This week’s installment of the Huffington Post Gay Voices RaiseAChild.US Let Love Define Family series features the unique story of two incredible San Diego moms who fell in love across a continent. Their amazing capacity to build their family through unconditional love inspires us this Valentine’s Day.
Seeing a family larger than four or five is unusual these days. Imagine, now, a family of two parents and six young boys with disabilities. Now imagine them all, walking in a single-file formation on a cruise ship, moving from the buffet hall to poolside, one mom at the head of the line, one mom bringing up the rear. And all the boys and both parents quacking like ducks.
That’s how Rich Valenza, founder and CEO of RaiseAChild.US, encountered this family on a cruise bound to Canada. In relating the story, he said it wasn’t the first time he had seen them on an R Family Vacations cruise. As an adoptive parent himself and the head of a nonprofit that encourages LGBT families to foster and adopt, Rich wanted to learn more about this intriguing family and the playful, dedicated parents who taught their children to quack in public to steer their active brood toward the day’s next activity.
Stephanie White, 57, and Susan Wrightson-White, 61, both hail from Baltimore. Although Stephanie and Susan only started dating in 2008, they've known each other 35 years ago, having met when both were working as sign language interpreters. Stephanie now works as a special education behavioral technician for the San Diego Unified School District. Susan was a sign language interpreter for more than 20 years, working most recently for a church serving populations impacted by disability, poverty, immigration and AIDS. In 2009, she retired and moved in with Stephanie and the children in California, trading in one career for another as a stay-at-home mom.
While Rich saw only six kids on that particular cruise, there are seven in all ranging from 13 to 36 years old. All the boys were adopted from foster care -- three in New Mexico and four in California -- at different ages. At the times of their adoptions, the children were ages 16, 13, 9, 7, 5, 3 and 3.
Time for romance is a challenge for most parents, but with so many kids to manage how do Susan and Stephanie do it? They say that although they haven’t made plans for a special Valentine’s Day celebration, they do look forward to their weekly dates with one another. And, says Stephanie with excitement, the pair have made plans for their first romantic getaway for two: a trip to Portugal over spring break.
These days, the White family home is a bit quieter than it had been previously. The oldest three boys now live in group homes: Kelly, age 36, is deaf with mild autism and was adopted when Stephanie was single; Jesse, age 24, has Fragile X, placing him on the autism spectrum; Christopher, age 18, has autism. Stephanie and Susan see them on birthdays, holidays and other occasions.
The three biological brothers adopted next were originally from a sibling set of 13 children: Arturo, 19, and Fernando, 18, have significant learning disabilities and mild developmental disabilities; their biological brother Manuel, 13, also has Erbs palsy, resulting in limited use of his right arm, a disability caused during birth. The couple’s final son, 15-year-old Ruben, has Down syndrome and mild autism.
The family didn’t just adopt in one generational direction. When Susan moved to California in 2008, she brought with her “adopted” mom, a deaf woman she had met through work. The boys’ adopted Grandma helped them make many special intergenerational memories and taught several of the boys to use American Sign Language. She lived long enough to witness the couple’s wedding ceremony on an R Family Vacations cruise to Alaska. At age 92, she died at home surrounded by her loving family in 2012.
While Susan and Stephanie are domestic partners in California, they chose to celebrate their love with a celebratory wedding, not a legal marriage, on an Alaska cruise. All seven children and the family’s adopted grandma were fully involved in all the festivities. Considering the family’s love of travel, it was the perfect spot.
Stephanie’s interest in opening her heart and home to foster children with disabilities arose not only from her professional work, but also from two deeply personal stories. Meeting Keith, the seven year old of a friend in New Mexico, was life changing. Keith was one of several special needs children adopted by her friend. Keith was born with severe cerebral palsy, causing his body to be in constant motion through muscle spasms.
“He wasn’t able to walk, or feed himself, or anything like that,” explained Stephanie. “He could talk, but it took some work to understand what he was saying. But Keith and I became best buds. I just really fell in love with this young man. He was funny and incredibly intelligent. As a result of meeting Keith, I went from a place where I felt like I would never be a mom and never be a parent to anyone to believing it was possible for me.”
But Keith was only part of Stephanie’s story. Until she was seven, Stephanie shared a room with her younger brother Paul, now 54, who was severely developmentally challenged and had severe autism.
“I always felt as a young child that I had a special connection with my brother,” said Stephanie. “I would lay in bed and watch him from across the room and think that maybe he was born from a different planet or something. I was convinced that if I could just figure out what language he used then he and I could connect and we could talk.”
Paul was sent to an institution when he was five, which is what parents were advised to do in the early 1960s. The family visited for several years until the staff told them the visits were disruptive. Consequently, from age 10 until she was 18, she had no contact with Paul. When she visited again, conditions were “horrid." With work she was able to get him removed from the state institution and placed into a much better setting in a group home. These early formative experiences illustrate the compassion for and dedication to the cause that later formed both Stephanie’s family life and her career.
Both Susan and Stephanie were married to men at one point in their lives; Susan identifies as bisexual and Stephanie as lesbian. Throughout the adoption processes Stephanie said she encountered little prejudice at work and at a school. Adoptions and second parent adoptions went smoothly in both New Mexico and California.
When asked why they raise so many disabled children, Stephanie responded, “Kids are kids. Parenting children with special needs is just about parenting children.”
While Stephanie’s brother was hidden away, her own children are not. Where others see only limitations, Stephanie and Susan see limitless possibilities. The children have travelled on boats, trains and planes to expand their minds and see the world. From Multnomah Falls, Oregon, to touring our nation’s capital, the White children have seen it all. The sky’s the limit -- although Stephanie and Susan did, themselves, cross that frontier when they went hot air ballooning in last summer in Temecula, California.
“None of these children have had a lot of experiences in their lives,” said Stephanie. “Having them out in the world meeting people is the best gift I can give them. We own an RV and take trips with Rainbow RV, a gay and lesbian RV and camping club. The kids love it and say no one ever asks them, ‘Where is your dad?’ or ‘Why do you have two moms?’”
Although the kids have not experienced prejudice at school from staff or administrators, they’d rather not put up with the occasional nosy questions they get from kids on the playground. When they attend an R Family Vacation event, the atmosphere is welcoming and comfortable, and they don’t have to explain their families.
“When we go on an R Family Vacation, everyone is accepting of the children just as they are,” said Stephanie.
So what’s in the cards next? The family has recently returned from a dude ranch and after settling in for a few weeks is already itching to plan a new adventure. Whatever it will be, you can bet that all members of the family will have a say.
Corinne Lightweaver is Special Projects Manager at RaiseAChild.US, a national organization headquartered in Hollywood, California that encourages the LGBT community to build families through fostering and adoption to serve the needs of the 400,000 children in the U.S. foster care system. RaiseAChild.US works with foster and adoption agencies that have received training in LGBT cultural competence through the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s “All Children – All Families” initiative. Since 2011, RaiseAChild.US has run media campaigns to educate prospective parents and the public, and has engaged more than 2,000 prospective parents. For information about how you can become a foster or fost/adopt parent, visit www.raiseachild.us and click on “Next Step to Parenthood.” For more information about R Family Vacations, visit www.rfamilyvacations.com.