Our Family's Story
Our family was asked to do an interview with Kevin Swanson on the Generations With Vision radio show. To our surprise, when it aired, it was entitled "The Happiest Family in America"! Click on the image to the left to hear the interview.
We pray it will be encouraging to you!
Cattleman's Newspaper Article On Us
By SUSAN DENKLER
Special to the Advocate
At times, Tom and Debra Ritter and members of their super-sized family seem to be headed in opposite directions.
Debra and several of the kids are on a run to the airport to arrange air delivery of some of their kennel pups. A few children are staying behind at their 60-acre Curryville farm to catch up on chores and homework. Tom’s taken a couple of kids to the doctor for checkups, and as for the older siblings, it’s their turn to work at the family hotel and café business in Vandalia.
Though some days it could take a chart to plot everyone’s course in the Ritter household, onlookers shouldn’t be fooled. No family pulls together more than this one.
Tom and Debra would be the first to tell you that their lives are all about God and family – in that order. And what a family they have, with a stair-step of 25 children in all, including three birth children already grown and gone, and 22 adoptive children still in the home.
Although their daily routines are sure to keep everyone hopping, what really makes the family "tick" has more to do with mutual support and purposeful living than it does time schedules and getting the day’s work done. As Debra says, "Everything we do is a shared experience. And it’s successful because we do it together."
When Tom and Debra met, both were divorced, with children of their own. Debra was a substitute mail carrier in St. Charles, with two children. Tom headed up a maintenance crew at a large St. Louis hotel, and had one child. The couple hit it off and eventually wed. A few days into the marriage, Tom began thinking about volunteering with the Big Brother program. He’d even picked up an application, but remembers he’d stowed it in a desk drawer. Debra found it; they talked about it, and discovered their hearts were tugging in the same direction. The more they discussed, the more it became evident that what the two really wanted was to adopt. And not just any child. "We wanted to adopt children other people didn’t want," said Debra, "children it was difficult to find a family for, kids who were abused or neglected and had an attitude about it, or children who had medical needs and that was the only thing that prevented them from having a home."
Both came from large families, and knew they could do it. "It wasn’t difficult," she added. "Our hearts already knew how to stretch."
Once they proceeded with their plans, they found that with certain children, adoptions can take place fairly quickly.
Their first adoption was 12-year-old Kaitlyn, a child who had been removed from a dangerous home situation and was described by her social worker as an "emergency placement." She was followed by 9-year-old Tommy, who had been separated from his siblings when they were adopted by another family, leaving him behind. Then came Abraham, 3, an African-American child born addicted to cocaine and alcohol. For Abraham, the Ritters had to challenge the St. Louis social services agency that insisted adoptive parents should be of the same race as the child. This, in spite of the fact the agency at the time was overwhelmed with 154 such children waiting for placement. One after another the couple claimed them – American as well as foreign children – all considered "unadoptable," but the very ones the Ritters wanted most. Several had been taken from parents addicted to drugs. Some had been languishing in third-world orphanages, like Josiah, whose mother rejected her newborn because of the strawberry birth mark framing the side of his face. It was an outward sign of an inward disease known as Sturge-Webber Syndrome, but she couldn’t know that.
Then there was Zipporah, who is completely deaf in one ear and has only 5 percent of her hearing in the other. Jedediah has Barrter Syndrome, a condition causing renal failure, and Tom has epilepsy. Esther was diagnosed at age 7 with ovarian cancer, and when Adam came to them, he was on 12 different medications. The Ritters can relate countless stories that tell something of what these children have withstood.
Jedidiah spent the first 10 years of his life in Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center in St. Louis, hooked up to nutritional supplements and medications that kept him alive. And while he did find something of an ongoing kinship with the hospital staff (they jokingly nicknamed him "the mayor"), the child had no idea what it was like to belong to his own family. Esther was recovering from cancer when she came into the Ritter home for a pre-adoptive weekend visitation. She’d had her right ovary removed, and due to the chemo and radiation treatments she received while in foster care, had lost all of her hair. At the time she met the family, Esther’s hair had only grown back about three inches, and to the Ritters she seemed shy and withdrawn. In order to give her self esteem a boost, the couple went to an African American store and bought some synthetic hair.The older girls and Debra braided longer hair into Esther’s short existing strands, which extended her hair all the way down her back. "She couldn’t believe how beautiful she looked," said Debra, "and the whole weekend we’d find her standing at the mirror, throwing her hair around. We were just happy we could make her smile."
