RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. - A River Valley couple has dedicated most of their lives to adopting and raising kids, who would most likely otherwise go ignored when finding a loving family.
It's like a buzzing bee hive at the Johnson home in Russellville.
"We get up at 5 and depending on whether it's school or not, we get up and have coffee together," said Lori Johnson.
Lori and Willie Johnson have no time to waste, while caring for their 17 children.
"We did want to start a family," said Willie.
All the kids who live with them now, ranging in age from 8 to 29, are adopted.
"We didn't know it would get to this point," explained Willie.
Five kids have some form of spina bifida, that causes them to rely on a wheelchair to get around.
"I don't see my kids as disabled. I don't see them as special needs, we just see them as our children," Lori said.
Some have heart defects, others are blind, hearing impaired or mentally challenged.
16-year-old Estie, can't walk and has trouble breathing on her own.
"It's hard for me because sometimes my siblings get to go out somewhere and I have to stay," Estie said.
When the Johnsons adopted Estie as a baby, doctors told them she wouldn't survive long past infancy.
"I am persevering. I am always positive," said Estie.
Willie and Lori began adopting kids with special needs, nearly four decades ago.
I think we both lucked out as far as ... we didn't have any idea what we were going to do," Willie said.
Willie, then just 32, and Lori, 27, had already had three biological children, when they adopted their first child, Daniel, in 1981.
Daniel is autistic.
"He would throw things and throw fits and stuff," said Willie.
The couple ended up placing him in a Human Development Center in Conway, where Willie says Daniel is much happier these days.
"It really kind of stopped us and made us think about what we're doing," he said.
They didn't adopt again until 1988. Kyle, who was 2-years-old at the time, has cerebral palsy.
"He was the most wonderful child and so it got us encouraged again," said Willie.
Lori worked as an Arkansas field rep for "Adopt America Network," out of Ohio, then.
"I would get just tons of kids waiting for adoption," Lori said.
So, as social workers or adoption agencies called, the Johnsons answered, submitting paperwork showing they were suitable parents.
"After we realized we could take care of Kyle, who was high need medical, we just realized we could do it," said Lori.
But they were mostly interested in children with disabilities.
"Some of them need a lot more attention and some of them need more equipment," she said.
Kids Lori says people weren't really looking to open up their doors to in those days.
"They were really just really glad to find someone who would meet their needs," Lori said.
On a wall in the their home are pictures of the 28 kids they have adopted over the last 36 years.
"It's a different way of living, but it's our way of living."
Their way of living hasn't always gotten them the best response from the community.
"The rumors I have heard ... the one. Do it for the money and I'd say when you find out what it is, let me know, because we could use some money and the other rumor is how can they take care of that many children," said Lori.
She says that Medicaid waiver has helped.
The waiver gives the family five caregivers and a private nurse.
The Johnsons don't just rely on Medicaid though, Lori works for BOST Incorporated, an agency that helps Medicaid waiver applicants, while Willie works for United Cerebral Palsy,taking care of adults.
"We're enjoying every minute of it," said Willie.
"We're the lucky ones to have them," Lori said.
The Johnsons say they are not sure if they are done adopting.
They will be honored at the Arkansas State Independent Living Council's "Circle of Service" on Nov 18.
The event recognizes those who have impacted the lives of individuals with disabilities.
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