ALWAYS ROOM FOR ONE MORE THE NASONS OF OREGON OPEN THEIR DOOR TO DOZENS OF CHILDREN
ALWAYS ROOM FOR ONE MORE
THE NASONS OF OREGON OPEN THEIR DOOR TO DOZENS OF CHILDREN. THEIR HOME THRIVES ON A BUSY MIX OF LOVE AND DISCIPLINE
Author: MEG GRANT
The front door bears a carved wooden plaque of a bearded man holding a child. The Nasons, it says, Love.
The teen-ager pushing open the screen clutches a dustcloth in one hand, a can of Endust in the other. Her father, Dennis, a round-faced, round-bellied fellow in blue jeans and suspenders, pokes his head around the corner. He introduces himself _ ``I'd shake but my hands are sticky'' _ and returns to the pot of spaghetti sauce in the kitchen.
At nine in the morning on a Friday of a three-day weekend, the Nasons' kitchen is bustling. A girl with a halo of curly hair opens a gallon-sized can of mushrooms and hands it to Dennis. Another dark-haired girl stands at the sink, scrubbing pots and pans. Toddlers, at least two of them, crawl through the room and into an adjacent bathroom, and a boy, about 10, lugs a floor sweeper into the dining area and begins running it under the extra-long kitchen table and adjacent benches.
In the rest of the 20-bedroom, 5-bath farm-style home, yet more children are cleaning their rooms, changing diapers, wiping out bathtubs. Others are in the barn milking the family's 40 cows. At mealtime they come together _ about 50 of them.
Diane and Dennis Nason, both 42 and neither from large families, met at the tender age of 16 in Northern California ranch country where their parents lived. They married at age 17, moved to Ashland, Ore., had three children and, in 1968, adopted another.
Seventeen years, three more natural children and 40-odd adoptions later, the Nasons show no signs of stopping.
And if they outgrow their present home, nestled on 50-acres just south of Sisters, Ore. _ they'll add on to it. A 13-bedroom addition is already underway.
In a book Diane Nason wrote, in a ``60 Minutes'' segment, in scads of newspaper accounts, the master-minds of this mass adoption explain their reason for doing so simply: The Lord, they say, told them to.
The Nasons are not in the foster-care business. They say their vocation is to keep kids away from subsidized care and in a family home without state or federal financial assistance.
That keeps them busy being parents to dozens of children to whom life has dealt a difficult hand. Most of the Nason children are physically, mentally or emotionally disabled, and many of them are from other countries, including Mexico, Israel, Vietnam, Korea.
But how do they do it? How do they raise so many children with such demanding problems under one roof?
Diane, with glasses and black shoulder-length hair, strolls into the kitchen as if on her way somewhere else. She leans against one of the two stoves. Her eyes scan the room, tracking each child, and then in some odd way look at what she can't possibly see _ behind her, down the halls, on the floor above her, in each bedroom. Her ears perk up.
She begins issuing directives and reprimands like the captain on a ship.
``Kelly, do you have your hearing aid in? Put your hearing aid in. Now.''
``Jason, settle down.''
``You go up and clean the upstairs, Steve. And you've lost your privilege to work at the dairy.'' The 13-year-old, with a puzzled expression, asks ``Why?'' ``Because you left our property without permission,'' Diane answers. ``I didn't know I wasn't supposed to,'' he responds. ``You should have found out, shouldn't you?''
She can match a voice to a name from across the house. At any given moment, she knows who should be doing what, where and how.
Kari, the teen-ager who opened the screen door, busies herself in the living room, leaning over a 20-foot-long couch to dust the window sills. Now 16, she joined the family just before the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam, arriving with almost no wrists and hands due to napalm burns. Plastic surgery since has reconstructed her hands.
Nodding at Kari's progress, Diane begins a monologue describing the day-to-day routine. ``Three times a week, the kids do housework,'' she says. ``Everyone is assigned a different room each week.''
Daily, Diane adds, the children clean their bedrooms, which are cramped with bunk beds, plants and toys. In each room hangs a framed photograph of Mom and Dad. Dennis and Diane's bedroom has a king-size waterbed; in Diane's adjacent office is a coin-operated soda-pop dispenser.
``Everyone has a vice,'' maintains Diane. Hers is Dr. Pepper.