Of all their adoptive children, Janai was the closest to slipping beyond anyone’s care. She was suffering from congenital heart problems that included five holes in her heart, a deteriorated wall between two chambers, the transposition of the great arteries, and a pulmonary artery and valve that were completely destroyed. "She was a very sick little girl," said her mom. Because of her health problems, she’d been dropped off at a Vietnamese orphanage at birth, and by age 2, was struggling for every breath. When the Ritters flew over to meet her, they found Janai’s lips, fingers, and toes had all turned a blackish purple, and her skin had a deadly gray cast. Although the Ritters had completed the adoption and were now considered her parents, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) questioned the legality of the process, and was denying Janai’s visa to get into the U.S. The Ritters were beside themselves, protesting that if the agency kept blocking their daughter’s departure, she would surely die. "Children in this country die every day," an INS official responded. "Pick another one." In the end, Janai was finally released for travel, but almost as soon as they hit American soil, they found she needed emergency medical treatment at Mayo Clinic. Physicians there were amazed that the girl even survived the trans-oceanic flight. Immediately they performed open-heart surgery, and by the time they were done, Janai had taken on a transformation. "When she came out of surgery, her lips were pink, her features pink, and her cheeks had color," said Debra. "Tom said, ‘Oh, my gosh, (God) gave us an angel.’ "
Other Ritter children have experienced heart-wrenching challenges. Two of their daughters – one from Ethiopia – came from what social workers call "disruptive adoptions," that is, they’d been formerly adopted by other families who for one reason or other decided to "send them back." The Ritters joyfully claimed what others had rejected. Mark, now 21, sustained an insult of a slightly different kind. As a child of 12, the state stepped in and removed him and his siblings from their troubled home. Mark endured further separation when his brothers and sister were adopted apart from him. He painfully recalls his emotional breakdown from the trauma. He became cautiously hopeful, however, when a couple he met at a state-run Adoption Fair (where prospective parents visit with children needing homes) took a special interest in him. They seemed on the verge of adopting, when at the last moment the union seemed to evaporate. Someone later cued Mark in to their problem. The couple thought he had "too much of a country twang." Today, this soft-spoken young man smiles broadly when he describes life in the Ritter household, where he and his newfound brothers once voted to knock down the wall between the boys’ basement bedrooms in order to bring everyone closer together. "Of course, we each have our own dressers, but if anyone needs anything, ‘What’s mine is yours’," he said. The girls followed suit upstairs. Lailee, 14, who just this past June was adopted by the family along with sisters Emma, 13, Tabitha, 8, and Helena, 5, paused a second when asked whether the close quarters weren’t sometimes too much. What do individuals do when they want their own personal space? "We don’t feel we need our own personal space," replied Lailee. "It’s all of us together."
Every child has a special story, and each one is treasured by the Ritters, who daily rely on providential help to make it all happen. "Faith is number one in our family," said Tom. "And we have lots of miracles to prove it." Though it may seem odd to some, the Ritters rename each child they adopt, and many have been given monikers straight out of scripture.
"In the Bible, God renamed a lot of people, and (by so doing) gave them direction and a new start," he continued. "We decided to do that as a way of letting the children know they had a new beginning, and the past was the past. It worked out wonderfully, and the behavioral changes were dramatic. "In addition, Debra feels the children’s interaction with the animals on their 60-acre spread – including a kennel full of toy breed dogs, as well as several head of cattle and horses (including miniatures), and a donkey – help the kids make a smoother transition into the family fold. "When the children first come, they have no sense of belonging, but pretty soon they have their own dog, own cow, or own pony. It’s a thing they can trust their hearts to … the first thing they trust their hearts to," she explained. "They’re so used to people letting them down that they have these big walls up. But they don’t have to be worried about loving a pet, and that helps a lot. "The children are home-schooled by their mother, who insists they keep up on their homework, and boys and girls alike are learning unique skills that may well provide for their future. Tom said he and Debra purchased the old Vandalia Hotel, assumed operation of its Lighthouse Café, and installed Meme’s Tea Room, all with a view toward helping the kids establish themselves in business one day. The family’s in the process of rehabbing the hotel, which already has a boarder, and eventually then want to make it into a bed and breakfast. In addition, several of their sons are training as contractors, and have started a company called Legacy Builders. "Tom started some training and is finding people who can mentor the children," added Debra. "We now have a plumber, an electrician, two in the process of learning concrete work, and several carpenters. "Although the girls have yet to launch into any kind of enterprise, they have a "big sewing room where they’re learning to sew, crochet, embroider, and knit," and several girls are teaming up with mom in learning how to cook. A number are practicing other techniques. "Kaitlyn is learning web design," said Debra, "and Zipporah is learning photography."
Many question where the family finds the wherewithal to keep the whole family afloat, but they say whenever resources look like they could dry up, God seems to intervene. On one such occasion, a church family the Ritters had never met stopped by to hand them a check for $10,000. "We all wanted to give this to an orphanage," they explained, "but then somebody told us about you needing money to bring an orphan home . "It’s a humbling experience the Ritters say keep their hearts encouraged, and they’re including such stories in a book they’re writing called, "Living by a Leap of Faith. "While the family doesn’t exactly enjoy worldly riches, Tom said that with his wife and children beside him, he considers himself a very wealthy man.
"I have no idea why the Lord picked us to do this," he added.
"But I’m glad He did!!"