Full House

updated 10/24/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/24/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

SIX YEARS AGO, IF CAMILLE AND MICHAEL GERALDI got a sudden urge to go to the beach, they'd simply hop into the ear with daughters Henae and Jaclyn and step on the gas. Today such outings are more complex. Since 1986, the family has expanded to include 15 adopted children between the ages of I and 5, each of whom has a severe physical defect, a neurological disorder, Down syndrome—or a combination of impairments.

In addition, two other brain-damaged youngsters and four mentally handicapped adults live at the Geraldis' two-house compound in the Miami suburb of Kendall. Small wonder (hat in 1988 Camille gave up driving her Mercedes to take the wheel of a 21-seat bus roomy enough for her brood, the volunteers needed to watch the children, and an array of emergency medical gear: oxygen, heart monitors and suction tubes. Many of the young adoptees had little hope of survival. Yet under the tender care of the Geraldis, they have shown heartening improvement.

"Do you know what it's like to get a near-comatose child and watch what happens with love and attention?" asks Camille, 43, a former pediatric nurse. Adds Mike, 48, a pediatrician who practices in Kendall: "What we do is spiritually and emotionally rewarding. It's not financially rewarding, but we've had all that. How many cars and boats can you have?"

Few people would enthusiastically relinquish such material possessions (not to mention privacy and freedom), but the Geraldis thrive on their responsibilities. "It fulfills me to help these children. It is a need I have," Camille concedes. "I don't know how to stop giving."

In fact, from the minute Camille Martone, daughter of a successful garment manufacturer, met Mike, son of a beer salesman, it was clear that the native New Yorkers were meant for each other—and that Camille was meant to care for others. As an overweight child, she was sensitive to physical imperfections; she still remembers that at the charity picnics her father sponsored "I always gravitated toward the kids who were the worst off." Mike moved to Miami in 1972 to begin his residency at Miami Children's Hospital—where Camille was working. "She was as big as she is now, but I didn't care," he recalls. "I was immediately attracted to her. She'd be on the front lawn having lunch with the sickest kids, even kids on ventilators. She'd say, 'Kids need to feel grass.' It just astounded me."

After dating for two years, says Camille, "we got married to adopt handicapped children." Their plans were delayed by the births of Renae and Jaclyn. By 1985, the Geraldis had accumulated the trappings of the upper middle class (a backyard pool, his Porsche, her Mercedes, a motor home), but on a weekend camping trip she turned to Mike and said, "I can't live this way anymore. I don't enjoy my life. I don't feel fulfilled. I was meant to help people." She began calling adoption agencies.

Ten months later an agency specializing in Down babies called with news of a deaf, half-black, half-Cherokee, severely retarded infant. With their daughters' blessings, the Geraldis adopted the girl and renamed her (as they have each new child). Darlene, now 5, has been joined by Tiffany, also 5; Champ, Woody and Mariah, 4; Karley, Courtney, Seth, Jo-Layne and Brooke, 3; Matthew, Adelle, Kellie-Ann and Kyle, 2; and Christopher, 1. (Non-adoptees Derrick, 8, and Sandriana, 2, live with the Geraldis full-time, along with four impaired adults.)

Camille's day starts before dawn, when she greets the morning shift of three staffers employed by the couple's nonprofit Up With Down Syndrome Foundation, founded in 1986. She helps wake, wash and dress the 17 children, who are then taken to their 17 bowls of Cheerios and 17 spill-resistant cups of milk. After breakfast, 11 of the impeccably groomed youngsters depart for special schooling. When Mike leaves at 7:30 A.M., Camille naps for two hours then checks on the first of the day's 12 loads of laundry.

After lunch, it gets even busier. Doorbells buzz, phones jangle, and Bernadette, their 14-year-old boxer, barks. Visitors can include birth parents, who are encouraged to see their children (the Geraldis have even reversed one adoption). To stimulate her kids mentally and physically, Camille swims, exercises and plays peekaboo with them. At 5 P.M., the youngest eat supper; then Camille cooks for Mike and the others. He supervises the after-dinner cleanup, while she spends time with Renae and Jaclyn. "We have tried not to impose this on the girls," Camille says. "If they want to help, we pay them."

Around midnight, Mike climbs into the couple's waterbed in a room shared with two of the children, Adelle and Matthew, who have multiple heart defects. Jo-Layne, whose colostomy bag must be changed twice before dawn, sleeps in a crib outside the master bedroom; seven others share a nursery, and five of the retarded children, who are prone to night screams and head banging, sleep in the "crying room" down the hall. Camille keeps vigil in a blue-velvet La-Z-Boy lounger in the nursery, catnapping when she can.

Camille also oversees the foundation's programs—counseling families, helping find homes for hard-to-place kids and teaching handicapped adults self-sufficiency—which, at her insistence, are free of charge. "When I got married," she explains, "I told Mike that my work with the handicapped would always be free—I just wanted to give something back to the world." Their foundation survives on a token annual grant from the Community Committee for Developmental Handicaps and modest private donations—and, most of all, from Mike's practice which has already provided some $800,000).

As hard as the Geraldis work at nurturing their children, they make sure not to neglect each other. They have a standing Wednesday lunch date and every other Saturday check into a nearby resort for 24 hours. "Our relationship works because of his caring," she says of Mike. "He's the greater person because he gave up everything, and all he demands from me is that day off."

Their family life is not without pain. The Geraldis have not adopted a child since Joelle, a Down syndrome baby, died in February at age 7 months of heart, lung and gastrointestinal problems. "No one can understand the anguish parents feel when they lose a child," says Camille. Yet Joelle's bassinet, brimming with stuffed animals and capped with a heart-shaped balloon, remains standing outside Mike and Camille's bedroom. "Until that balloon completely deflates," she vows, "I'm not taking the crib down."

Today the Geraldis are marshaling their resources in the hope of buying a 20-acre farm west of Miami, where as many as 100 disabled children and adults could learn lessons in self-sufficiency. "My kids are so cool—but think how cool they'd be if they weren't retarded," Camille says. "I don't have a moment's regret. I look at other people and think, 'What a dull life they have.' "

—T.C.; MEG GRANT in Kendall

From Our Partners