BY JIM KNEISZEL
Green Bay Press-Gazette
It's a satisfying part of the evening in a house full of energetic children.
Sleepiness has taken the edge off Debbie and Tom Schmitz's large brood, and peace and quiet are on the horizon. But still, there is a most rewarding moment when mom and dad send their babies off to bed.
"God bless you. Sweet dreams. I love you," Debbie repeats as she gives each of the kids a kiss and a hug.
"They're all my children. This is my dream," Debbie says as the rattle and hum of little people ebbs. It's quiet enough for Tom to hear the logs crackling in the fireplace as he rocks a sleeping beauty, baby Marissa, in his arms.
The Schmitz family is one of 10 in Northeastern Wisconsin being honored as Families of Distinction at a ceremony Thursday. The program is sponsored by the Green Bay-De Pere YWCA oand American Medical Security Group.
The Howard couple officially has eight children: Four biological (one an adult not living at home) and four adopted with special needs. They are expecting to be able to adopt two brothers who have been living with them as foster children for more than two years. And they hope a third, older brother can join them.
Four of the children are African-American, three the product of horrifying backgrounds of fetal drug and alcohol abuse and physical abuse. One-year-old Marissa has Downs Syndrome.
Life is challenging for Debbie, a full-time mom and adoption advocate, and Tom, a papermaker for Procter & Gamble. But they don't consider any of it to be drudgery. In fact, Debbie would like to expand on her lifelong dream for a big family.
"God's not going to give us what we can't take care of," Debbie said. "If they didn't grow in my belly, they grew in my heart. The secret to our success is that we treat them like they're all our kids."
"If it was up to her and the state was willing, we'd have 20 kids right now," Tom said.
The couple has taken care of some of the barriers to having an even bigger family. Last year, they moved from a home in Suamico with 2,500 square feet to a 5,000-square-foot rambling ranch with an apartment above a detached garage.
But a barrier remains with a Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services rule that foster and adoptive parents can take in a maximum of eight children age 18 and younger. The couple expects the state to waive the rule so they can adopt the two boys living with them. And they want to get permission to reunite the boys with their 14-year-old brother.
But they say the "eight is enough" provision is unfair, penalizing both parents who can handle more children and the large number of unwanted children who are either older or have special needs.
"Every family should be judged on its own merits," Debbie said. "Before we start stopping families from adopting, we should stop mothers from having (kids and abandoning them)."
They make the point that nobody tells parents how many biological children they can have. So how can the social services system dictate the number of children caring families adopt?
Green Bay pediatrician Dr. Holly Maes agrees. The doctor for the Schmitz children said Debbie and Tom are capable of handling more kids. And they should be allowed to because they are such impressive parents, said Maes, who nominated them for the Families of Distinction Award.
"They see it as a calling. They have endless love in their hearts," Maes said of the Schmitzes. "For some legislature or governmental body to say, `You can't have more than eight kids. That's it' our parents grew up in a generation where it wasn't uncommon to have 12 or 16 kids."
Maes said it's a rare family that can handle multiple special-needs children. So she doesn't think it makes sense to hold back parents who are up to the task.
"They're advocates for every one of these kids," she said. "They toil about every day, and their reward is the hugs and kisses."
Whether or not she's able to bring any more home, Debbie works as a volunteer to match unwanted children with adoptive parents through the Adopt America Network.
But that's another story.
For now, all the kids are asleep and it's time for Tom and Debbie to turn out all the lights and head to bed themselves. Their running-ragged routine will start again before daybreak.
* Members: Parents Xay Vue and May Lee children, Meng, Pa Nhia, Pa Kou, Pa Shia, Nou Chee and Chu Fu
* Lives: Green Bay
* Active in: Xay Vue and May Lee are active in their church, the Green Bay Hmong Alliance. He is church treasurer and she is treasurer for the women's group. Maylee is on the Mayor's Neighborhood Resource Board, the Hmong Advisory Board and the Hmong Friends Project. Xay Vue helps people in the Hmong community complete their tax returns.
* Nominator's comments: "I've known them for 10 or 12 years and they're just an exemplary example of what a family should be," said Pete Angilello. "They're active in the community and they support one another. I've seen them face innumerable challenges as individuals and parents, and they just continue to give support to the people they work with. They're wonderful friends."