``Bathrooms are cleaned daily with cleanser,'' she points out in a downstairs lav crowded with training potties. ``A different person does it each day.''
In the laundry room, where Nancie, a child from India, transfers clothes from the washer to the dryer, Diane explains, ``We do 12 loads of laundry a day. Two kids are in charge each day. Dennis and I fold the clothes into baskets by room. The big person in every room takes the basket to the room and puts the clothes in the drawers.
``We have a big child in charge of a little one. They bathe, feed and dress them . . .''
The play room is full of little children. Their disabilities seem so much more severe than those of the bigger kids. Infants, heads swollen with encephalitis, spines stiff with cerebral palsy, legs at odd angles, hips dislocated, sprawl in cribs lining the room or on the floor next to wheel chairs and stuffed animals and toys. Watching them, holding them, changing their diapers or feeding them a bottle, are the bigger kids, some as ``big'' as 10 years old.
Diane says, ``Mom and Dad don't have to be on deck all the time. Brothers and sisters can be, too.''
At lunch some older kids in the kitchen help Diane make tuna sandwiches. Those Nasons who can't feed themselves are brought by their supervising siblings to the dining area; they are seated in special chairs that support their heads.
Dorell, 15 and born in New York, silently coaxes Debi, who has Down's syndrome, to swallow the bits of tuna sandwich she patiently puts in her mouth. Blonde-haired Debi screams and screams.
Diane explains that, in Israel, 2-year-old Debi was fed food coated with sugar. ``She was given one bite an hour. So she rebels when she has to sit down and eat a half a sandwich and a glass of juice. But she has to learn the world's not her slave and there are meal times.''
It may take awhile, Diane admits, but hunger soon will be Debi's teacher.
The strategy has worked in the past with other Nason children.
Mandy, 8, came to the family in 1978 from India. She has no arms. Over the years, Dennis and Diane have urged her to do all the things children with arms can do _ from walking to feeding herself to writing.
They got Mandy started by insisting she walk to the dining table for meals; if she didn't, she missed the meal. Today, Mandy not only gets herself to the table, she eats with her toes and carries her plate and glass from the table to the sink.
Dennis and Diane believe having high expectations for their children will help them make the greatest gains. ``We don't allow self-pity,'' Diane says.
After those needing help are fed, the remaining Nasons file into the kitchen. Three-year-old Jodi from Chile, who has cerebral palsy and cannot walk, crawls to the table. Jessica, 4, from Korea, who also cannot walk because she has muscular dystrophy, rolls into the kitchen. Katie, 15, makes sure each child has a sandwich and a paper cup of juice or milk. The group eats in practical silence, quickly, no fooling around.
Supervising siblings tuck the youngest Nasons in for naps.
Others perform their post-lunch chores: vacuuming under the table, doing dishes, wiping counters. The few not otherwise occupied head to the play room to watch ``Annie'' on the VCR.
The children rarely pick on each other (``We don't allow fighting,'' says Diane), never inexplicably scream nor make messes.
They also almost never laugh.
In some ways, Diane Nason acts as the family's public-relations manager. Besides the book she wrote about their family and the annual Christmas cards, sporting photos of the year's additional Nasons, Diane often welcomes the media into her home. There's just one restriction: Reporters must play by her rules, and that means they can spend time with the children and talk to them, but no formal interviewing.
Probing the children makes them concentrate on their past, she says. ``We want them to know they're starting a new life here.''
Many children who come to the Nason home have been abused physically or emotionally, by their natural parents, the institution or foster-care system they traveled through before being adopted, or by the simple reality _ be it poverty, political unrest or physical deformity _ they were born into.
When they become Nasons, though, Diane and Dennis believe their painful pasts end. ``Even when an abused kid arrives here,'' Diane explains, ``our philosophy is that we talk about it once and it's over.
We let the child know we're sorry this has gone on in their life, but we can start over now. Constant counseling about an abuse just reinforces everything that's gone on before.''
When a child becomes a Nason, he or she is given a new name.
``They get a choice in their name. Sometimes they even keep their original middle name,'' says Diane. Most of the Nason children have all-American-sounding names: Bobby, Billy, Donny, Nancie, Jodi _ even if they come from El Salvador, Korea or Brazil. It's not, Diane explains, an attempt to eradicate their heritage.
