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Missouri couple builds family through adoption

Monday, October 26, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 7:24 a.m. CDT, Monday, October 26, 2009

CURRYVILLE — Mornings at the Ritter farm in Curryville are like mornings at many other country homes. The smoky smell of bacon frying fills the air. Kids can be heard shuffling in socks across the hardwood floor. The back door bangs shut as teenage boys come in from doing their morning chores.

It seems oddly calm, considering there are 24 people getting ready for their day.

Tom and Debra Ritter have three sons from previous marriages and 22 kids they have adopted since 1995. Many of them have special needs, and some have had life-threatening illnesses. All of the adopted kids, ages 7 to 26, still live at home.

So on this crisp fall morning in Pike County, family members scurry to get ready for their day. But the youngest child, Helena, 7, sleeps serenely on the cocoa-colored couch in the living room. Tabitha, 10, takes off her own jacket to cover her little sister. Meanwhile, Debra Ritter is flipping pancakes.

She'll make about 70. Rebekah, 18, fries sausage and bacon while keeping 10 pounds of potatoes warm. Other girls pour orange juice or milk. It's a team effort.

Afterward, most of the kids head to the one-room schoolhouse on the farm where they'll stay until early afternoon; Mom and some of the older kids teach.

Others go with Dad to work in the restaurant at the bed and breakfast they own in nearby Vandalia. Sometimes, the older sons will work in construction. Money from all of their endeavors goes into the family pot.

It's a life of love, laughter and a strong belief in God.

It's also a life very different from the one Tom and Debra started when they married. At the time, Debra was a letter carrier; Tom was assistant chief engineer at the Marriott Hotel in downtown St. Louis. They lived in a restored 1890 farmhouse on 12 acres in Warrenton and drove new cars.

They gave all of that up, including their jobs, to raise children who many social workers feared would never be adopted.

They recount their story in "Living by a Leap of Faith," a self-published book to help others understand the trials and joys of adopting older and troubled children.

Amariah, now 22, for example. Born in Ethiopia with scoliosis that caused a large hump on her back, she experienced extreme poverty growing up in an orphanage after her parents died of AIDS.

"We were in an existence no human person should ever have to be in," she writes in the book.

She was adopted by a family in the U.S. when she was 8, but by the time she was 14, that family decided they didn't want her and dropped her off at the Ritters'. The rejection crushed Amariah for a time.

"We don't talk about the past anymore," Amariah says. "We focus on the future and what we can change about ourselves."

Today, Amariah smiles constantly.

Tom and Debra, both 52, met in 1994 when she delivered his mail one day. They were both divorced.

"I think I knew something was missing in my life when I met her," Tom says.

When they married, Debra became a Catholic, like Tom. She had grown up Baptist and had a lot of questions.

"Tom went to his Bible for answers," Debra says, "and that opened the door for true and original Christianity, taking care of the elderly and the fatherless children. ... That's sort of how all this started."

Tom says, "We just said we'd like to help a child sitting somewhere thinking they are too old or have too many disabilities or they will never get to have a family."

They married in April 1995 and adopted their first child, Jessica, in December. She was 6 and had suffered abuse.

Marcia Jones, a former adoptions specialist for the state of Missouri, helped the Ritters with many of their adoptions.

"What impressed me most about them is they said, 'Give me the kids that nobody wants,' and that usually meant teenagers."

Nationwide, only about 12 percent of kids adopted out of foster care are older than 12, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"It's really hard to adopt kids older than 10," Jones says. "They are probably one of the most loving families that I came across."

Tom and Debra know they are unusual. "People think we're weird," Tom says.

He looks at the walking stick he uses because of a bad hip. It is carved with the words "Live by faith, not by sight."

To him, the meaning is simple: "Don't judge another person until you meet them and know them. A lot of people don't understand our family, but when you get to know us, we're not so weird."

About five years ago, Debra and Tom helped create Covenant Family Church in Troy, a conservative Presbyterian church. The family makes the 75-minute drive every Sunday.

Marcus Serven, who has served as the Ritters' pastor since 2005, says he's witnessed the changes in the kids firsthand.

"The most amazing thing is they are able to enfold these children from these different cultures and different backgrounds. I think that really their secret strategy is they bring order into their lives, and they do it with lots and lots of love."

Each kid gets a new name when joining the family, usually a name the child picks from the Bible.

"We wipe the slate clean," Debra says. "We don't have to ever talk about what happened in their past if they don't want to," though she says she's spent many nights listening (and later crying) about the abuse and neglect many of the children suffered.

Because of the logistics, the Ritters decided to home-school their children.

The schoolhouse is filled with desks and hundreds of books. The children work at their own pace, with parents and older siblings there to help.

Each child gets a puppy. The Ritters run a kennel on their farm, and all of the kids help out.

"It really helps them to have a life they have to care for," Debra says. The newly adopted children also have others to rely on. "I think all of us know what it was like, so we can all help in a way that is more compassionate," says Kaitlyn, 26.

The biggest struggle for Tom and Debra is trying to gain the kids' trust. "Once you gain their trust, they don't rebel," Debra says. "And you can open their heart to what you have to offer."

Several of the kids are African-American. Before the Ritters adopted them, they took classes on black history and dealing with racism and how to care for black skin and hair.

"Color doesn't mean a thing in this family," Tom says.

Amariah agrees: "What's really unique is that we are from such different backgrounds, but we don't see each other differently."

The Ritters say miracles they have experienced reinforce their belief that adopting children is God's calling. The story of Janai is one example.

In 2000, the Ritters heard about a toddler in Vietnam who was marked "terminal" in an orphanage.

"Once a baby is marked terminal, they don't play with it or nurture it, partly to guard their own heart and partly because there aren't enough resources," Debra says.

The Ritters fell in love as soon as they saw her photo. But they couldn't afford the international adoption. They had already liquidated their retirement savings and sold their home in Warrenton to pay for other adoptions and the 60-acre farm.

"So Tom took the family in prayer on our knees and said, 'Lord if you want us to take this child, show us how to do it.'" Debra says. A few days later, a knock on the door brought them their answer: a check for $10,000 from a family who had heard about their struggles.

Then the donations started pouring in. "We got checks in the mail, some for as little as $10; kids brought in their piggy banks." The Ritter kids decided to forgo their Christmas gifts.

After dealing with the red tape of bringing a sick child into the country, they finally got the frail 2-year-old to the Mayo Clinic where doctors repaired her heart.

"When she came out of surgery, it was like they brought us a different child," Debra says. "She was like an angel, her skin was so white and she had pink little lips."

They named her Janai, which means "God has answered." Now 10, Janai likes to double-dutch with her sisters and play with the puppies on the farm.

It's been more than two years since the Ritters have adopted. They say if God wants them to adopt another, their hearts are open.

They've also inspired their children to open their minds to adoption.

"I know what it's like to go through a foster care system," says Mark, 23, who was 12 when he was adopted. "I'd like to help someone out like I was helped out."

Kaitlyn agrees. "I think I definitely will adopt. I want a big family ... maybe not this big ... but big."


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