Different Blood, Same Hearts

Photo Cutline: The hands of Monica and Dave Kelly's adopted children Photo Credit: Courtesy of Monica Kelly
Photo Cutline: The hands of Monica and Dave Kelly’s adopted children
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Monica Kelly

By Jessica A Todt

Meet The Parents Who Adopted a Dozen Special Needs Children

You might be a large adoptive family if you walk out in the front yard and can hear other parents in the neighborhood whisper to their children, “That’s the house with all of the kids,” says Monica Kelly, adoptive mother of twelve special needs children. For those who know the Kelly family, otherwise known as the “Kelly Krew,” it is never a surprise to see the seven boys and five girls, all under 11 years old, jump into the Kelly family bus and drive to elementary school each morning.

Over the last 10 years, Monica and Dave Kelly fostered and eventually adopted a dozen children in foster care systems from South Carolina’s Department of Social Services. Typically, the adoption process is long, stressful, and outrageously expensive for those willing to adopt. Newborn babies are usually adopted quickly, while older and emotionally disturbed children are likely to stay in foster care for years. Nothing could hold the Kellys back, they have always had a strong desire to offer a normal life to the kids who are overlooked.

Monica and Dave Kelly met while working together in a social work program after they attended graduate school. They knew from that moment on that they would become foster parents at some point in their lives. After raising their two biological children, Brianna and Hunter Kelly, who are now out of the house and successfully independent in college, the family wanted to fully dedicate their lives to help special needs children in foster care. They believe it is important to keep fostered siblings together, so they worked hard to find siblings who were previously separated from each other.

Aside from her job raising 12 kids, Monica Kelly works full-time as the regional director for a non-profit company that works with state agencies to care for foster children in South Carolina.

Most people assume the Kelly family is a large church group or a class field trip when they see them in public. Going to dinner in a restaurant, hanging out on the playground or even taking a quick stop through a fast-food drive thru always creates sudden chit-chat and a few strange glances. With 12 growing children and hungry mouths to feed three times a day, Dave Kelly took this challenge and now has it down to an art. He spends the majority of his time preparing meals for the whole family.

“The amount of food we go through in a week is unbelievable. Grocery shopping takes up an entire day for our family,” says Brianna Kelly, the oldest sibling, “When we grocery shop at Sam’s Club, people stare because we have to push a big dolly to hold all of the food. My dad is always in the kitchen cooking when I come home from college.  He is able to do it so quickly now it is like a legitimate restaurant.”

The family travels to purchase meat twice a year at the “Chef Store” in Columbia,. This store typically sells meats to restaurants and food providers in bulk, but luckily for the Kelly family, it sells to the public as well. Each time they travel to purchase meat, they spend thousands of dollars at once. The meat is preserved in a large freezer in the garage for about six months until it’s time to go back for another round. The family eats with plastic silverware, plates, cups and bowls to reduce dirty dishes in the kitchen. Dave Kelly serves the kids “cafeteria style” and each of them uses tray to make the meal process quick and easy.

A typical school day for the “Kelly Krew” is well planned out and always on schedule. When the alarm goes off in the morning,  everyone knows to get up and get ready for school. After making 12 breakfast meals, Dave Kelly drops the kids off at elementary school. While the house is empty, he cooks, cleans and runs errands. The family has a tutor who comes four days a week and helps with the kid’s homework each afternoon. Aside from therapy appointments, doctors’ appointments and sports, that is a complete day in the life of this busy family.

Running the household in the Kelly family sounds like an unattainable challenge to most. To add more stress, each of the children experiences mental disorders or severe behavioral problems.

“Typically, when families adopt, they look for young and healthy children with no behavioral issues,” says Kelly.“ As their mother I have to find a way to explain to them why their old foster parents didn’t want them anymore.” Eight of the kids were born addicted to narcotic drugs by their birth mother’s drug abuse during pregnancy. The other four were physically abused from by birth parents and then later abused by their foster parents. “These kids come into our home and only have the clothes on their backs. It’s so rewarding to watch them finally realize that in our home they will never have to worry about being hurt or sent back to foster care,” wiping away a tear, she says. “I want my kids to grow up knowing they are loved unconditionally no matter what troubles they have.”

Therapy is a necessity for this family. A child coming from foster care at an older age may have multiple emotional problems.  “Behavior extremes, speech disorders, anxiety, bedwetting, poor self-esteem, learning disabilities, pulling out clumps of hair and temper tantrums are seen in almost all neglected or abused children who end up in foster care,” says child psychiatrist Elizabeth McLaughlin.

“Without the proper behavioral therapy to help enforce healthy coping mechanisms for stress, anger and sadness, children are more inclined to become drug users or violent people themselves.” It’s not surprising to see very serious eating disorders, anxiety problems, intense depression or attention deficit disorders in foster care children. Some of the kids are more emotionally disturbed than others from different levels of childhood trauma. Marcus Kelly, an autistic 6-year-old who suffers from severe post traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD, requires more attention and care than the other siblings.

He rides a private school bus and attends an independent school specifically meant for children with special needs. Kelly teaches her children to always be open about their feelings and to ask questions if they are confused. Since seven of the kids are African-American or Hispanic, she explains to them that even though their skin color is different, that they are still one family no matter what.

When curiosity about their biological parents arises, she explains to them that they were born from another “tummy,” but that she is their “forever mommy.” Most of the children still remember their biological parents and it takes months for them to accept their new adoptive parents as permanent caregivers.

The Kelly household is built on patience, love, kindness and support for one another. Although Monica and Dave do not plan on adopting any more children of their own, they hope to foster again when these children are grown.

“Monica and Dave are resilient people,” says neighbor, Ana Smith, “Brianna, Hunter, Josh, Cooper, Brice, Cameron, Marcus, Braxton, Bailey, Leeya, Lindsey, Laken, Jazz and Michael. I know them all. Each of them are so special in their own way. They are a constant reminder that love can overcome anything and that our hearts beat the same no matter where we came from.”

Todt is a public relations senior