Twice within a week Sandra Hanna dreamed about the child. The first time she noticed the cataracts and knew he must be almost blind. He was weak and ill and his mother pleaded for Sandra to take care of him.
In the second dream she contacted an adoption agency called AASK (Aid to Adoption of Special Kids). She saw the boy’s picture on a file card in a cabinet, but it was stuck behind another card where no one else could see it and come to his rescue. It was as if the helpless child just “didn’t exist.”
His situation was heartbreaking, but she and Darrold had already adopted four children. Now her father was dying and needed their care and baby Keira was only a few months old. It wasn’t time to add to their family, was it?
That same week a friend called. “We’re thinking of adopting a girl who is deaf. What is it like to live with a deaf child?”
After Sandra assured her that it could be a rewarding experience, the friend mentioned the address of a local agency which had pictures of children available nationwide for adoption. The next day a trip to the dentist took Sandra past the building.
“Well, while I’m here, I’ll stop,” she thought. “If they have a picture of him, the dream will mean something, and if not …” His picture was not posted.
But Sandra couldn’t leave the office without asking about him. Sure enough, information about Stephen, an almost blind and chronically ill boy in Florida, had come in just that morning. The face was the same, and the information had come from AASK. She decided that God must want the Hanna family to have a new member.
While waiting for Stephen, Sandra and Darrold were asked a familiar question: “Can you take another child?” They learned that Joseph, a tiny baby with Down’s Syndrome, also needed a home. Again they felt impressed to say yes.
Joe arrived in July of 1977, a week after Sandra’s father died and a month before Stephen came to them. Joe was a quiet, docile baby, which was a blessing, because Stephen would need all the time they could spare.
Though almost three, Stephen couldn’t walk, couldn’t talk, and wasn’t toilet trained. He couldn’t feed himself and wouldn’t eat anything but baby food. He could play for only fifteen minutes before becoming so exhausted that he had to sleep.
In a blessing, Stephen was promised that in time he would become normal. But that miracle would take a lot of hard work. The Hannas tackled his speech problem, his physical therapy, and his emotional development, knowing that every child needs not only love but training. Hours were spent in doctors’ offices. Finally there was a diagnosis: Lowe’s syndrome, an extremely rare metabolic dysfunction whose victims often waste away in institutions or die.
Institutions and foster homes are a thing of the past for the sixteen children—most with physical, emotional, or mental handicaps—whom the Hannas have adopted. Their eight natural children are not being neglected either. How can such ordinary-looking parents provide such love and care and still appear buoyant rather than burdened?
Darrold Hanna learned patience early from his mother. His grandfather taught him to work hard, and he had many practical skills by the time he met Sandra. He also had memories of some lonely years when his mother was ill and his father was overseas. He spent most of this time without real companionship. Hoping his own children would never be that lonely, he wanted a large family.
Sandra came from a large LDS family accustomed to working hard and taking things in stride. Two weeks after high school graduation she married Darrold and they proceeded to put themselves through college. Although Marcy and Debra were born in the meantime, they graduated on schedule, Darrold in industrial arts and Sandra in elementary education.
They taught for the next four years at the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation in northern California, where Sherri and David were born. Then they moved to Springfield, Oregon, where Darrold taught industrial arts at Springfield High School and Sandra taught elementary school and earned a master’s degree in learning and behavior disorders in children.
With four children and a warning from the doctor that it could be dangerous for Sandra to have more, they could have considered their family complete. But the Hannas discovered that they had a remarkable partnership and, with the help of God, felt they could raise a larger family. They applied to adopt, making it clear that ill or handicapped children were welcome.
Both Sandra and Darrold are convinced that handicapped children are more like normal children than different. They are not to be pitied and pampered. Each child, no matter how severe his handicap, has talents of his own to develop.
