The Gift of Family

The Gift of Family
Greg Miller

11/01/2005 AT 04:30 PM EST

PEOPLE and CBS's Early Show partnered for a five-part series, "Heroes Among Us." This annual series pays tribute to five individuals whose stories of courage and commitment, strength and compassion were featured in PEOPLE during the past year. This story's honorees are John and Jeanette Murphy, originally featured in PEOPLE August 22, 2005.

Crowded it may be, but John and Jeanette Murphy's Atlanta home is also overflowing with love, laughter and hope. How do you raise a platoon of kids, most with Down syndrome? Members of the tribe spoke with PEOPLE's Joanne Fowler.

Jeanette Murphy, 53: Growing up in Maryland as one of eight kids, I became interested in mentally disabled kids through a boy on my street who had Down syndrome. He was just so adorable. Then in middle school I joined a mental health volunteer group and visited the children in the state institution. I felt broken seeing them warehoused there – they were hungry for love.

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When I was 20, I saw an advertisement for a job as a counselor in a group home for disabled adults. I got the job and soon knew that was what I would do with my life. The next year I met John, a licensed practical nurse working there. We were both hippies. At the time John was married and I was separated from my husband. We fell in love and got married after our divorces were final.

Many of the residents in the home had Down syndrome, and no one had taught them to bathe or dress themselves. Some were frustrated because they hadn't been taught basic skills like reading and writing. We both knew they could learn – I thought if I could work with people like this as kids I could teach them to grow up to be people who cared for themselves and for others as adults.

After that, we both tried finding jobs involving special needs children but had no luck. So we decided to adopt one. In 1983 we went to Lutheran Family Services in Virginia and requested a baby girl. We already had two biological sons, Christian, then 4 (now 26), and Shawn, then 7 (now 28). The agency asked if there were any medical problems or disabilities that we didn't want in an adopted child. John and I talked and told them: "We can't refuse any. We'll take any disability." Our first child, Shannon, now 28, had a severe brain injury. Over the next four years, I gave birth to two more children. Eventually we adopted 22 more kids, most of whom have Down syndrome. Both of our families supported us and treated the kids like our own. About 18 years ago we moved to Georgia to be close to my grandparents. We've added on to our house twice just to fit everybody.

Most of our children also have serious medical problems, like congenital heart defects and abnormal bowels. I've sat through 14 heart surgeries for 13 kids, each four to six hours long, panicking every time a doctor rushed down the hall. We've dealt with colostomies, tracheotomies and 24-hour care with these kids. Over the years, five of our children have died – three as babies – and my world fell apart every time. Those were the only times I wondered about what we had chosen to do: Could I go through this much pain?

But there are rewards too. We teach the adopted kids the same way we taught our biological kids – with patience and consistency. If they act up, we give them a time-out. Three years ago, I started homeschooling all the children because we felt the kids weren't learning as much as they could. We saw how our daughter Angela, who came to us at the age of 15 and is now 36, could only read a few preschool words despite years of public school education. We felt we could teach them more.

Now most of the kids wake up, make their beds and cook eggs for breakfast. Some are learning sign language. And because Down children tend to gain weight and have low muscle tone, we keep them on a healthy diet – lots of fruits and vegetables – and have them swim in our backyard pool every day, from April to October. All of them have made huge strides, even my sons Jeremy and JoJo, who have IQs of 25. The exercise has done wonders in improving the kids' self control. We can even all go out to dinner at a restaurant and everyone is polite and quiet.

Our goal is for the kids to behave in a socially appropriate way so they can eventually get jobs. One of our teenage daughters, Amy, is already able to work, and her younger brother Noah should be able to when he's in his teens. If we ever have the money we want to buy enough land to build a second house for the older kids, where they can live semi-independently.

We never expected to adopt this many children. Some people ask why we do this. They figure we must have an ulterior motive, like getting money from the government. It makes me feel so terrible, but in my heart I know we are sincere. I guess we just march to the beat of our own drummer. It's true we get disability payments to help with the kids, but you don't see a Mercedes in my driveway. We struggle.

Down syndrome kids have so much more to give than people realize. All of my kids have exceeded my expectations. I am happiest when I see them helping one another, like the other day when our 10-year-old daughter Mia fell down and scraped her knee in the yard. Cody and Nathan, who are 14 and 10, brought her inside for a Band-Aid. I see how much love they have everyday. It makes it all worthwhile.

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