Tenn. couple specializes in raising kids

Date: 2003-05-11

BOBBY ROSS JR.
The Miami Herald / Associated Press

To cars passing on a country road, Tom and Debbie Schmitz's mailbox - painted with colorful faces of children - provides the first indication that this family is special.

Inside the three-story farmhouse, Debbie Schmitz is busy using a bowl the size of a laundry tub to mix ground beef, bread crumbs and eggs - tonight's meatloaf for her family of 19.

The children who call the Schmitzes "Mom" and "Dad" are white, black, Hispanic, Korean, Vietnamese and Chinese. Most have special needs - physically, emotionally or mentally. Some had mothers who were drug abusers. Some suffered physical abuse.

But to the Schmitzes, they are all the same.

They are God's children.

"These children aren't necessarily perfect. No children are," Debbie says. "But somebody's got to look at them and go, 'They need homes too and they need love.' "

WORKING TOGETHER

As Debbie prepares dinner, her husband, Tom, greets a visitor with a wave as he wraps up a business call. He's a sales manager for a company that rents portable toilets.

Nearby, 16-year-old Nora from China spoons mouthfuls of apple sauce to Marrissa, 4, who has Down syndrome and nutrition problems that often require her to use a feeding tube.

In an adjoining den, Mac, 13, lovingly drums the back of 2-year-old Matteo, who was born with a host of deformities and medical problems, evidenced by the tubes hanging all around him. Chest percussion treatment, or CPT, helps loosen mucus in Matteo's fragile lungs.

In all, the Schmitzes care for 17 adopted, foster and biological children.

"We do nothing in small sizes," says Debbie, 43, whose menu this day requires 15 pounds of ground beef and six bottles of barbecue sauce. "Everything is large. We make the most of everything."

After hanging up the telephone, Tom, 44, dotes on Marrissa, encouraging her to tell a visitor how old she is.

She shyly holds up four fingers.

"And in a couple of months, how old are you going to be?" Debbie asks.

"Five minutes," she replies.

Her parents and siblings laugh. Marrissa just got her first watch, so she's a bit confused.

The Schmitzes began caring for Marrissa when she was 3 months old and adopted her about six months after that. Her parents couldn't handle a child with her disabilities.

"We're very glad they gave her up because we don't know what we'd do without her," Tom says. "We always tell the kids when they come here they're going to stay here forever, or until they're 18 and on their own."

The Schmitzes, who married in 1989, didn't set out to raise such a large family. It just happened that way.

They adopted several children in their home state of Wisconsin before moving two years ago to this town 85 miles northeast of Memphis.

Debbie says she always felt a special calling from the Lord to care for children in need. Soon, her family grew as word spread to state and privacy adoption agencies that the Schmitzes welcomed hard-to-place children.

CAN'T SAY NO

"I originally wasn't thinking this many kids," Tom says. "But she gets a call from somebody and says, `Tom, somebody called on this one here.' "

Once he hears the child's story, he can't say no either.

At this point, however, the couple may have reached their limit.

"The fact of the matter is, I got two babies in my bedroom right now and not a lot of bedroom space left for kids," Debbie says, pointing out Matteo's crib beside her bed and Marrissa's bed at the foot of it.

The Schmitzes receive government subsidies for some, but not all, of the children to cover their living and medical expenses. Debbie says some people have a misconception that foster parents do it for the money.

"I find it actually somewhat humorous," she says. "Sometimes, it makes you angry. Tom said it before, but he wouldn't be cleaning toilets if we were making big bucks off this. I'm sorry, but every dime we've got goes to the kids."

Groceries alone cost at least $2,000 a month. To make ends meet, the Schmitzes live off their 18 acres.

Adopted sons Zach, 16, and Derek, 13, help milk the cows and gather eggs from the chickens. The Schmitzes raise corn, pumpkins and other vegetables in their garden.

But the children also enjoy modern amenities.