* Biggest family challenge: "The biggest challenge is juggling between work and family and all the other things," May Lee said. "Between meetings and church, the time is so consuming."
* What makes a family special: "I think the family being together and sharing together and helping each other," said May Lee. "In the Hmong culture you're not as important as an individual as you are in the family. When we think of doing something, we usually think of it as a family activity. If you're married to someone, you're married to the whole family."
* Members: Parents John and Cookie children Troy, Tim and Amy (all adopted) six grandchildren.
* Lives: Abrams
* Active in: Cookie has helped raise $9,000 of $20,000 needed to buy a thermal imaging camera for the local fire department. She has raised thousands of dollars for Children's Hospital of Wisconsin by selling quilts autographed by auto racing personalities. John is an off-road racer.
* Nominator's comments: "They're always doing something for somebody. It's a nonstop thing," said neighbor Shirley Bohl. "I've never seen a family that's so filled with love. You can't help but notice it when you're with them. You're drawn to them." Bohl said Cookie has made thousands of pies for bake sales and that John has plowed her driveway and helped with a difficult calving. "There's always laughter in that house. They really know how to live life."
* Biggest family challenge: "I want our grandkids growing up being friends and knowing each other. These little guys are over here at least two days a week," Cookie said. "I think years ago families were closer than they are now." The biggest challenge for the Konitzers was recovering from a 1984 fire that gutted their home. But they were bowled over when friends, neighbors and family rallied to their aid and built them a new house in just a few months.
* What makes a family special: "Just being there for each other, being friends and helping people. We really think our kids should carry on and do things for our community," Cookie said. Unable to have children, the Konitzers adopted their three kids and then later helped them locate and meet their birthparents. "They all come from the same place, in my book," she said.
Shimshak Neary Family
* Members: Parents Margaret Neary and Mike Shimshak children Eric, Brian, Dan and Davin Frank (Margaret's children from previous marriage) Aurora and Zenda Shimshak (Mike's children from previous marriage) Ben Shimshak, Shannon and Shawn Neary Getasew, Bezuayehu and Sarah Shimshak (adopted).
* Lives: Tigerton
* Active in: Mike Shimshak is superintendent and elementary school principal for the Tigerton School District. He is also chair of the steering committee for the Character Counts Coalition in Tigerton and vice president of the local Lions Club. Margaret Neary works at a nursing home and started the Befrienders Program. Both are active in a variety of duties at St. Anthony Parish. The blended family with adopted children from Ethiopia and India expects to adopt two more Ethiopian orphans.
* Nominator's comments: "In the two years they've been here, they've brought freshness and a new energy to this community. Whatever they've touched has flourished and grown," said Kristene Breitenfeldt of Tigerton. The family has helped children in the small community to understand different cultures. Residents have been "impressed by what can be done in a small area when a couple people say, `We can do this,' " Breitenfeldt said of the community-minded family.
* Biggest family challenge: "Getting along at meal time," Mike Shimshak joked. "Conflict resolution, we like to call it. It's a challenge to be on top of who needs the individual attention at the moment and to see that we're able to provide it for them."
* What makes a family special: "Each kid is unique and they have unique needs and that makes it special. It's the opportunity to watch these kids growing up and seeing what they'll turn out to be."
BY TERRY ANDERSON
When Anh Lam finally passed her driver's exam on the sixth try, it was more than a personal triumph - it was a testament to her perseverance.
Her husband Loi Lam was a captain in the South Vietnamese Army who spent more than eight years in a "re-education" camp after the Vietnam War. He was only allowed occasional visits with his family.
While he suffered in captivity, Ahn and her mother-in-law raised the couple's six children in their war-ravaged country.
Loi finally was released in 1984. The family was allowed to leave Vietnam in 1991. That was when they arrived in Green Bay.
But freedom was short-lived. Less than three years after arriving, Loi succumbed to cancer.
"After my husband died, there was no one who could help me get to work. And I needed to get to work," said Ahn, whose family lives on Green Bay's west side. "So, my oldest son, Son, helped me to learn to drive. And when I passed, I was really happy."
Education is a high priority in the Lam family - sons Lanh and Hai are graduate students respectively at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Kansas State University.
Daughter Hien dropped out of St. Norbert College, but at her mother's insistence has enrolled at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, where she is studying accounting.
