From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
All the way back in high school, Mary-Jo Jackson knew what she wanted: kids. Lots of kids. To the point that when boys asked her on dates, she would quiz them about their own interest in having a large family. "And if they weren't interested, I wouldn't even have lunch with them," says Jackson, now 52. "Guys must have thought I was the weirdest kid on the planet."

They should see her now. Since marrying her college sweetheart, Michael Jackson, 32 years ago, Mary-Jo has given birth to seven children—and adopted 13 more. And they're not stopping. The Jacksons, who live in Lancaster, Pa., are currently guardians of two more children they hope to adopt legally—Lucy, an 11-year-old from Kazakhstan who is almost completely deaf and spent two years with a family in Virginia that put her up for adoption again; and Fiona, 2, from South Korea, who is learning to walk on prosthetic limbs after both of her legs had to be amputated because of birth defects. Since taking in their first adopted child in 1994, the couple have made a specialty of welcoming to their nine-bedroom home kids with disabilities or those who are too old for most prospective parents—just the type of child who often languishes in institutions for years.

Even so, the Jacksons say they are often criticized for taking on more than they can handle. "We get that constantly," says Mary-Jo, a stay-at-home mother who has a master's degree in child development. "People always think we do this because we get some kind of state subsidy, like foster care," says Michael, 51, the engineering manager of a pharmaceutical plant who supports the family with his $100,000 salary—and with no help from government or charities. In the past decade, dozens of American foster-care case workers have turned down the couple's requests for children, citing the large size of their biological family, forcing the Jacksons to turn abroad. Indeed, some experts in the field insist that integrating so many kids with so many physical and developmental problems into one giant family is simply not feasible. "I don't know how you dedicate yourself to 15 kids," says Thais Tepper, cofounder of the Parents Network for the Post-Institutionalized Child, a support group for families with children adopted from orphanages and hospitals abroad.

To that, the Jacksons have a ready answer: with patience and understanding. "We have a strong marriage and a strong family," says Mary-Jo, a Rhode Island native who grew up the oldest of four children, "so why wouldn't we take these kids in? It's something we're good at." She and Michael, who decided to start adopting after their two oldest children, Patrick, now 31, and Sara, 28, went to college, have added on to their house four times since then, allowing each child his or her own bed—and one hobby. In all, the kids play 10 sports, eat through $400 worth of groceries a week and, raised as Roman Catholics, last year received 11 holy sacraments, including a marriage, three first communions and three baptisms. Occasionally the older kids are called on to babysit, but Michael and Mary-Jo prefer to do all the bathing, bedtime reading—and, for now, the driving—themselves. "We didn't adopt these kids to be junior parents," says Mary-Jo.

While life chez Jackson is never luxurious—the younger children wear hand-me-downs until the sixth grade and dining out is a twice-a-year treat—their one-of-a-kind household is at least orderly and safe. "Mom is tough—I have to be home by 10 o'clock every night," says 17-year-old Clare, one of the pair's 11 Russian-born children (who, like all of the kids, now has an American name). Until the age of 11, Clare lived in an orphanage in the city of Tula, where children were fed meagre portions of porridge, soup and fish, and shared winter coats. "My classmates in America think my orphanage was like in the show Annie," she says in disbelief. Another of the couple's kids, Daniel, 16, was sent by another orphanage to live with a farmer who beat him unconscious. He remains so traumatized by his early years that he refuses to speak a word of Russian.

When it comes to the psychological damage already suffered by the children, says Mary-Jo, that's just the tip of the iceberg. "Even a 2-year-old has a history, and unless you're willing to work with that, you have no business adopting," she says. Gemma has sudden outbursts of anger so intense that last
year she had to be hospitalized for two days after bashing her head against the floor. Now she eats her meals at a small table in a corner of the crowded dining room, from which it's harder to disrupt the whole family, and her parents have prepared a "safe space" in her bedroom where they take her during the most severe episodes. (The Jacksons attribute her rage to the condition known as reactive attachment disorder, common among kids who didn't have a chance to bond with a caregiver during the first years of life.)

The children's various physical disabilities also keep everyone on the run. Last month the couple's 12-year-old son Bryan drove with Michael to Hershey, Pa., where he was fitted with a new prosthetic right leg—one of multiple medical appointments (covered by Michael's insurance) needed to deal with complaints as varied as poor eyesight, a cleft palate and the flu.

All this makes for a very noisy household, but also one that, at its best, offers something that many of the young Jacksons had despaired of ever experiencing—a second chance. For Eileen, 15, meeting her new dad at a Pennsylvania airport was a moment she'll never forget. "He gave me a big hug, and I felt this trust with him," she says. "Then I came here and everyone hugged me. And I thought, 'Wow, a new family!' "

Susan Horsburgh
Joanne Fowler in Lancaster

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

  • Contributors:
  • Joanne Fowler.