The Schmitzes refurbished the attic to make a recreation room with a pool table, pinball machine and other games. Three televisions scattered throughout the seven-bedroom house are connected to a satellite dish. The children also have access to the Internet and computer games.

The only nonhuman allowed inside is a parrot named Bailey, who has memorized almost everyone's name.

Outside, 20 cats, three wild mustangs, two riding horses, a couple of geese, a potbellied pig and a half-dozen dogs roam the countryside.

"I think people know about us and they drop off their dogs at the end of the driveway," Tom says, laughing.

Adds Debbie, "They think there's something called s-u-c-k-e-r written in the phone book."

OTHERS' PRAYERS

The family worships at the nearby Hickory Grove Baptist Church, where they comprise about a quarter of the congregation most Sundays.

Not long after they moved to Trenton, Hickory Grove members knocked on their door and invited them to worship.

When Mitchell, 16, was hurt in a farm accident and required hospitalization, women from the church delivered meals to the house for a week.

"Every time we go to church, they're kissing the kids and just loving everybody up," Debbie says. "I don't know if it's the religion or the church, but I feel like there's something missing if we miss a Sunday."

The Rev. Jeremy Barrett, the church's 26-year-old pastor, says the order and discipline of the Schmitz household amaze him.

"From everything I've known about them, they just seem to be very down to earth, just very open people, who have a lot of love to give," Barrett says.

ALL FEEL `REAL'

The couple's devotion to helping children in need has influenced their only biological child together, Mac. The teen wants to be a nurse when he grows up so he can care for disabled children. He says neither he, nor any of his siblings, lack for attention despite the family's big size.

Mitchell is Debbie's biological son from a previous marriage. She also has two biological daughters, Mandy, 25, and Melanie, 18, both of whom live in Wisconsin.

But the Schmitzes are quick to point out that biology means nothing to them.

"We love our children no matter what, and I know that sounds really corny, but that's really the God's honest truth," Debbie says. "Some people will say to me, `So which ones are your real kids?' And I'll say, `They all are.' "

Even the ones who don't love them back.

Several of the children - including Marcus, 8, who is black; Robert, 9, who is Korean; Bethany, 12, who is white; and Miko, 12, who is Vietnamese - have reactive attachment disorder, where a child resists forming loving relationships and can become violent.

"Marcus came to us as a child that hated us, wouldn't allow us to touch him," Debbie says. "He was a 3-year-old baby and he hated any physical, human contact. But he'd also been in six foster homes by the time he was 2.

"Now, occasionally, he'll come up to me and say, 'Mom, can I have a kiss?"'

The other children are Mariah and Maya, both 8; Eve, 10; and Rachel, Luke and Michaela, all 13.

Most of the children attend public school, but Debbie home-schools four of them, including Rachel.

"She's a very sweet child, with lots of ability beyond belief, but she just cannot handle school," Debbie says. "She'd go to school and kiss a boy and say, `I love you,' and they wouldn't kiss her back, so she'd lay on her floor and kick her feet."

TIME FOR DINNER

At dinnertime, Debbie sets out white plastic plates and covers them with meatloaf, mashed potatoes, creamed corn and banana nut muffins.

With help from the girls - it's their night to serve - she fills cups with juice.

All the children except Matteo and Marrissa take seats at a large dining room table. Matteo naps, while Marrissa, wearing a bib with a bunny on it, sits in a high chair.

"Ummm, good, Mommy," Marrissa says as she digs in.

"Oh, thank you, you're welcome," Debbie replies. "But you're not supposed to eat until we say, `Thank you, Jesus.' "

Tom and Debbie eat after the children finish.

"It's impossible to sit down," Tom explains. "About the time you get the last one served, the first one wants seconds."

But neither he nor his wife complains about it.

"I'm a very selfish person," Debbie says. "I love these kids and this is my dream. Not many people can say they live their dream every day."

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