Ahn also is attending NWTC, hoping to someday receive her General Education Degree.
With the exception of Hieu, who has a learning disability, the Lams have all become United States citizens.
"From the day I met them I have been absolutely impressed," said nominator Dennis Kral of Appleton. "I listen to people who complain about their lot in life, including me, and suddenly you realize there are people who overcome all of this."
Kral became acquainted with the Lam family through his adopted Vietnamese son, Michael Kim, who is a close friend of Son Lam.
"They have a great attitude and what she has done as a single mother is inspiring," said Kral.
"It's my opinion that we're like most every other family," says Hai, who is a working on his master's degree in nuclear physics. He plans to go on and receive his doctorate degree. "We do have pride, determination and a belief in hard work."
The Lam family still has ties to Vietnam. The oldest child in the family, Ha, lives there with her husband and two children. She and her family are attempting to emigrate to the United States, and are wading through the bureaucracy and paper work. And Son Lam has married a woman in Vietnam and they are awaiting the permission for her to enter the United States.
Each member of the Lam family is active in work and community affairs. For example, Hien serves as a translator for members of the Vietnamese community.
"Green Bay has been a good place for our family," said Anh Lam. "I have friends in other states who say `Come here.' But I like Green Bay."
* Members: Parents George and Marilyn Kubalak children Sharon Pflugr, Steven, Kenneth, Susan Moon, Mary, David, Karen Milkie, John, Elizabeth Powers, Theresa and James 12 grandchildren.
* Lives: Allouez
* Active in: George and Marilyn are lectors and volunteers at Resurrection Catholic Church Red Cross volunteers, coordinators for De Pere blood drives, variety of volunteer activities for the Telephone Pioneers, Salvation Army, Toys for Tots helped build outdoor classroom at McAuliffe Elementary School and playground at the NEW Zoo and Pamperin Park brick washers at NEW Zoo recruit volunteers for Walk America and the Alzheimers' Walk participate in highway cleanup program Marilyn performs as Alfalfa the Clown at various events.
* Nominator's comments: "This family is so quietly involved in everything that it's just outstanding," said Sheila DeLuca, Resurrection family life director. "And they're always causes for the empowerment of other people." The only thing that gets in the way of the Kubalaks doing good deeds is a deep devotion to helping their children, DeLuca said. "Their family comes first," she said. `They have a foundation of faith that really motivates them to do what they do."
* Biggest family challenge: "I'm a stay-at-home mom I've never worked," said Marilyn. "That's made a big difference, I honestly believe. Being able to keep the kids under control made a big difference," George said. Despite the numbers, the Kubalaks have always been close. They stay close over the Internet. Most everyone has a computer and they e-mail regularly.
* What makes a family special: "The kids do," George said. "They're all unique people. We rely on them and they rely on us." When the now-adult children were growing up, Marilyn and George took them everywhere they went. "They were with me and that was really important to me," Marilyn said. "We are very blessed. We did a lot of praying and we still do."
* Family members: Dick and Jan Campbell
* Lives in: Green Bay
* Active in: The couple is active in community and neighborhood programs. The dean of business and marking at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, Jan serves on the governing board of a number of organizations. Among them: St. Vincent Hospital, the Green Bay Redevelopment Authority, Tempo (a business woman's organization), the Green Bay Redevelopment Authority and the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Ecumenical Center. Dick, who owns Campbell Incentive Co., a promotion and marketing agency, is an instructor at Fox Valley Technical College. He is the moderator of the mayor's Hmong Advisory Council. He serves on the Blue Light Association, a group that supports the law enforcement community. He is also on the board of Crime Stoppers.
* Nominator's comments: "Even though they don't have children of their own, they have made a point of reaching out to a family with 14 children," said Chris Neuman of Green Bay. "They are a model on how to reach out to families that may not be like me or you."
* Biggest family challenge: "I think for Jan and I the biggest challenge is time management," Dick said. :"Obviously, finding enough hours in the day is difficult. Jan is also finishing a doctoral dissertation. We're both busy and enjoy the things we do together. We're active in our church - Atonement Lutheran. And we also enjoy an active social life. One of our major priorities is finding time for our friends in the Hmong community."
* What makes a family special: "A family that finds time not only for itself but others," Dick said. "A family that truly enjoys giving of their time to each other and others, that can take the time to keep their lives in perspective."