``They all know of their own nationality and are proud of it.
But now they're all Nasons and they're all Americans,'' Diane says.
``Too much emphasis is put on the fact that they're going to miss some heritage. What is America? It's a melting pot.''
Dennis and Diane subscribe to a combination of political and religious beliefs that are, in some ways, uniquely American. Although they've belonged to various congregations, they currently attend Sunday services at the local Baptist church; Diane describes the family as nondenominational. The couple believe in family and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps; they are opposed to welfare and abortion, and admittedly swing to the political right.
Diane comes down hard on a few American institutions, including the foster-care system, which, she says, feeds the welfare system.
``False values and morals are induced in kids from the foster-care system,'' Diane says. ``Those kids know their `parents' are being paid to keep them. They know why they get a free lunch at school.
And they come to expect handouts. When are people going to wake up and realize we're raising a welfare society? The welfare system means moral deterioration.
``We teach our kids that they have to go out and work for their money,'' she continues. ``We don't believe in allowances.''
So Dennis and Diane have no qualms about assigning their children voluminous chores and disciplining them strictly, sometimes by giving them a smack on their backsides.
And because of their opposition to welfare, the couple says that, outside of a special preschool for the children located on their property and funded by the state of Oregon, they avoid government financial assistance like the plague.
The agencies that could assist the Nasons would not say whether or not the family receives aid. They did explain that many of the Nason children, because of their disabilities, could receive up to $325 per month each under the federal Supplemental Security Income program. In addition, Diane and Dennis might quality for adoption subsidies from the Human Resources Department of up to $650 per month for each of their children with special needs.
But the couple takes great pride in their ability to live off the resources of their farm and help from individuals. Declares Diane: ``I think more people should get off their duff and do a person-to-person thing instead of relying on the government.''
Regularly, Diane or Dennis make trips to the Sisters post office. Sometimes, there are letters waiting with checks or cash inside.
The Nasons also get donated services and goods. Dr. Peter Boehm, the family's pediatrician in Bend, treats the Nasons free of charge. When a Nason needs surgery, Crippled Children's or Shriners in Portland usually help out. Jack Ferris, proprietor of the One-Eyed Bear in Sisters, offers discounted haircuts to the family. Don Wenlund, a Portland business man, gave the Nasons a Greyhound-style bus for family outings. And boxes arrive at the farm now and then packed with clothing and home appliances.
Dennis and Diane credit the Lord with helping them get by.
``We consider what we're doing to be what we want to do, we're able to do, and God lets us do,'' Diane says. ``We don't depend on the government for anything. We depend on the Lord.''
If the Lord is responsible, He has been good to the family _ which now survives without a regular income. Over a year ago, Dennis quit his $30,000 a year job as a postmaster to be at home with his family and work on projects around the house including building the addition.
Diane and Dennis have no intention of putting out the no-vacancy sign. ``You can't limit God,'' Diane says, explaining that she is now working on six more adoptions.
With so many kids, so much regimentation and organization, the Nason home runs like an institution. But it doesn't feel like one. What it feels like is a place where children love and care for each other _ in a way even traditional siblings can't.
Most of the Nason children spend the following afternoon, a crisp and clear Saturday, in their back yard, playing in the shadow of the snowcapped Cascades to the west. Some take turns pushing one another on the swing sets; others pat sand pies into tins. Cindy, a 4-year-old with Down's syndrome, plops down in the middle of the sand box and sings herself a song.
Inside the house, in the play room, a half-a-dozen little Nasons sit on tiny chairs in a row. Nancie, 13, Kelly, 11, Kecia, 12, and Kari, 16, play teachers. In harmony, they sing ``John Jacob Jenkleheimer Smith,'' and the young ones _ most with Down's syndrome _ make enthusiastic, lyrical noises.
Kecia begins telling a story, but when she can't conjure up a plot she reads from a book. She holds it up, points to pictures and asks, ``Does anyone know what this is? It's a truck. Say truck.''
The little ones, no matter how distorted their speech, attempt to sound out the word.
Kecia sings another song: ``Jessica's a speckled frog, sat on a speckled log, eating the most delicious bug . . .''
The little ones, who know what comes next, chime in: ``YUM, YUM.''