The Hanna high chairs and cribs have never made it to the attic. Soon after their fifth natural child, Brian, was born, they adopted Kelly as an infant. John, partially deaf and hyperactive, was adopted at six months. Then six-year-old Cindy was adopted, and their sixth natural child, Suzanne, was born. Lisa was adopted at age eight, and their seventh natural child, Keira, was born. Then Joseph and Stephen joined the family.
Now there were thirteen children and Sandra was pregnant again. But Angela, a thirteen-year-old from Texas, needed a special home because she was crippled with arthrogriposis. She joined the family shortly before Tia was born.
As the older children began leaving for college and marriage, the Hannas continued to adopt. Becky, then Jay, joined the family, followed by Keith and Michael, to bring the total to nineteen.
But how could they resist adding Lynn Marie with her sweet personality? And Sara, also with Down’s Syndrome? Then they found not just one, but two youngsters with multiple problems, including cerebral palsy. Paula is totally blind and cannot see that her new sister, Lynn, who helps her ambulate in her wheelchair or walker, has no arms. Her twin brother Paul is partially blind, but doctors have been able to restore some of his sight.
Their twenty-fourth child is two-year-old Micah. He has brain damage and is partially blind.
Like their parents, the Hanna children have not rejected anyone. Well-loved and confident in their own place in the family, they are able to welcome any newcomer and to adopt their parents’ matter-of-fact attitude toward any handicap.
The family often has a library session about a particular handicap before a new child is adopted. “We talk it over with the kids and try to give them some idea of what it would be like to have this particular child in our family, the good and the bad. We think about it, then we all vote. If anybody ever objected or felt that he couldn’t be a brother or sister to such a person, then we wouldn’t go through with it.
“So far each child has accepted each new family member without reservation,” says Sandra. Their “open-arms” policy was manifest in an unusual way when a family friend came to visit carrying his tiny son Eric in his arms. Brian, who was four or five at the time, answered the door, then ran shrieking happily, “Mama, Mama, look what they brought us!”
The Hannas don’t take children as foster children—they apply to adopt right from the start. They know the possible trauma of separation from a foster home and want a child to know that he is there to stay—no matter what.
And although many of the children begin with severe emotional problems, they soon thrive under the Hannas’ care. “Many problems eliminate themselves in a big family,” Sandra says. “There is more room to be yourself. Parents must deal with the situation at hand instead of digging up the past. With less pressure, kids feel they can make improvements.”
Then there’s the built-in companionship of a loving and accepting family. In 1980 Darrold was called to be bishop of the Springfield First Ward. The call could have been overwhelming, but the Hannas—including the children—marshalled themselves to meet each other’s needs.
When a family reaches a certain size, competing for the parents’ attention diminishes naturally—there are plenty of other people to interact with. Accepting responsibility for each other also helps. The children learn to love, and to feel loved.
“We’ve always tried to make sure each child knew we loved him unconditionally, and I think we have succeeded,” Sandra said. Thinking of the sometimes rebellious teenage years, she adds, “You just have to tough things out with kids sometimes if you’re having troubles. You can’t always solve every problem, but you can let a child know that you love him. And if you try to make your home a warm and loving place, he will come back to it.”
However, arguments still crop up now and then, and Darrold and Sandra have to monitor these interactions. One summer, when remarks started getting too caustic, Sandra took action. “Up with People” signs appeared around the house. Anyone caught making cutting remarks was sentenced to fifteen minutes of weeding in the berry patch, where the barbs on the bushes were an apt reminder of the sting of unkind words. Things soon settled down.
Anyone with problems coping with one teenager should find new strength and patience in knowing that the Hannas now have twelve of them. For a few weeks this year, five of them were age fifteen!
Often ingenuity and good humor make up for the lack of more than twenty-four hours in a day. Much teaching and socializing has been done around the kitchen sink, or while folding laundry or cutting firewood. Sandra and the teenagers often lapse into impromptu play-acting. Many legitimate problems have been solved that way.
