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A house full of kids and love

'It's not work. It really isn't. It's a joy,' says Linda Nelson, who raised three daughters with her husband, Bob, before they adopted a brood of severely disabled children.

April 04, 2010|Steve Lopez
  • "It's not work. It really isn't. It's a joy," says Linda Nelson, holding 2-year-old Jacob, who is blind and hearing impaired.
"It's not work. It really isn't. It's a joy,"… (Katie Falkenberg/For The…)

When I knocked on Bob and Linda Nelson's door in Laguna Niguel, their son Matthew took one look at me and figured he knew my line of work.

"Dr. Lopez," the 3-year-old said.

It was an understandable mistake. Matthew, who had a heart transplant as an infant, has seen his share of physicians.

Like Matthew, I had made an assumption that turned out to be incorrect. When I heard that the Nelsons had just adopted their ninth severely disabled child, a 2-year-old named Jacob, I assumed they must be a young couple. How else could they keep up?

But they've been married 47 years, and Bob, 67, is retired from his management job at an RV dealership.

Instead of golf, cruises or reminiscing about the good old days, the Nelsons are up at 4 a.m. to get everybody moving, then off to schools, medical appointments, physical therapy sessions and so on.

"It's not work. It really isn't. It's a joy," said Linda, who raised three biological daughters with Bob before taking in a second brood.

Linda was cradling Jacob when I walked into her living room. Jacob is blind and hearing-impaired, among other problems. Linda had a smile on her face.

"This House Is Full of Kids . . . and Love," reads a sign that hangs on the living room wall with tons of photos of the Nelson clan, including three adopted children who have died.

After 35 years of doing interviews, I generally know how to conduct myself and what to ask. But by the time the Nelsons' six current adoptees -- all boys and men, ranging in age from 2 to 29 -- had assembled in the living room with their parents, I was speechless.

This was a family, not a collection of castoffs. And this was a home, not a nursing center.

Christopher, 10, who is missing part of his brain, was smiling at the rambunctious Matthew, who was pounding on Joey, 21, who was born with spina bifida. Andy, 18, born with cerebral palsy, was amused as well. When Matthew needed a diaper change, it was Joey, a college student who walks with great difficulty, who struggled to his feet and took care of his little brother.

The Nelsons have loved these kids, bathed them, fed them, taken them to the zoo and the beach, and spent weeks at their bedsides in hospitals.

"We're trying really hard to find families like the Nelsons," Sherie Dechter, who works for an adoption agency called Kinship Center, later told me.

But families like the Nelsons are extremely rare.

It's hard enough, Dechter said, to find adoptive families for children who don't have severe disabilities, much less for children who are medically fragile.

Dechter placed Jacob with the Nelsons, whose home has just 1,400 square feet and who get by with the help of state compensation.

"There's nothing they feel like they can't do," said Dechter, who is particularly impressed by how calm and collected the Nelsons are.

So what the heck is their deal?

Bob said it all began in 1976, when he had a dream in which people were mocking a disabled child in a hospital. Bob kissed the child, and the laughter was replaced by angelic singing.

He woke up, told Linda about the dream, and they both forgot about it.

But in 1980, when the last of their three daughters was about to leave home, they heard about a disabled child named Steve, who was born to teenage parents who had abused drugs and alcohol. Steve, now 29, had a malformed cranium and a heart defect.

To the Nelsons, such a fragile child needed a strong family. "It was an amazing experience," Linda said. "He had to really struggle, and we took such delight in watching him succeed. When he took his first steps, at 3, it was amazing."

Today, Steve is in a program in which he does volunteer work at thrift stores, among other places.

"We didn't want to raise an only child," said Linda, so in 1986 they adopted Katie, who was born with a severe brain deformity.

"The doctor said she would never live to be a year old," Linda said. "I looked straight at him and said, 'You don't know our God.' We were going to love them no matter how long they were here. We were going to love them to life."

Katie lived for 18 precarious years before dying in 2006 from complications of her condition.

The Nelsons had already known heartbreak all too well by then. In 1997, they lost two of their adopted children within six weeks of each other: Morgan, 5, who was born with hydrocephalus, died when her heart stopped. Devon, 9, died of a massive seizure.

When they first set eyes on Devon, Bob told Linda it was the child he had seen in the dream. "That's when we knew this was a calling," said Bob, who was raised Catholic but switched to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints along with Linda after she learned more about the faith through her ecumenical Bible study group.

In telling their story, the Nelsons said, they hope other families will consider taking in at least one disabled child.

Their youngest daughter, who lives in Utah, has adopted three disabled children herself and has agreed to take in Bob and Linda's brood if it ever becomes necessary.

But the Nelsons say they're not tired yet, and if there's another child they can help, they'll open their door again.

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