Mary Stolz, a 61-year-old Ohio mother of 16, didn’t even blush. She quickly realized that one or more of her daughters must have thrown their undergarments out their bedroom window, now plainly on display for the entire neighborhood.
Dealing with unique situations like arborical unmentionables is Stolz’ daily bread and butter. As one of the original Reece’s Rainbow families, adopting 11 kids in total from Ukraine, Serbia and Bulgaria beginning in 2004, there is very little Stolz hasn’t seen at this point.
“Nothing goes as planned,” she says. “You have to be able to roll with the punches.”
She and her husband Jim are pretty adept at that these days. Stolz mornings begin at 5:30, with cows needing milked, chickens needing fed and eggs needing gathered. A small support staff arrives to help prepare the 10 youngest Stolzes ― all of whom have Down Syndrome and live at home ― for the day. Nine of them attend school or day programs, while one stays at home where Stolz administers his medical care. Jim, meanwhile, drives several of his children to and from their day programs.
After school brings more assistants to help manage the chaos. Some kids attend community activities; some enjoy car rides; some stay home. Evening might bring farm chores, TV watching and outside play before bedtime.
Stolz is the home manager and nurse. Her brood consists of five biological and the rest adopted, ranging in ages from 39 down to 16. The 10 still at home include seven sons and three daughters, including one biological son.
Their mother lists them off matter-of-factly: “Our first adoption was from Ukraine, a sibling set of two that wasn’t a Reece’s Rainbow adoption, Catie and James. They’re 32 and 25 and don’t have Down Syndrome. Then our second adoption was Joey from Ukraine; he was our first RR adoption. He is 22. Then Jake from Serbia is 23. Then Marty and Dido from Bulgaria are 18 and 16. Andre from Ukraine is 25. Evie, Laura and Chrissy from Bulgaria are 23, 22 and 21. Then Peter from Bulgaria is 21. Then our youngest biological son is Matthew, he’s 32.”
Matthew, in fact, is a major reason why he has so many siblings. After he was born with Down Syndrome, his parents eventually settled into his medical, educational and therapy routines. If they were doing it for Matthew, Mary and Jim figured, why not for more children with his same diagnosis?
So they set out to adopt a child like Matthew. Instead, they brought home James and Catie, neither of whom have Down Syndrome. “We failed miserably [at our original adoption goal],” Stolz jokes, “so we had to go back until we found someone else.”
“Once you see and feel and smell what these kids are going through in their orphanages, you can’t help yourself,” Stolz explains. “It was like, can we figure out how to bring one more home? Do we have the resources and the space to do this for one more child?”
After adopting 11, they couple feels finished ― but satisfyingly so. Despite the challenges of a large family with so many members with disabilities, every one of their adopted children is “light years better off” than living in an orphanage, Stolz says. It’s a good life.
That good life, however, comes with bumps in the road. Raising a child you birthed with Down Syndrome is decidedly different than raising one you adopted with the same condition, after all. Trauma is beastly. It’s not fun dealing with a child who uses feces as lip balm; basic communication is often difficult; the logistics of 10 young adults with intellectual disabilities can be staggering; acceptable behavior in public is not a given.
“The trauma that comes out as behavior from what they endured ― it’s not something that’s ever going to go away,” Stolz says. “It’s so much deeper than just not knowing how to communicate what they’re feeling.”
The cruelty of Covid lockdowns struck particularly hard. The Stolzes could no longer attend church, for instance. Even when houses of faith reopened, “Going back to church is not as simple as driving back into the parking lot,” she says. “That’s been really tough, because our faith is so important to us.” It feels like starting all over again with working with her kids on how to act in public.
But the family presses on. Jim and Mary made a commitment, and they are joyfully sticking with it, no matter what each day brings.
“This life is worth it ― different, but worth it,” Stolz says. “We all have a part to play in helping these children who need it.”