The Gift of Family

updated 08/22/2005 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/22/2005 01:00AM

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.

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 every day. It makes it all worthwhile.

Noah, 13, is known as Casanoah in the Murphy house for his habit of greeting women with a kiss on the hand. He came to the family after 11 months in foster care in Virginia. Despite limited language ability because of his Down syndrome, the outgoing youngster shares his thoughts with his mom's help.

I love to be outside, riding bikes, swimming or playing ball. I roller-skate a lot and always wear my helmet.

Every morning I wake up and make my big sister Amy her special sandwich with ham, cheese, mustard and pickles. She loves it. I also know how to make toast, salad and burritos. My other job is picking up the mail. Some days, I wait for the mailman for a half hour.

My family takes us to the circus. I love seeing the elephants and lions. My parents let me eat popcorn and potato chips there. I love our trips to Myrtle Beach every year. I make sand castles and buy souvenir necklaces. We also ride three-wheel bikes on the beach. I have so much fun with my brothers and sisters.

Amy, 19, was born with Down syndrome in Florida and came to the Murphy household at four weeks via a private adoption agency. She talks about her life with help from her mom and sister Bethany.

It's fun having a lot of brothers and sisters. I always have kids to do things with. My sister Nikki, who died [of a brain aneurysm at 9], used to teach me how to read. Now I can read the Bible or the encyclopedia.

I share a room with my sister Lindsey, who is 17. She bugs me big-time. She bugs me when I'm trying to do my homework and calls me names like Chicken Legs.

My parents call me "mini-mom." I give everyone their vitamins at 5 o'clock and make sure somebody takes out the trash. My mom pays me $5 every time I vacuum. I use the money to buy Lunchables, my favorite snacks.

For my birthday in June, Bethany took me and Lindsey to see the movie Madagascar. It was really fun. I also got a Clay Aiken CD and a police officer outfit. I like to watch the police women on the TV show Missing. Now I give my brothers and sisters tickets when they do something wrong-like leave trash on the table.

I also help take care of my sister Kristina [3] and change her diapers. In September I'm going to start working with special-needs babies at the Little Engine Learning Center in Atlanta. I am really excited. I love kids.

Bethany, 17, is the youngest of the Murphy's four biological children. The aspiring actress lives at home with her family.

When I was born, there were already 11 kids in the house. Every time we took in a new child it was so exciting. I was about 8 when my parents heard about Mia, a 7-month-old baby in foster care in Virginia. She arrived by ambulance and was so tiny-hooked up to an oxygen tank and with a feeding tube in her stomach. She's a lot stronger now and now we're really close. I like to buy her cute clothes and show her off. She's been a big light in our lives.

I first got my own room when I was 14. Before that I shared a room with Amy, who's now 19. We got along fine, but she snored a lot. She's like my little sister even though she's older.

My friends don't really feel awkward around my brothers and sisters except maybe the first time they visit. But they soon realize how funny and friendly my siblings are. My best friend used to practically live at our house. She spent more time with us than with her own family.

Lots of 17-year-olds are self-centered, but we can't be that way in our house. Even without all these kids, my parents would have raised us to think of others. They taught me so much about love and what's a real family.

I have my moments of frustration-like when my siblings take my makeup and carry it around in their backpack for weeks, or throw it in the creek. We say there's a black hole in our house.

But I am so proud of them. When we all go out to a restaurant, people stare at us and get nervous, expecting my brothers and sisters to start throwing food. But they end up acting just fine. Almost every time somebody compliments them on their good behavior.

In March my parents were honored as some of the top 100 Irish-Americans [alongside actor Liam Neeson] in New York. I babysat everyone for two days. It wasn't hard. We had lots of fun.

I want to have a large family someday, but probably not this large. It depends on how many kids I can afford working as an actress. I am definitely going to adopt Down syndrome children. My brothers and sisters have brought so much joy into my life.

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