How has peace been kept in a family of twenty-six? Part of the answer is that the TV set remains turned to the wall most of the time. The Hannas have developed the habit of reading, alone and to each other. Reading aloud from favorite books has brought the family close together. The TV is generally used only as a video screen for the computer or on special occasions when the family watches a rented video movie as a group.
Another thing that keeps the family close is the security of knowing that Sandra and Darrold put the family first. “You know,” says Sandra, “Darrold has never considered his only responsibility to be earning a living. He’s always been willing to get up in the middle of the night if a child needed attention. He helps with housework, too. It’s never been a case of this-is-my-job and that-is-your-job. The only things I would rather he didn’t do are the laundry and the cooking. He’s a great cook outdoors; when we go camping, he does all the cooking. Inside, though, the only temperature he knows is high.”
With twenty-four children, there are bound to be some financial strains. The Hannas have solved this problem with frugal habits, hard work, and good money management. Starting their marriage with $40-a-month payments on a trailer house, they have never rented. Darrold always seems to have some remodeling project underway and has ingeniously transformed the three bedrooms they started with in 1965 to eleven bedrooms. When the family could no longer fit in the van, Darrold matter-of-factly cut off the back of the van, welded on metal panels to make it two or three feet longer, and welded the rear end back on. Still a teacher, he does construction jobs during summers and vacations.
Sandra grows a big garden each summer. It is a family project, as is the canning they do almost daily when the harvest begins. They can gallons of thick minestrone soup, hundreds of quarts of tomatoes, green beans, and pears. They take family excursions to bring in firewood for the fireplace; most of the bedrooms aren’t heated during the mild Oregon winters, to keep the electricity bill down.
Grocery shopping is definitely not a family project. Sandra’s monthly grocery trip is like a military campaign, and she wants no distractions or changes in her grocery list. Making her rounds of two or three favorite stores, she fills the family van with such things as 25-pound bags of pancake flour.
Darrold cuts hair for the whole family and does repairs. Sandra sews as much as she has time for, and welcomes hand-me-down clothes from cousins and friends.
Although Darrold has provided her with a dishwasher, two washers, two dryers, and as many other mechanical aids as possible, managing the housekeeping is still a big job. But Sandra takes it all in stride. She starts the children baking cookies at eight years of age, then advances them to salads and main dishes. By age twelve or thirteen each can fix a complete meal and do most other household chores. The boys do gardening and lawnmowing or entertain smaller children, helping them with therapy. All the children take turns making the lunches for the school-age children.
Through the years, the Hannas have relied heavily on the help of their capable older children. But four of the children are now married, one son is on a mission in Chile, and another daughter attends Ricks College. As one child leaves home another competently steps in to do the work. Children who many felt would never be able to function well are vital members of the Hanna household.
Although the work is heavy, Sandra doesn’t complain. “I’d make a terrible martyr,” she insists. “That would be tremendously boring. I’m lucky because the things I enjoy doing are the things I can do at home. I love to sew and to garden, and it’s nice to know that they help the family. I would do these things anyway. Then, too, I learned a long time ago that if a child interrupts, I can put this kind of work down and come back to it later.”
To help with the legitimate fatigue which comes from managing such a large family, Darrold and Sandra try to have a weekly “date,” when they get completely away from the family for a few hours. Sometimes Sandra and a friend help each other out. “I watch her children for half a day, and she’ll watch mine some other time. Sometimes I work on genealogy or go window shopping. Sometimes I just stay home and listen to music.”
The Hannas find a great source of the necessary energy and patience required to adopt handicapped children in knowing what the alternatives for each child are. “For example, Stephen would have wound up in an institution and, I think, literally have starved himself to death, if he hadn’t come to us,” she says soberly.
“A family doesn’t have to be perfect to make room for a handicapped child,” she continues. “We’re all brothers and sisters on this earth. You wouldn’t subject your own flesh and blood brother or sister to face unfair conditions or a life of emotional poverty if you could avoid it. You’d do what you could to help.” And that is what the Hannas have done—given a new life to many of our Father’s children.