Would you be interested in adopting another child with Down syndrome?" Barbara Curtis immediately knew how to answer the woman from the adoption agency: "No way!" As the 52-year-old homeschool mother of 11 children—including one biological child and two adopted children with Down syndrome—she was exhausted.
But when Curtis hung up the phone, her 12-year-old daughter Sophia confronted her: "Mom, I can't believe you said no like that. That's not what you've taught us." Curtis called the agency back and told them she'd changed her mind. With the adoption of Justin Li, she became the mother of a dozen children.
"I have a very childlike and simple faith," Curtis said. "I don't worry about the future. I just do what God calls me to do now." A round-faced woman with a circa-1969 flower tattooed on her right hand and food stains on her black pants, she admits that neither she nor her family is perfect—but she says caring for children with special needs is "the best thing that ever happened to me."
For Curtis, adoption was coming full circle. She grew up in a broken home, spent time in foster care, suffered sexual abuse, and became addicted to drugs and alcohol. She was a radical feminist and antiwar protestor in Washington, D.C., and eventually moved to Marin County, Calif., where only 2 percent of the population was Christian.
Curtis then was a pagan herself, so when she aborted her baby in 1977 her conscience remained unmoved: "It was just like going to the dentist. ... When you don't have any idea that your own life is sacred, there's no way you can imagine an unborn baby's life is either."
In 1980, she turned to Alcoholics Anonymous, secular therapy, and the New Age movement. She and her husband Tripp—also a spiritual seeker—began to believe they could create their own Norman Rockwell–style dream. For a while, that dream appeared to be coming true. They started a successful business and had five healthy children. But their marriage deteriorated into constant arguments.
In 1987, Curtis wanted a divorce. In a last-ditch effort, she and Tripp attended Family Life Ministries' Christian marriage conference. A picture of Jesus with a few other gurus hung in her house, but she had never considered Him the Son of God. When she heard the gospel, she and her husband began to weep. "The moment my politics changed was the moment I accepted Christ. I couldn't write a treatise on Christianity that day, but I found out I didn't believe in reincarnation, I didn't believe in abortion anymore," she said. "God opened up that dark, musty closet of my heart and let the light shine in."
Six years after her conversion, Curtis discovered her eighth child, Jonathan, had an extra chromosome, a condition called Trisomy 21, or Down syndrome. Ninety-three percent of babies prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted. Despite her age, Curtis had declined prenatal testing, saying she wanted any baby God decided to give her. Jonny's post-birth diagnosis was "the beginning of an incredible journey."
Over the next 15 months, Jonny was constantly in and out of the hospital, an hour's drive from their house. Curtis was simultaneously caring for eight other children, including Jonathan's newborn sister Maddy. A treatment would appear to work for three weeks, and then Jonny would be back in the hospital again.
After a near-deadly bout of pneumonia, Jonny had been home a couple of weeks when the doctor called again to say he needed another surgery. Curtis hung up the phone, threw herself face-first on the floor, and banged her fists into the ground, screaming at God: "I've behaved, done everything right, accepted trials like Job. I'm sick of trying to be strong, sick of trying to be perfect."
That incident was the last time Jonathan was hospitalized. Curtis concluded, "You can't be phony with God. It's OK to be hurt, to get angry. He is so much bigger, and I believe He wanted to see me broken and completely dependent on Him."
Today, at 19, Jonny sports a leather jacket and opens doors for his mom. Bring up a topic he likes—photographs, acting, sports, or babies, especially his 13 nephews and nieces—and a smile will ripple across his face. He laughs, delighting in an inside joke: "I like bowling ... hanging out with my girlfriend."
"You wish," Curtis says, laughing. Their family "delays dating," but she says Jonathan is still an "incurable romantic."
He's a good swing dancer, too: He shows off his moves with a bow and pretends to kiss an invisible lady's hand. Though speech is still a struggle for Jonny and he can't read or write, he uses an iPad and has a Facebook account. He's been in 30 plays, carries the cross as the altar boy during Catholic Mass, and volunteers at a Habitat for Humanity store near the family's Northern Virginia home.
Curtis said people are often concerned about how siblings of children with Down syndrome cope. Jonathan's closest sister, Maddy, says she's thankful for each of her siblings with Down syndrome. Last year, Maddy decided to audition for American Idol. She made it onto national television, and Fox broadcast a 5-minute clip about the Curtis family.
"Some people are a little skeptical about people with Down syndrome," Maddy said. "Those four boys bring out the best in every person they meet. They see the world in colors, and we need to see the world that way."
Because of Jonny, the Curtis family decided to adopt a second child with Down syndrome, Jesse, to be his companion. Curtis also began counseling another couple who discovered their baby had Down syndrome—the mother wanted to abort the baby, but the father was unsure. She invited them over to her house so they could see children with Down syndrome living full lives.
A few weeks later the Curtis family got an unexpected letter in the mail from that couple, asking if the Curtis family would consider adopting their child. Daniel was born 15 years ago on Mother's Day.
Then came the phone call from the adoption agency, asking if they'd consider adopting a fourth child with Down syndrome. Justin's parents were Taiwanese and wanted to return to their country, yet they knew their child would not get the education, dignity, or medical treatment he could receive in the United States.
Today, with her dozen children, Curtis is a pro-life freelance writer who counsels other families considering adoption or dealing with Down syndrome. She believes God calls many people to adopt, yet they become afraid of the difficulties involved in raising a child with special needs. She's heard concerns about who will care for their grown children with Down syndrome when she and her husband die. Yet her other eight children have already volunteered to care for their brothers.
The one lesson she wants to teach her children: Spend your life serving others. "It's not about us," she said, quoting Matthew 25:40: "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."
—Alicia Constant is a student at Patrick Henry College