A Coon Rapids family of four became a family of 10 when mom and dad adopted six siblings who had been in foster care.
Jennifer and Nathan Johnson rounded up their kids, and the family dog, for a portrait. In the back row were Josephine, 12, Hannah, 10, Emma, 5, Nathan, Jennifer, Gabby, 3, Katrina, 9 and Danielle, 16. In the front row were Nathan, 5,wearing his railroad engineer’s hat, and Sam, 7.
Are you my forever mom?
Seven-year-old Sam Johnson asks his adoptive mother, Jennifer Johnson, that question almost every day. He craves her reassurance.
“Yes,” she tells him.
They’re a forever family.
Jennifer and Nathan Johnson of Coon Rapids adopted six children, including Sam, all from the same birth family last November.
“It will probably take years for them to understand we’re there forever, but for me it’s a done deal,” said Jennifer Johnson, 37.
Johnson first spotted the children on the Minnesota Adoption Resource Network website www.mnadopt.org about a year ago. She later learned that their birth mother had developmental disabilities and their birth father had fallen down a flight of stairs and suffered a traumatic brain injury, forcing the children to go into foster care.
“I looked at their picture and I said, ‘Who would want to take six kids?’ ” Johnson recalled.
She couldn’t get the faces off her mind. There were Danielle, age 16; Josephine, 12; Hannah, 10; Sam, 7; Nathan, 5; and Gabby, 3.
Guided by their faith, the Johnsons did what most people couldn’t fathom. They adopted them all.
“Every kid deserves a family,” explained Nathan Johnson, 36. “How do you make it through life without people to come back to?”
The couple now have eight children, including their 9-year-old birth daughter, Katrina, and 5-year-old adopted daughter, Emma, both of whom have a rare neurological disorder called Rett syndrome.
Don Ilse, Anoka County’s Human Services Division manager, sums up the Johnsons this way: “They’re better people than I am. The world is a better place for people like these adoptive parents.”
There are 34 children in Anoka County waiting to be adopted, with 19 already in pre-adoptive homes. Sibling groups of four or more up come up for adoption once or twice a year and placing them together poses a challenge, Ilse said. Sometimes birth siblings are adopted to different families, so to find one home for all six children is a triumph.
A love story
Sitting on the couch in their living room, the couple recalls their own modern-day love story. They met via the Internet in 1996. He was a Minnesotan serving in the Navy and stationed in South Carolina. She lived in northern California. They married in 1997 and settled in Minnesota in 2000.
“It’s called the bait and switch,” Nathan Johnson jokes. “I was stationed in Hawaii when we first got married, and we lived there for three years.”
They’re both only children. He wanted one child. She dreamed of two.
Katrina was born in 2003. She was diagnosed with Rett syndrome. She will never walk or talk, but she uses eye movements to communicate.
The couple, who had struggled to get pregnant, decided to adopt a second child. The day they attended an Anoka County informational meeting on adoption, they learned that Emma, also with Rett syndrome, had come up for adoption a day earlier.
They brought Emma home on Christmas Eve 2009 when she was 2. Like her big sister, Emma cannot talk or walk but communicates with eye movements.
When Emma prepared to start school, Jennifer Johnson realized she had some time on her hands and again thought about adopting. She often visited the state’s adoption website.
“I have an obsession with the Minnesota adopt website,” she confesses. “Seeing those kids and those faces. … You would see teenagers and all they want is a home for Christmas. It made me hurt. I would go and pray for those kids often.”
She ran across a posting with six children in February 2012.
“I looked at the pictures and I showed it to my friends. I couldn’t stop thinking about them,” she said.
Nathan Johnson, now a contracting officer with a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, returned from a business trip. Jennifer didn’t say a word about the six children. She simply showed him the photo.
“In the clearest voice I’ve ever heard, God said, ‘yes,’ ” Nathan Johnson said. “If I am anything. I am obedient.”
They called an Anoka County social worker that same day, and then they called a contractor to add onto their home. In a $70,000 renovation, they expanded from three bedrooms to six and added a wheelchair ramp.
They met with social workers who gave the couple a PowerPoint presentation, discussing each of the six children. They laid out all the background, the challenges each child faced. The Johnsons were not deterred.
“It didn’t matter. You know this isn’t going to be easy,” Nathan Johnson said.
Friends and family expressed awe and support.
The children moved in with the Johnsons in June. The adoptions were finalized in an Anoka County courtroom on Nov. 17, National Adoption Day.
“They’re amazing. They are some of the most giving, loving people I know,” said family friend Kim Myers. “They really came back to their faith after they discovered Katrina’s diagnosis.
“It’s prepared them for what they are going though, but also really encouraged them to do this. They feel it’s God’s mission for them.”
The Johnsons’ day usually starts around 5:30 a.m. when their littlest ones start to stir. Then it’s a rush to herd the seven school-age children onto five different buses.
“It’s overwhelming at times,” Nathan Johnson acknowledges.
The county provides financial assistance for the adopted children, but it’s actually half of what is provided to foster parents. The county also provides personal care attendants for some of their children with special needs. The family makes ends meet by buying in bulk and thrift-store shopping. They spend $1,200 a month on groceries.
All the children attend therapy for post-traumatic stress and other issues. The two disabled daughters also see a cadre of specialists. The family usually juggles five or more counseling and medical appointments each week.
The couple still are able to find some alone time.
“We sneak out for basement dates. When everyone is upstairs we go downstairs for 15 minutes,” Nathan Johnson said.
They take their role as parents seriously and sometimes that includes teaching some tough lessons.
Family friend Rachel Walters recalls Nathan Johnson showing up for a church event with just one child, even though four were scheduled to attend. The others had procrastinated so he’d headed out with the one who was prepared on time.
“They’re setting boundaries and creating structure for the kids,” Walters said.
Expectations around holidays and birthdays created some stress, until a friend suggested they simplify their shopping and buy each child four items for each special occasion: something they want, something they need, something they can wear and something they can read.
Jennifer and Nathan Johnson say they’re more organized than ever. There’s a large whiteboard mounted on their dining room wall divided into eight squares, one for each child.
Last fall, they bought a used shuttle bus so everyone can travel together.
“We are a team and it was hard when we were in separate vehicles,” Jennifer Johnson explained.
“It’s made life infinitely easier,” said Nathan Johnson.
They describe themselves as an on-the-go family. They like to go sledding, eat out and they have a Minnesota Zoo annual membership.
They share some wisdom for other people thinking of adopting.
“Do it,” Nathan Johnson whispers.
Jennifer Johnson reflects for a moment.
“It’s not something to take on lightly. These are people. It’s forever, but it’s awesome,” Jennifer Johnson said. “Have you seen our family? It’s awesome.”
Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804