Our 25 Sons

updated 02/02/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/02/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

As a 5-year-old, Anne Belles drew a crayon picture of her future self. "When I grow up, I want to be a mom and take care of my children," she told her teacher, who wrote her words down in a caption. That modest goal became a more ambitious plan at age 9, when Belles became inspired by the musical film Oliver! "When I left the movie, I wanted to adopt boys," says Belles. "I stayed really focused on that."

To say the least. Today Belles, 40, and her husband, Jim Silcock, 41, are parents to an astonishing 25 boys, all but three of them adopted (those three will be adopted by April), all with learning, medical or physical disabilities and most from abusive homes. The kids come to the couple's nine-bedroom Huntington Beach, Calif., household from as far away as Russia, range in age from 3 to 25 and struggle with a variety of developmental delays. What they have in common is that no other prospective parents took them home. "We get, in a way, chipped and broken china," says Belles. "It's our job to move it forward."

Paul, a 9-year-old with spina bifida, had lived in eight foster homes in little more than two years before the couple took him in three years ago. Hunter, 16, who suffers from cerebral palsy and is wheelchair-bound, was living with a South Carolina foster family when Belles and Silcock saw his profile on an Internet adoption site in January 1999 and brought him to their home. Barry, 19, who has spina bifida and breathes through a tracheal tube, says the kids' disabilities draw them together: "It makes it special knowing that I'm not alone in this family." So does finally finding loving parents after years of drifting between institutions and foster homes. When he first met Belles and Silcock, "I knew they weren't going to be mean to me," says Jeffrey, 10, who has spina bifida. "I could tell by the look on their faces."

What makes the couple even more extraordinary is that they had to overcome their own personal adversities: In 1987 a diving accident left Silcock paralyzed in all four limbs. Rather than wallow in self-pity, he serves as a role model for the boys, directing them as they prepare supper and tutoring them in algebra. When Hunter was having difficulty completing even the most basic tasks, says Belles, "Jim would offer up encouragement. He'd say, 'It took me three months to learn to brush my teeth after my accident.' And Hunter would feel so good."

To help with finances the couple receive funding from sources such as the Adoption Assistance program, a federal program that provides medical insurance and about $1,200 monthly for each of the 14 children under 18 who were adopted within the U.S. They also get help from a network of 14 health professionals—including a massage therapist, a speech therapist and nurses—and four volunteer aides. Belles and Silcock also make money running a business that provides services for adults with disabilities who need special assisted-living arrangements. When the kids expressed an interest in performing, Belles got all of them professional head shots and an agent. Now they too earn income—which goes directly into their own trust funds—by acting in commercials and in small roles on TV shows that so far have included Boston Public, Malcolm in the Middle and Judging Amy.

Though adoption professionals usually caution against such large households, they say Belles and Silcock are the rare exception. "It's unusual, if not rare, for people to be able to care for so many children adequately," says Adam Pertman, who runs New York City's Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. "What they have is will."

Typically, white infant girls are considered the most desirable of adoptees, which is why Belles and Silcock focus on those left behind. "Who's the lowest guy on the totem pole? An older ethnic male with disabilities," says Belles. "So that's most of our kids." Often, those children present the most challenges. Phillip, 11, and Nikolai, 15, grew up in Siberian orphanages before being adopted by Belles and Silcock. At first they were little terrors, with one or the other urinating on the neighbor's lawn, darting into traffic, flooding the bathtub and stealing candy from stores. Belles's response to such outbursts? A combination of "love and logic," she says. When it comes to discipline, she and Silcock try to replace the erratic and often abusive punishments the boys encountered earlier with rational rules. "If you spill your milk, you clean it up," says Belles. "We're trying to get them to learn that there are natural consequences, but they're predictable."

Shortly after Hunter came to the family, he destroyed his electric wheelchair by driving it into a wading pool at a water park. "You go your entire life in survival mode, then come to a place where you can finally relax," says Hunter, who has since benefited from the home's stability as well as counseling. "For some people, that's hard to cope with."

Belles and Silcock shrug off any suggestion that they're exceptional—or, for that matter, crazy. "It wasn't like we sat down and said, 'Here is the game plan, honey: We're going to adopt 25 children within 5 years, we'll get 6.8 a year," says Silcock. "We just met good kids and said, 'Okay, we'll adopt him into our family.' " And unlike biological parents, who often feel irrationally responsible for their children's disabilities, Belles says feelings of guilt never hinder her: "We picked these kids, so we just move ahead."

For Belles, improving the lives of children has always been that simple. As a teenager in Huntington Beach, she began volunteering at a high school serving students with severe disabilities. "She had a heart for working with the most difficult kids," says Sallie Dashiell, who was a speech pathologist at the center. The pair became friends, and when Belles was 19 and Dashiell was 30, they took in a foster child together: a 17-year-old girl whose father had burned cigarettes into her hands and whose mother felt unable to protect her. Within five years, the two women, assisted by a staff of 15, were caring for 10 foster children in two homes they had bought.

Dashiell married in 1987 and some of the children also moved on, but Belles continued taking in foster children on her own. She was single and caring for eight boys in 1998 when she happened upon the Internet profile of Silcock, an Army veteran who had been a carnival worker and aircraft welder before his 1987 accident. "He wrote me that he's not looking to date anyone, and I wasn't either," she says, but five months later they married, and soon they began adopting the children now in their care. "Every time she'd get another, I'd say, 'Are you crazy? You've got 10, do you need 11?' " says friend Carol Butterfield. "She'd say, 'Yes, I do.' "

For now, at least, Belles and Silcock are content with their full house. Five of their grown children have moved out to their own apartment, which has created a little more space in their two-story house. Organized chaos still reigns, shot through with bursts of tenderness. When Anthony, a high school senior with spina bifida, finally settled in after the couple formally adopted him last March, he says, "I waited until it was perfectly right, and then I started calling them Mom and Dad." For Belles, such moments are just as she had pictured it, in crayon, all those years ago.

Thomas Fields-Meyer. Strawberry Saroyan in Huntington Beach

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