'Family is everything'

An Alabama couple adopted 12 children, nine of whom have special needs.

Melanie Stetson Freeman
Smiles: Brian, Tucker, and Tia Gardner share jokes and play together.
Melanie Stetson Freeman
Rick plays with his sister Lynden as their mom, Beverly, looks on.
Photos by Melanie Stetson Freeman - staff
In the kitchen, children gather when Beverly passes out treats.
Chip, 10, takes a math test at home.
Photos by Melanie Stetson Freeman - staff
Like father, like son: Chip Gardner, one of 12 multiracial children adopted by Sam Gardner and his wife, Beverly, 'helps' his dad mow the lawn outside their home in Birmingham, Ala.
Melanie Stetson Freeman
In the kitchen, children gather when Beverly passes out treats.

Beverly and Sam Gardner never thought they'd have 16 kids. But after their four biological children were born, they started adopting – and couldn't stop. Eventually, 12 more children were added to the family. Each one has a story.

"Chip [now 10] was 6 months old when we got him. He'd been put in a book bag, zipped up, and put in the trash," Bev says, explaining the early days of one of her children. He was rescued after the house where he lived caught fire and one of the firemen discovered him in the garbage behind the house.

"Johnny [now 12] was 3-1/2 months early because of his mother's drug abuse. She basically abandoned him in the hospital," Bev continues.

The Gardners adopted Johnny, who can't see and had been diagnosed with cerebral palsy, despite warnings from doctors that he might be a "vegetable."

"He definitely is not!" his mother says.

The Gardners' adopted children are black, white, Latina, and biracial. Nine of them have special needs. None of that bothered the Gardners. Neither did predicted problems.

"Once you fall in love with a child, that's your child, and all the fear just goes away," Bev says. "Once we heard the terrible stories, we couldn't say no."

Bev and Sam both come from big families. After three of their biological children arrived prematurely, the couple decided that since they wanted more, they would adopt. They are Caucasian, but were happy to adopt black or biracial children, who are harder to place.

After the Gardners' first two adoptions, they came into contact with state organizations that help find homes for at-risk children. After hearing the stories about these children, the Gardners became foster parents, caring for more than a hundred special-needs children for periods as short as a couple hours to as long as a few years.

Whenever parents gave up the rights to any of these children over the years, the Gardners adopted them. "More than likely, if they left [the Gardners'], they would've gone to a group home or some kind of place for special-needs children," Sam says. He and his wife felt it was important to give them a real home.

Older children and children with disabilities are very difficult to place, says James Tucker, a lawyer and associate director of the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program. Combine the two, and it's almost impossible to find families willing to take on the challenge.

"Children that come to [the Gardner] home do not get turned out," he adds. "We see an alarming number of cases where kids come into foster homes and are not part of that home. With [the Gardners], there's never a doubt that those children are, and remain, a part of that family."

The work involved in having so large a family is constant. "I've had people come in and say: 'You need nurses,' " Bev says, "but my children aren't sick. They have disabilities, but they're healthy, they're whole."

Everyone pitches in

The Gardners' six-bedroom, two-story home is surprisingly calm and amazingly clean. All 13 children living at home, ranging in age from 6 to 28, have chores.

Brian, who is 9, has become little Lynden's constant companion. Since she can't walk, he pushes her around in her stroller and entertains her with rub-on tattoos.

Tony, 16, helps care for Johnny, 12, and Destin, 14, changing their diapers and helping to feed them. Tony carries Johnny wherever he needs to go – even though they're almost the same size.

Bev home-schools eight of the children. "They weren't getting what they needed and were getting left behind," she explains. "I know what my kids need. I know how slow they go. We can make things the way they can do the best, and they've done well."

She had doubts about home-schooling in the beginning. "I never thought I could do it. But it's actually been easier. Sending them to public school was harder. This is a good fit for us."

Support from many sources

Supporting such a large family is challenging – especially with healthcare costs and the special medical equipment some of the children require. Sam has worked as a shoe salesman at a local department store for 30 years.

The family receives subsidies from the state for the most severely challenged kids, and the community helps.

A local company has bought the children's Christmas presents since 2001. A church group renovated the family's kitchen and dining room.

"A lot of people [who help] say: 'We do this because we can't do what you're doing, so we want to give back in some way,' " Bev says.

"Having one [child] with a disability is a lot of work," says Rod White, director of a baseball league for special-needs children and adults – where the Gardner family has its own team.

"Having a family of children with disabilities is something I can't comprehend," he adds. "And look at [Bev]. She always has a smile on her face. Just the fact that she would take all these kids in, kids that nobody else wanted, and make them her own, to me just says it all."

"I've always pulled for the underdog," Sam says. "We take in kids that would've had a bad family life, and we can see to it that they don't, and that they have a happy family. Family is everything."

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