Nevada couple adopted 21 special needs kids in 30 years

MOUNDHOUSE — Santa Claus must carry an extra bag or two of presents when he and the reindeer arrive on Christmas at the Simon family home just east of Carson City.

The stockings are hung near the ceiling in the home for each of the 21 children — from 33-year-old Michael down to 16-month-old Montana. Parents Merrill and Roberta, have stockings, too.

Meet the Simons. Every child is adopted. Each is a special needs child with a disability or two. Almost all were born with problems associated with fetal alcohol or drug syndrome. Some are in wheelchairs. One has Down syndrome. And they all believe in the spirit of Christmas.

While they don’t know for sure, the Simons might have more children than any couple in Nevada. At least that’s what judges in adoption hearings have told them.

SIMONS FAMILY CHRISTMAS

Each child will receive four presents. They will open them one gift at a time, a process that takes most of the day.

"What four gifts do we get at Christmas?" mom Roberta asks aloud.

She holds Montana, while McClain, who was 10 on Friday , hugs her. Six-foot-11 dad Merrill is sitting in a chair, holding Macylea in one arm and McCoy in another. The twins are 2½. One is crying.

A couple of other kids sit quietly on the floor, listening with rapt attention to every word their mother says. Micah, 18, sleeps on the couch.

Roberta has the unique ability to carry on an intelligent conversation with an adult and then instantly respond to a child’s question. Her eyes dart around the room. She periodically counts to make sure everyone is there.

"Where’s Joseph?" she asks suddenly and sends 20-year-old Jeremy upstairs to make sure he is well.

Once everyone is accounted for, 12-year-old LisaMarie answers her question.

"You get a gift to play with, and you get something to read," says LisaMarie, one of the family’s three girls. "You get a gift you want, and you get something you need."

Thirteen of the children still are at home, but stockings are hung even for Jason, who died in 1997 of liver cancer, and Malachi, who died in 2001 of his multiple ailments.

Those deaths hit the Simons hard. Earlier they had planned to stop adopting but in their grief decided instead to open their hearts and arms to more children in need.

"We believe in God," Roberta Simon said. "We believe he put us on this journey, although we didn’t know it at the time. The most important thing is Merrill and I are committed to each other. We had to be one. We had to have a strong marriage commitment, or we could not have done this."

Merrill Simon agrees.

"She covered it all," the 56-year-old, soft-spoken father said.

"We are like every parent," 54-year-old Roberta added. "We have days we question why."

LIKE RUNNING A BUSINESS

Several children are crying. One throws up in Roberta’s arms. Without hesitation, Merrill cleans up the mess.

In midst of the chaos, there is calmness. These children are well-behaved. They listen to what their mother and father say. The home is tidy.

Managing a family with so many children is kind of like running a business, although you run it with love and patience, Roberta said.

Children must pick up their toys and make their own beds. Those who are physically limited are helped by the others. At nights, mom and dad rotate in getting up to care for whatever child needs them.

Even when they shop at Costco or Walmart, everything is organized. Other shoppers stare in awe as the family and all of its carts and wheelchairs advance toward the checkout.

"Everyone knows us as the family with all the children," Roberta said. "It is not about adopting 21 children or one child. None of these children asked to be in this situation. They have a lot of beauty in them. We are a family."

Merrill is a computer technician at the Nevada Department of Transportation and a member of the Army Reserve who spends a weekend a month in Dublin, Calif.

He also served 21 years in the National Guard. He moved to Nevada in 1987 to take a Guard assignment.

The Simons met while attending a Nazarene college in Oklahoma. They couldn’t have any children of their own but never had plans to adopt. When they lived in Dallas, they regularly baby-sat a neighbor’s boy, Michael.

The boy’s birth mother abandoned him, and he became the first child they adopted.

Michael lives nearby and often visits the family. Some of the grown children can’t visit often because of physical disorders or disabilities. A couple of them turned to drugs or alcohol but now are clean.

The Simons are not raising the family alone. Son Jeremy and Tori Sheehan, a 19-year-old nanny, are there to help most of the time. Three children qualify for personal care attendants, who help dress and feed them. A few teachers help with their homework a day or two each week. Most of the children receive adoption subsidies from the state or county.

FOOD BILL TOPS $2,000 A MONTH

But like any family, the Simons must manage their budget. Monthly food bills top $2,000. There are 40 loads of laundry per week.

"I usually plan on 20 for dinner," Roberta said. "We go through 20 gallons to 30 gallons of milk a week and about 10 dozen eggs. They can eat four or five dozen eggs for breakfast."

Each February, Merrill and Roberta somehow take off for three or four days at Lake Tahoe. Alone.

Occasionally someone criticizes them for having a family with so many children.

"How could anyone want so many children with so many disabilities? What are you trying to do? Be a saint?" Those are the kind of questions they hear.

"My dad said they knock you because you are doing what they can’t do," Roberta said. "People who know our family really like our family."

Then there are people who question why a couple in their 50s continue to adopt more children.

"My gosh you will be 70 when he is 20," Roberta remembers hearing someone tell her husband.

"Merrill said, ‘I am going to be 70 anyway, so why does it matter? When they graduate from high school, they can push our wheelchairs up front.’ "

MESSAGE: HELP A CHILD

Roberta said their lifestyle isn’t for everyone. Many people these days work so many hours just to survive that they simply are too tired when they come home to do much of anything, she added.

But you can become a mentor for a child, she said. Once a month you can take a child to the movies or the library. You can read to a child. You can do something to help a child in need.

"It is not perfect here 100 percent of the time," Roberta said. "But it is amazing to watch our children do things that society said they couldn’t do. Jason had a great life, a fun life. Look how much the twins have grown in one year? They scream a lot, but they smile a lot, too. Mordachi takes great pride in doing his chores. We sell them short. We are sitting here with survivors. To be part of it is pretty humbling."

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.

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