“Unremarkable” Family Has 20 Kids and Counting

State   |   Bill Lohmann   |   Mar 5, 2014   |   5:35PM   |   Richmond, VA

In 2003, a friend suggested I write a story about Bill and Sharon Edwards and their family. Based on what the friend, a physician, told me, I readily concurred, though the Edwardses couldn’t understand why I might want to talk to them, explaining they didn’t consider themselves anything special.

“Which is why,” my friend said, “they are so special.”

20kidsThis is what I knew about Bill and Sharon Edwards when we met: They had 11 children, and their 11th was born with Down syndrome. Somewhat taken aback by this life detour, they did something that probably wouldn’t occur to most people: they adopted three children — including two with Down syndrome.

“We feel it is important to give back to society in some way, even if it is just providing a safe and loving environment for a child who may never have known one,” Bill Edwards said in the November 2003 piece.

You don’t forget people like that. So, a little more than 10 years later, photographer Dean Hoffmeyer and I returned to visit the Edwards family to find out what’s new — and to be amazed once more. Turns out, they have been busy.

On a cold, gray day, we walked into the same sprawling house in South Richmond with the sandbox in the front yard and, just as a decade ago, we were greeted not only by a house full of children but also by a remarkable calm: kids quietly playing games and reading books; Sharon in a big, soft chair cuddling with two of the younger children. The scene, apparently, was remarkable only to me.

“It’s unremarkable for us,” said Bill, who noted 10 years ago that he and Sharon didn’t set out to have a huge family. It just sort of worked out that way. “I realize that we don’t fit the typical mold, but when you grow up in it, it’s just normal for us.”

Bill and Sharon had 14 children when we visited in 2003. Now, they have 20, having adopted six children in the ensuing decade, including two with Down syndrome and one with cystic fibrosis. The oldest of the Edwards children is 38, and the youngest, Bella, who was adopted from Bulgaria, turned 4 last week. Only 11 of the children still live at home, the others having moved on to college and careers.

“I’m going on 40,” Bill said with a laugh when we started talking about ages. That would represent a remarkable anti-aging breakthrough since he was 50 — and Sharon 49 — when we chatted 10 years ago.

We caught up on the news about the older children, the newer children and their myriad adventures, such as their adoption trips in 2004 and 2005 to Dagestan, a Russian republic known for ethnic tension, terrorism and a general distrust of Americans.

“Nobody goes there,” Sharon said. But she and Bill did because she had found a photo of a child on an adoption agency’s website and settled on adopting her, not realizing the young girl was living in an orphanage in Dagestan. They were advised against going, but by that point they had convinced themselves this child needed to be with them.

“That’s where she was,” Sharon said. “We had no choice.”

To make a long story short, they survived armed checkpoints, convoluted court proceedings and a car bomb that went off near where they were staying, which happened to be an Olympic training facility for Russian wrestlers. Locals determined staying in a hotel would be too dangerous. During their uneasy stay, Bill and Sharon were invited to a birthday party for the orphanage director where a sobering toast was raised in their honor. The tribute? “We’d like to toast your courage.”

Jordan, the child for whom they placed themselves in such peril, is now 13.

“I’ll tell you the amazing thing about Jordan,” Bill said. “We brought her home in February 2005, and I would say within five to six months she had mastered the English language. Just incredible.”

Bella and Sophia are the most recent additions to the family. They arrived in Richmond in January 2013 from Bulgaria. Both have Down syndrome, and Sophia, who will turn 6 this month, also suffered a stroke before she was adopted. She is unable to walk or talk because of the stroke, and she has a difficult time connecting with others, probably from spending most of the first five years of her life confined to a crib in an orphanage. “I don’t think she has a lot of trust in people,” Bill said.

The trust is building, though, as she is surrounded by love and siblings wherever she turns.

Ten-year-old Claire, who also has Down syndrome, has endured a diagnosis of leukemia and two years of chemotherapy and is doing well. Sarah, 15, the youngest of the Edwards’ biological children and the first with Down, survived surgery for a blood clot a little more than a year ago and is as comedic and personable as she was as a 5-year-old.

As the inspiration for the subsequent adoptions, Sarah also helped her parents realize “that kids with Down syndrome were not that different from our other kids — they were still just kids,” Sharon said.

“I want to say that it is not a sacrifice on our part,” she said. “Our children with Down syndrome bring so much joy and life to our family. The reason we adopted most of our girls with Down syndrome internationally is because kids with Down syndrome in orphanages face a very sad future. If not adopted by around 5 or 6, most will be sent to live out their lives in mental institutions with no hope of ever having a family.”

It is an “incredible experience” to have watched all of this transpire, said Suzanne E. McKeever, a pediatric speech pathologist and feeding specialist who has worked with several of the Edwards children over the past dozen years.

“I love how this family knows that blood is not the only thing that says, ‘We are family,’ ” McKeever said. “They have shown so many of us that family is a state of mind and that if we all open our arms a little wider, we can add more into that circle of love.

“I love how Sharon and Bill have raised some amazing children who will go out and make a difference in the world, all because they were taught to care for one another.”

International adoption can be expensive, as can having 20 children. But the Edwardses have always managed on Bill’s salary — he retired in 2009 from his job in manufacturing management at Philip Morris but after a year returned to work there as a contractor — and by being frugal. The kids also pitch in: son Michael gave a piano concert and daughter Abigail a harp concert to raise money for Bella’s and Sophia’s adoptions. Grown children have paid for therapy sessions for adopted younger siblings.

Eight of the children have taken piano lessons, five have played with the American Youth Harp Ensemble and the three older girls with Down syndrome dance with Miracles in Motion. Several have traveled on mission trips to other countries or studied abroad.

Emily recently graduated magna cum laude from George Mason University with a degree in global affairs and Russian and Eurasian studies and has traveled to more than half a dozen countries, and Megan graduates from medical school in May. The Edwardses home-school their children, and the success enjoyed by the older children has helped Sharon become, she said, “not as pushy as maybe I was.”

“I think I’m more relaxed than I was when my first ones were (young),” she said. “I wanted to make sure they would succeed … but now I feel like I don’t have to prove anything. Bethany loves me to read to her, so we just read and read.”

Having a house full of children “is not like people think it is,” she said. “People think, ‘Oh, so many kids!’ But it’s really not like that. It’s not bad. I enjoy it.”

When I asked Bill if this is how he expected what life would be like at his age, he said, “I don’t think about that stuff.”

“I just like to live,” he said. “Do what you want to do. I mean, we have plans, ideas, dreams. None of that changed.”

“But,” Sharon interjected, “we never went to China and got a little girl.”

“Yeah, I know,” Bill said. “She keeps sending me pictures of these little girls in Chinese orphanages.”

Might they adopt again?

“It’s not out of the question,” said Bill, who laughed as he asked, “You want to do this again 10 years from now?”

LifeNews Note: Bill Lohmann writes for the Richmond Times Dispatch, where this originally appeared.