Kecia continues: ``Jessica jumped in the pool, where it was nice and cool. Now Debi is our green speckled frog.''
Dennis and Diane say they teach the children to care for themselves and for each other in an effort to instill a sense of responsibility and independence in them. But the method has lessened the need for the parents to have much one-on-one contact with their children.
In Sisters, a community of 740, the Nasons have a lot of fans.
The town mayor, Linda Swearingen, praises the family: ``I think it's just fantastic that they take kids in regardless of their race or handicaps,'' she says. ``And I've been over to their house several times. It's always cleaner than mine.''
But the Nasons also have a few critics. A few townspeople wonder about the healthiness of having so many children in one household, and wonder when, if ever, Diane and Dennis will stop adopting.
One person notes that some of the Nason children have sort of ``come and gone.'' A pair of twins that Dennis and Diane adopted in 1975 hadn't fit into the family and had been returned quickly to the adoption agency they came from. If something similar has happened with other children, Diane and Dennis don't talk about it.
The exact number of Nason children, and their whereabouts, is something Diane is rarely specific, or consistent, about. She says that 40 children presently live in the house, but in a written list cites 38 at home. At meals closer to 36 show up.
The written list shows seven children who live outside the home. They include four adopted Nasons and the three eldest natural children: Scott, 21, who lives in a trailer on the family's property; Mark, 24, who lives in California; and Lisa, 19, who lives in Bend and teaches at the Nason preschool. Diane is unclear about the whereabouts of three of the four older children who have moved away.
Two of the children Dennis and Diane have parented have died.
That would account for 49 Nasons.
But in reckoning the figures, Diane Nason puts it this way: ``Whatever adds up to 50.''
Other townspeople worry about the child-care burden that is put on the adolescent Nasons. Says one community member who asked not to be identified: ``One-on-one adult-child affection and concern is very important. And I know that's not done out there. The older kids raise the younger ones, and that's just not fair to any of the kids . . . I think the kids, as they get older, will have a tendency to rebel.''
Another community member recalls a Nason child who had become rebellious; Diane and Dennis dealt with the problem, the individual says, by taking him out of school and putting him to work on the farm.
The biggest concern of community members is how an adolescent with problems of his or her own can care for a disabled youngster.
Accidents, in that situation, would be bound to happen.
Late on Saturday afternoon, a 13-year-old Nason takes a seat at the foot of the stairway in the then-empty playroom and pulls 2-year-old Jason, who has Down's syndrome, onto his lap.
He says he is from Port Angeles and has been at the Nasons only two weeks.
His eyes well up with tears when he adds, ``My name used to be David, but now it's Steven because they already had a David. Steven's the same name as the man who used to be my father. I used to have seven brothers and sisters.''
Jason, who until then had been leaning comfortably on Steven's chest, begins scratching his right cheek and neck, which is red and blistered. Steven pushes his hand away. ``He got burned,'' he offers.
``The bath was too hot. I tested it and it didn't seem hot. But I guess it was.''
Diane and Dennis find no fault with their parenting. Nor do they question the happiness of their children, the healthiness of the manner in which their family operates.
They don't recognize _ or, if they do, they don't take issue with _ their children's lack of spontaneity, abundant laughter, and child-like mischievousness _ qualities that might incur chaos in a home with so many children.
Before dinner, Harlem-born Darin, 15, displays an impishness you'd expect from a teen-ager. But he does so outside, out of Diane and Dennis' view. He is dumping the garbage and hops onto the dumpster, takes a few moonwalk steps, stops _ dead in his tracks _ when he sees someone watching.
Back in the house, he returns to his disciplined self _ particularly at supper, when all the Nason children unequivocally behave.
There is plenty of food to go around _ hamburgers, leftover spaghetti with Dennis' homemade meat sauce, french fries, and fresh-from-the-cow milk.
Dorrell says the daily impromptu evening prayer. She offers thanks for the family's blessings and then makes those many requests: ``Help us with the addition. Help Scott with his cows. Help the reporter get home safely. And help our family.''
Sure, it would be nice if the Nason's 50 children lived in 25 different homes with moms and dads who could shower them with attention, homes where so much work did not need to be done, homes where so many prayers did not need to be met.
