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Jun 23, 2014

Every marriage faces challenges, from paying the bills to getting along with the in-laws to deciding who’s going to cook dinner tonight. So why would a couple voluntarily take on the enormous extra challenge of adopting nine children?

For Mike and Sharon Dennehy, a sermon at church planted the seed.

“We heard an amazing sermon from the book of James about being doers of God’s Word, not just hearers,” Sharon says. “You can just sit and listen and go to church every Sunday, but if you don’t put it into practice, you’re not living the way you should. We realized we were just being pew-sitters instead of doers.” 

One way to become “doers,” they felt, was to welcome orphaned children into their family alongside their three biological children. So they began looking at photos of international children who needed adoptive families.

A photo from Bethany Christian Services caught their eye. It was a grainy, black-and-white image of a baby boy, George, in Romania. He had been born with a rare condition called bilateral upper limb deficiency, meaning his arms had failed to develop.

They learned that people in his village believed the baby and his family were cursed. His birthparents loved him but were not equipped to care for him. Wanting a better life for their son—one where he would not be written off as worthless—they had surrendered him to a local orphanage.

“We weren’t sure what we could handle,” Sharon said, “but we couldn’t stop thinking about the boy in the photo. It was exhilarating and frightening at the same time.”

Adopting George was the first step along their remarkable journey.

After George joined their family, Mike and Sharon became aware of another child—a boy from India named James. Like George, he had been born without arms. It made perfect sense to the Dennehys to make them brothers.

They kept on going and eventually ended up with 12 children: their biological kids Erin, Marissa, and Ryan, and their adopted kids George, James, Caris, Tamer, Tom, Siobhan, Kali, Andi, and Hope.

“Once we saw the difference it made for a child with a tough past to have a family, we wanted to do more, help more children,” Sharon said.

“We had no experience and we didn’t really know how to raise them…but you give a person unconditional love, and they blossom.”

The children come from around the world—China, Ethiopia, Romania, India, Thailand, and the United States.  “We have six different countries represented in our family,” Mike says. “God put it all together like a beautiful puzzle.”

From a practical point of view, having a dozen kids—although some are grown and gone by now—means that “in our house we’ve got four dishwashers and a pantry the size of a Texas back acre,” Mike says.

The children arrived at the Dennehys with a variety of special needs, from missing limbs to prenatal drug exposure to emotional trauma. Each child has responded to the love and security they have felt upon becoming part of a real family.

Hope, the youngest child, experiences the biggest physical challenges of all—she has no limbs other than a small foot emerging from her hip—but she has a happy personality and she is thrilled to have a family. She can manipulate the controls on her wheelchair and she loves to swim, bobbing gleefully in the water.

While every marriage involves discussion and negotiation, Mike and Sharon’s would seem to require an extra helping.

“Sharon is the gas pedal and I am the brake,” Mike jokes.

Sharon elaborates in her blog (hopefloats.me). “There actually is a term in the adoption world called ‘the reluctant husband syndrome,’” she says. Sharon offers the following perspective for women who feel called to adopt but whose husbands are unsure:

“It would be a tragedy if something good like adoption or any ministry were to put a wedge in your marriage,” she writes. “Your first responsibility, you of the gas pedal, is to value your marriage and your spouse as the gift from God that he/she is. God will never call you to do anything that you can’t agree on. He would never want a marriage to break up over a disagreement on the right way to serve Him…

“With that said, I can tell you, gas pedalers, prayer is powerful. Often times when God has a calling for you as a couple, the sensitive one will hear it first. This calls for patience and lots of prayer.”

Sharon and Mike adopted George through Bethany Christian Services, the organization of which I am CEO. Bethany is a nonprofit agency responding to the needs of children and families in 15 countries, through adoption, foster care, and family preservation services.

I’m inspired by Mike and Sharon’s story of reaching out to these vulnerable kids. Bethany recently launched a campaign called These 400 to seek adoptive families for international kids with special needs. We have many children on our list who are extraordinarily vulnerable—medically, developmentally, and emotionally—and who urgently need loving homes.

The fact is this: A loving family can make all the difference in a child’s life. George Dennehy is an outstanding example.

From a baby who was so weak that the doctor expected him to die, he has become a vibrant, healthy, young adult whose talents shine. He is able to play piano, cello, and guitar with his feet, while singing (you can see him perform at www.georgedennehy.com).

A thoughtful, reflective person, George says that “as an adult, I can see how special it was to grow up in a big family. All these children with different needs from different countries living together as one family—it just works. It shows how God will take care of our needs when we trust Him and obey. Seeing our parents live out the gospel drives us to do the same.”

At Bethany, we believe there are many Christian families in the United States who would be willing to live out gospel values by adopting orphaned children in need.

We believe God will find a family for each child in our These 400 campaign, no matter how significant the child’s disabilities or challenges. I invite you to visit www.bethany.org/these400 to meet some of the waiting children. Even if you’re not personally called to adopt, you may know someone who does feel that call, and you can pass on the word.

Jesus told us that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Sharon has experienced the truth of those words through the experience of adoption. “I feel like having these kids has really helped us find our life, find our meaning, find our purpose.”

Listen to Bethany Christian Services’ Every Child podcast for more on issues relative to vulnerable children. From adoption and foster care to the introduction of sustainable social services in developing countries, Every Child features an informative discussion, led by Bethany’s president/CEO Bill Blacquiere, with leading voices from ministries and nonprofit organizations, as well as Christian authors and artists.

Bethany Christian Services is a leading global family preservation and child welfare agency.