In China, Kai and Stevey lived in orphanages while Mia was found in a railroad station. Hana endured a South Korean orphanage where other kids pulled out her hair.
They are the youngest of 10 children — all with special needs — adopted by John and Susan France. They are survivors. They are family. And they are the ultracompetitive core of Anoka-Hennepin’s defending state champion adapted softball team.
“Even as part of a team of kids who are very resilient, they stand out because they’re so positive,” Mustangs coach Pete Kutches said. “Things don’t bring them down, and they never quit.”
The team (9-2) is the No. 1 seed as it pursues a second adapted softball title in the physically impaired division. The Mustangs play in the quarterfinals against Osseo at 4 p.m. Friday at Coon Rapids High School.
The siblings attend Blaine High School. They played soccer and floor hockey together the past two school years, fueling the Mustangs’ run of two state championships and three runner-up finishes. They requested consecutive numbers for softball this season. Stevey wears No. 4, followed by Kai (5), Mia (6) and Hana (7).
The children, adopted between ages 3 and 7, aren’t biologically related. But they have grown to be “all very driven and close-knit,” John France said. “They rely on each other.”
Susan said that when she married John, “I made it very clear we were going to have a large family.” The couple had three healthy biological children, then felt called to adopt.
John’s military service in South Korea and Susan’s nursing background inspired them to adopt foreign children with special needs.
“It’s our mission in life,” Susan said. “It takes a little effort and a lot more love and patience. Really, the hardest thing was the expense. People have asked, ‘Why bring these kids here and burden our health care system?’ That was a misconception. We were paying.”
Last lap for leader
Costs have been significant. So, too, have been the rewards.
Hana, 18, who graduates next month, is the third adapted athlete in the past 10 years honored with an Athena award, given to a female senior at each metro-area school who excels in sports, the classroom and community. Quite a journey for the wisp of girl who John and Susan found in South Korea, being tormented by other orphans who pulled out her hair.
Hana was born without ulna bones, and her arms do not extend far through the sleeves of the Mustangs’ purple and black jerseys. She has a total of seven fingers and no thumbs. As the team’s swift leadoff hitter, she has scored 18 runs.
“I can’t imagine how tough it is for her to hold a bat, let alone swing,” Kutches said.
When it comes to who is the best athlete, Hana’s three siblings look right at her.
Mainstreaming their children from the start, John and Susan expected them all to graduate high school. Hana went a step further. She’s in her second year as a Post Secondary Enrollment Options student at Anoka-Ramsey Community College. She’s interested in pre-med or chemistry. She also volunteers with her siblings at Feed My Starving Children.
“She’s the leader, and I know her siblings will miss her,” John said. “She’s got a kind heart, but don’t get her angry.”
Defying the odds
Kai, a 16-year-old junior, is handy under the hood of a car and recently helped John change a tire. He works part-time at a local hardware store. Amniotic banding fused the webbing of Kai’s fingers and toes together and required doctors to reconstruct his extremities with skin grafts from his thighs.
He moved to pitcher last season, keying the Mustangs’ title run. The championship game against Rochester ended with Kai catching the relay to home plate and getting the worst of a collision. But he held on to the ball.
Competitive siblings? Recently reminded of their brother’s big play, the sisters offered more grief than praise. Mia joked the play made up for Kai’s fielding mistake in the state tournament two seasons ago. Classic Mia.
“She’s going to be a comedian; she’s very sharp,” Susan said.
Mia, also a 16-year-old junior, endures “the worst case of scoliosis and spina bifida they’ve seen,” Susan said. The birth defects cause her legs to bow. Doctors said she wasn’t supposed to live past age 14. But this softball season saw improvement. She traded a wheelchair for a walker.
Her growing collection of vinyl records owes to an affinity for all things retro. And she is not shy about good fashion sense.
“She’ll look at how I’m dressed and say, ‘That doesn’t match,’ or ‘Tuck in your shirt,’ ” Kutches said.
All four siblings have visited their birth countries. Mia met the police officer who found her in a train station. Her family carried her up to the Great Wall of China.
“I’m really grateful,” Mia said. “If it wasn’t for them, I don’t think I’d be here alive.”
A promise fulfilled
Stevey, 15, whose name was inspired by Susan’s brother and a love of singer Stevie Nicks, is cognitively impaired. Anoka-Hennepin offers a team in the cognitively impaired division, but John and Susan wanted their children together. Some adapted sports teams combine cognitive and physically impaired players.
Stevey is a freshman gaining confidence and learning to deliver in clutch moments. She slashed the plastic ball off the tee and sent a grounder past the right side of the infield in a recent game. She kept running and recorded a three-run homer.
Her siblings clapped and her parents smiled. Sports have continued John and Susan’s mission to raise well-rounded children regardless of their challenges.
“We promised to do the best we could,” Susan said. “We got them to the best doctors and gave them the best resources we could so that they could be somebody. I hope they pay it forward someday.”
Hana said: “You think about all the kids that are worse off and that don’t have the good life we have. We’re blessed.”