Perhaps the Nason children laugh less than other children because they know more pain.
Few people are interested in adopting the kind of children Dennis and Diane take _ children who've been battered, or starved, or left to die tied to a hospital crib, as Dennis and Diane found 2-year-old Michelle who has spina bifida and is from Peru. These children are the world's cast-offs _ until Dennis and Diane Nason take them home.
<JNK CUTLINE: BESIDES FILMS ON THE VCR, ``SESAME STREET'' IS THE ONLY TELEVISION THE NASON CHILDREN ARE ALLOWED TO WATCH.<JNK<JNK CUTLINE: TWO-YEAR-OLD DEBI, A NEW ARRIVAL FROM ISRAEL, GETS SOME ATTENTION FROM BIG BIRD.<JNK<JNK CUTLINE: MASTERS OF THIS PLAN, DIANE AND DENNIS NASON, GET A FEW WORDS IN WHILE SUPERVISING LAUNDRY DUTY.<JNK<JNK CUTLINE: EIGHT-YEAR-OLD PAUL VACUUMS THE BEDROOM HE SHARES WITH DARIN, 15; BOTH ARE FROM NEW YORK.<JNK<JNK CUTLINE: ONE FO THE NEWER NASONS, 13-YEAR-OLD STEVEN, HAS FOUND HIMSELF A JOB WORKING AT THE FAMILY DAIRY.<JNK<JNK CUTLINE: FEW OF THE NASON CHILDREN ARRIVE FOR DINNER THE WAY THS ONE DID - SLUNG OVER HIS DAD'S SHOULDER.<JNK RICHE, 3, JASON, 2, AND JODI, 3, UNDERGO POTTY TRAINING -EN MASSE.<JNK<JNK CUTLINE: SARAH, 5, HOLDS THE SWEATER SLEEVE OF HER ARMLESS SISTER, 8-YEAR-OLD MANDY, WHO LEARNED SOON AFTER SHE ARRIVED AT HER NEW HOME SEVEN YEARS AGO HOW TO DO ALL THE THINGS CHILDREN WITH ARMS CAN DO.
BEFORE THE REST OF THE FAMILY SITS DOWN TO DINNER, 11-YEAR-OLD KELLY FEEDS TORY, WHO REQUIRES A SPECIAL CHAIR TO SUPPORT HER HEAD, JODI, 3, LOOKS ON. (FOR OTHER CUTLINES SEE END OF TEXT)
NATALIE FOBES: THE MAJORITY OF THE NASON CLAN GATHERS FOR A GROUP PHOTOGRAPH IN FRONT OF THEIR EVER-GROWING HOME NEAR SISTERS, OREGON.
EVERYONE HELPS OUT AT THE NASON HOUSE. FOR 8-YEAR-OLD PAUL, THAT MEANS DUSTING.
BESIDES FILMS ON THE VCR, ``SESAME STREET'' IS THE ONLY TELEVISION THE NASON CHILDREN ARE ALLOWED TO WATCH.
TWO-YEAR-OLD DEBI, A NEW ARRIVAL FROM ISRAEL, GETS SOME ATTENTION FROM BIG BIRD.
MASTERS OF THIS PLAN, DIANE AND DENNIS NASON, GET A FEW WORDS IN WHILE SUPERVISING LAUNDRY DUTY.
EIGHT-YEAR-OLD PAUL VACUUMS THE BEDROOM HE SHARES WITH DARIN, 15; BOTH ARE FROM NEW YORK.
ONE FO THE NEWER NASONS, 13-YEAR-OLD STEVEN, HAS FOUND HIMSELF A JOB WORKING AT THE FAMILY DAIRY.
FEW OF THE NASON CHILDREN ARRIVE FOR DINNER THE WAY THS ONE DID - SLUNG OVER HIS DAD'S SHOULDER. RICHE, 3, JASON, 2, AND JODI, 3, UNDERGO POTTY TRAINING -EN MASSE.
SARAH, 5, HOLDS THE SWEATER SLEEVE OF HER ARMLESS SISTER, 8-YEAR-OLD MANDY, WHO LEARNED SOON AFTER SHE ARRIVED AT HER NEW HOME SEVEN YEARS AGO HOW TO DO ALL THE THINGS CHILDREN WITH ARMS CAN DO