Large Missouri family raises special-needs children

Monday, July 6, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

ST. JOSEPH — Large, unexpected families have dominated the news, thanks to the success of the reality show "Jon & Kate Plus Eight" and the constant press coverage of the "Octo-Mom." Most of the focus seems to be on the pressure.

But one large St. Joseph family is focusing on the love and warmth of a bigger family.

Arthur and Juanita Lonjers of St. Joseph are no Jon and Kate, as the seven children who occupy their house are all adopted. Though the Lonjers have two biological children, both of whom have careers and marriages of their own, they progressively made the decision during the past seven years to bring special-needs children into their family.

"When the kids moved out, I knew she would be depressed," Arthur said. "We got Brian, and I thought maybe that would be it."

It obviously wasn't, as the family has brought in others who have been given up by families not prepared for the requirements and quirks special-needs children bring with them.

The Lonjers children are: Brian, 21; Tatum, 16; Lee, 13; Donovan, 10; Isaiah, 10; DeAnthony, 9; and Tyler, 6.

The adoptions are always a learning process for the couple, who say it is more rewarding than exhausting. This fall, their relationship with two of them will enter a new chapter.

More or less since 2002, adopting and raising special-needs children has become the Lonjers' life. Some of the kids sleep in the same bed as the Lonjers. Those who don't are being monitored on camera in case they were to go into seizure or hurt themselves.

"We have a TV monitor in our bedroom," Juanita said. "Isaiah will roll around and hit something and seizure immediately."

Some of the children's requirements are similar: Four are in wheelchairs, and six wear diapers. Other complexities are unique, such as Isaiah being a medical mystery. He was a normal, healthy baby until he stopped advancing mentally after 10 months.

Being around the children almost all the time, the parents will see a change this year. Brian will not be in the same building as his mom during the day for the first time since he was adopted. Instead, he will be part of the adult program at the United Cerebral Palsy building in St. Joseph.

It's a change Juanita said will require some adjustments.

"I'm the type of mom that doesn't like being away from her kids," she said. "I enjoy the kids being home with me."

Juanita said she is excited for Lee, who will be starting the seventh grade and his first year at Truman Middle School.

Spending time with the children doesn't leave a whole lot of time for the parents. They said even when they get their sister, who is certified to watch the children, their free time is spent grocery shopping.

"As a couple, we can't be selfish and have that together time all the time," she said.

Still, Arthur said, dealing with the children's problems as well as their own has helped enhance the couple's relationship.

"The tougher it gets, the stronger our marriage gets," he said.

The couple must deal with how others react to the family during the few times they all are able to go out together.

"Sometimes kids will stare and parents will get real embarrassed and tell their kids not to do that," Juanita said. "Let them look; they're kids. They don't understand."

She said the kids provide examples of the consequences of other people's choices. Tatum suffers from problems such as brain damage and blindness because she was shaken as a baby. Tyler, the latest addition to the family, is autistic and has many different quirks because he came from a meth home.

"We don't know what all he ingested. But we would like to do some studies," she said.

Juanita wants to make it clear that just because her children have impairments doesn't mean they aren't enjoying their lives.

"Donovan (who requires a wheelchair) got to throw out the first pitch at a St. Joseph Mustangs game and loved it. Did he care that he was in a wheelchair? No," she said.

The same goes for the Lonjers. Just because they have seven adopted children doesn't mean they're not having as much fun as those with one or two kids.

"I've had more experience," Arthur said, "than I thought I'd have in any category."

Juanita said those looking to do the same thing as them should take heed that though there's a lot of love, there's also just as much work required.

"They are adorable when they're young, but these kids grow up," Juanita said. "The question you have to ask is, 'Are you going to love (them) when they're older?'"

Despite all the routines, diaper changes, medicines and physical work, the Lonjers said it's more than worth it.

"There's never been a moment where we've sat back and said this is too much," Juanita said. "We love our kids. Who wouldn't love them?"

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