EASTON, Md. — Move over Jon & Kate Plus Eight. You’ve got nothing on Sharon and Michael Dennehy who are parents to 11 kids, ranging in age from four to 24.
This big, boisterous family in Ashland, Virginia has grown largely through adoption as the Dennehys learned of children around the world in need of a loving home.
The family breaks down like this: Erin, 24, Marissa, 22, and Ryan, 20, are biological; George, 17, born in Romania, adopted at 14 months; James, 15, born in India, adopted at 2 ½ yrs. (James was born without arms also); Caris, 14, born in China, adopted at age 10; Tamer, 11, born in Ethiopia, adopted at age 10; Tom, age 10, born in the US, became our foster child as a newborn and was adopted at age 1 1/2; Siobhan, age 8, born in the US (half sister to Tom), became our foster child as a newborn and was adopted at age 1 ½; Kali, age 8, born in Ethiopia, adopted at age 6; and Andi, age 6, born in Ethiopia, adopted at age 4.
The Red Thread talked to Sharon Dennehy about her family, her faith and her thoughts on adoption.
When did you first decide to adopt?
We started our first adoption process when our three biological kids were all about to be in school. That was 1993.
We began the home study process with Bethany Christian Services, an international adoption agency. We started the process requesting a healthy child from a Vietnamese orphanage. I had always wanted to make a child from an orphanage part of our family.
As the process continued, we received newsletters from the agency that had a page of “waiting children.” These are children who are harder to place because they have special needs.
A blurred black and white photo of a little three-month-old boy caught my attention. The caption read, “Little boy born without arms desperately needs a loving home. Healthy and normal in all other ways.” Well, that gripped my heart and I felt God telling me that Mike and I could parent this child with extra needs.
After some discussion and prayer between the two of us (since we had no experience with special needs), we moved forward in faith to adopt George.
How did your biological kids react to your decision to expand your family?
Erin, Marissa and Ryan had questions about how the adoptions would affect them, such as “Will we have to share this or that?” or “Where will the new child sleep” But generally they were very accepting of the idea of reaching out and helping a child without a mom or dad. They couldn’t imagine being in that situation themselves and were eager to help.
I think this reaction, was in large part, due to the way we’ve raised them. We have always taught and modeled for them that we are blessed to be a blessing to others, not to “hoard” the blessings for ourselves.
Your family has grown and grown and grown…what drives you to make room in your family, home and hearts for so many children?
Yes, our family has grown and grown and grown! We never planned to have such a large family, but something remarkable happens when you start serving others. You begin to feel as though you, the givers, are receiving even more than those who are receiving.
Some of your children have special needs. Can you talk some about that experience?
Most of our children have special needs, some more obvious than others. Two of our sons were born without arms and use their feet as hands. Raising these two boys has been an incredible journey. We had no experience or expectations when they joined our family, other than that we would love them and help them to meet their full potential.
Both boys have surpassed our wildest dreams for them. George has a special musical gift. He has learned to play the cello, guitar, bass and piano with his feet. He is in the orchestra at Patrick Henry High School in Ashland, VA and is a member of the worship band at our church.
James is an excellent student at Hanover High School and has a gift for problem solving. Whenever I can’t figure out a technical or computer problem, I ask James, and within minutes, he has his feet on the keyboard or the remote and he is fixing my problem.
Both boys are part of driver’s education and plan to learn to drive using their feet with only minor modifications to the vehicle.
Both boys are very sensitive to the needs of the less accepted members of society or those with special needs, primarily because they realize they were given the gift of a second chance; that they are where they are today because someone accepted them unconditionally and believed in them.
I know that after you adopted Kali and Andi from Ethiopia, that you learned that they had an older sister. It’s an incredible, joyous story. Can you tell us how you came to locate her and reunited the girls?
The story of our three Ethiopian sisters is amazing! We had heard of our two youngest, Kalkidan and Andinet, then ages 6 and 4, and how they needed a home. Their father was deceased and their mother was elderly and unable to provide basic necessities for them. Their adoption was complete in August of 2008.
Once the girls started to learn English, they began to tell us about an older sister, Tamer, who was essentially their caregiver, who had been left behind in Ethiopia. We think Tamer was not mentioned to us because the Ethiopians believed that an American would not be willing to take three siblings or a child of Tamer’s age.
I began to try to track Tamer down, and miraculously I found her and she became part of our family in April 2010.
The reunion of the three at Dulles airport when Tamer arrived was a beautiful sight to behold. That three-way hug went on forever!
Your family, with children from all over ther world is like a mini U.N.
Our family has been called a mini UN! I think our unity and love for one another is an everyday unspoken lesson to us and to those around us that this is the way people were meant to live: people of different races, ethnicities, and abilities living in cooperation and harmony.
You have completed both domestic and international adoptions. Can you talk about the differences between the two?
Most of our adoptions were international, but we did adopt our two children, Tom and Siobhan, domestically out of foster care.
Domestic and international adoptions are very different experiences. The tough part about international adoption is the cost (anywhere between $15,000 to $35,000). This is due to the cost of home studies, background checks, government immigration approvals, country of origin fees, legal fees, and post-placement reports. This is prohibitive for many families who otherwise would love to adopt. Many churches and adoption advocates are working on ways to help fund adoptions through low-interest loans or outright grants. Once over this financial hurdle, international adoption is usually a very secure choice.
Although domestic adoption isn’t as costly, (it is usually free if done through a state social services agency or if domestic and private, would incur modest legal fees in comparison to international adoption), it has it’s own complications. Most children who are placed up for adoption in the US start out in the foster care system when it is deemed that the birthparent/s is not able to adequately care for the child due to abuse or neglect. A child may have to endure several foster care placements and return visits to the birth family before a permanency plan can be established.
While no one wants to deny birth parents a chance to rehabilitate and have their children back, the system tends to err on the side of taking too long (several years) to establish permanency for a child, which can result in emotional damage for the child and frustration for the family hoping to provide a loving home for the child.
Big question: Any future adoptions on the horizon?
Although we don’t currently have any plans to adopt again— we’re working on paying for weddings and college tuition right now — we remain open-minded about the possibility. We feel that adoption is our calling and our ministry and it is our job to remain flexible to God’s will in our lives.
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