Korean authorities brought the young children to the United States.

The process starts through an agency. Applicants fill out complicated paperwork then submit to an international home study. Burlington United Methodist Family Services in Charleston conducted nine home studies of the Willises.

The process leading up to their first adopted child, Mackenzie, took about 12 months.

Matthew came along next. They moved to a smaller, more affordable home in 2000 after his arrival, because they realized they couldn't handle the expense of future adoptions and maintain their large house.

"I hear people say all the time that they'd like to adopt, but they're not rich. We're not rich. We've paid adoption loans for 16 years," Sherri said.

A typical adoption from Korea costs about $20,000.

Today, they live in a modest home in Cannelton that is a far cry from the large riverfront home they left in Montgomery. When the family of five moved into it, the 1,100-square-foot house had just two bedrooms and a small bathroom.

Terry, who has a contractor's license, eventually built three more bedrooms, two bathrooms and a spacious kitchen and dining area furnished with two specially made picnic-size tables and benches.

The tables accommodate the family, which includes Mackenzie, 15, Matthew, 14, Morgan, 11, Max, 10, Michael, 8, Mollie, 7, Madison, 6, Mitchell, 2, and infant Micah.

Megan lives in Twentymile with her husband.

That makes 10 children in 23 years. When people hear that they have that many children, they inevitably and coyly ask if they know what's making that happen.

"Terry tells them that if he could just keep his wife off the Internet, it would probably help. They're all confused then," she said. "He just laughs at them."

Making it work

Sherri gets up with Terry at 3:50 a.m. and he's out the door at 4:30 a.m.

During the school year, she gets Mackenzie up at 5 a.m. and drives her to catch the bus to Riverside High School, a ride of 1 hour 45 minutes. They live in Fayette County, but Mackenzie remains in Kanawha County schools, where she started. She catches a ride home in the evenings after band practice with an aunt who works near the school.

After leaving Mackenzie, Sherri runs back home and gets Matthew up and into the shower. She rouses and feeds the other five children while Matthew heads out to catch the bus to Valley High School. The grade-school-age children get dressed and grab breakfast, with Mitchell and Micah vying for attention as well.

"The kids are good. They'll watch Mitchell and Micah while I'm getting everyone else ready. My Morgan loves holding them. He'll hurry and get dressed so that if we have problems, he's ready to hold somebody," she said.

Sherri's parents live just down the road, and her father takes the five younger children to the bus stop.

The morning bathroom rush is somewhat alleviated by having most of the children bathe the night before. Sherri curls Mollie's and Madison's hair every morning and smoothes any of the boys' hair that sticks up.

"Last year, we had a kid in every grade at Valley Elementary except for third grade. And I was homeroom mother in the fourth grade," she said.

The children are all A and B students. The Willises hope the children go to college. "We'll help them as much as we can. I paid my own way through college twice," Sherri said.

The boys play baseball, including Matthew at Valley High School. Friday nights in the fall mean football games to see Mackenzie in the marching band. The younger boys play on the baseball field near the house.

Sherri and Terry attend as many games as possible, but, "We can't be at all those away games every night," she said.

Blessings

Many of the disabilities predicted for the children haven't materialized. One son's flattened head was caused only by a repeated sleeping position and easily corrected. A daughter born with three X chromosomes could have been severely mentally challenged but isn't. They hope the potential reproductive issues she could face also fail to occur.

A son born without a rectum has had corrective surgery, nursed along by Sherri, and has no side effects as long as he follows his prescribed diet. Their Guatemalan daughter doesn't show signs of developing the tooth and bone deformities predicted for her. Her adoption nearly didn't happen.

"They closed the orphanage where she lived right after we got her. They said, 'Just throw those children in the street.' When we got there, she was so hungry she ate 19 jars of baby food in two days," Sherri said.

When the Willises reached their five-child limit in Korea (they were granted a waiver for Madison, their sixth from Korea, because she was older than the typical adoptee), they adopted from Guatemala.

Mitchell is in good health. Only Micah's prognosis is in question.

Megan helps her mom when she can, but is a full-time student studying respiratory therapy. Her mother insists that school be her priority. Megan doesn't remember a time when her family was small. They adopted Mackenzie when Megan was 5 years old.

"It just made life more fun. I had more playmates," she said.

Her willingness to help with her siblings has set a good example for the younger children, who help as well, a fact that heartens Sherri.

"It's like maybe we did something right. It's hard to teach caring," Sherri said.

Sherri expects that Micah will be their last adoption, largely because of financial constraints.

"If God wants us to have one, we will. If he doesn't, he'll close the door. Which he has done before, and then later we've seen why it wouldn't have worked out," she said of previous matches that didn't materialize.

She and Terry are also grateful for the tremendous support they receive from their friends at nearby Carbondale Baptist Church. They hope their story inspires other people to consider special-needs adoption.

"There's nothing so hard that you can't work through it. It just takes extra love and patience," Sherri said. "It's doable. You love them just like the rest. To you, there's no difference."

For more information on international and special-needs adoptions, email Sherri Willis at twillis834@aol.com. Visit Burlington Family Services at www.bumfs.org for information on home studies.

Related story: Parents needed for international kids with medical needs

Julie Robinson is a former Gazette staff writer. Reach her at julial@suddenlink.net.


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