Richland family keeps on growing, adapting

RICHLAND — Doing laundry for a husband and 15 children would drive most mothers crazy, but Julee Feser has a system.

Each member of her patchwork quilt of a family has a towel, embroidered with the owner’s name, hanging on a rack in the upstairs bathroom. With only one towel, the laundry never backs up, she says.

Julee and her husband, Mike, had to create a lot of systems to manage their family, which includes one biological son, Michael, 16, and 14 children and teenagers adopted from China, South Africa, Ethiopa, Vietnam and Washington.

The Fesers have five more biological children, but they’re all grown, some with children of their own.

“People say, ‘You must have a huge house’ or ‘How much money do you get?’” Julee said. “I think, ‘How much money do you get for your kids?’ It’s an average-size house and an average-size income, but it works.”

The couple say they manage financially, but they occasionally get help from charitable organizations, such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The foundation helped with Christmas presents recently, Julee said.

Many of their adopted children have medical problems, disabilities or other special needs — like their most recent addition, MyHao, 5, who came from Vietnam in January 2007 and has Down syndrome. MyHao is their second Down syndrome child. The first was Jonathan, 2, whom the couple adopted just after he was born in Tacoma in 2005.

“It was the most amazing thing to me,” Julee said. “I never thought we’d have a newborn in our home again.”

Last year, they also learned the toddler has severe aplastic anemia, a disease that stops bone marrow from producing enough blood cells. They hope to get word from a Seattle hospital about a life-saving bone marrow transplant soon.

The family has health insurance through Mike’s job at Washington Group International and supplements that with medical coupons to keep health care expenses under control. Jonathan’s care alone could have cost millions without insurance, Mike said.

And that isn’t the only medical challenge the family has faced. Berhanu, 6, lost an eye to retino-blastoma, a form of eye cancer, and got a prosthetic eye this year.

Solomon, 3, had surgery for spina bifida that has allowed him to walk. And Josiah and Maggie, both 6, have cerebral palsy, which affected Josiah’s ability to walk for the first few years of his life, and has Maggie in a wheelchair that she’s rapidly outgrowing.

Two more of their adopted children are amputees, Julee said, including Anna, 7, the first child they adopted. The couple felt God guided them to consider adoption at a time when all of their biological children except Michael had grown up and left home.

“We went from thinking about retiring early and having a life together and traveling (to adopting),” Mike said. “We never knew what was in store for us was much better.”

They knew they wanted a baby girl from China, but it didn’t occur to them to take a child with a disability. In fact, one of their many fears was getting a child with significant medical problems.

“Then we said, ‘If we’re going to adopt people, we might as well adopt ones no one else wants,’” Julee said.

So halfway through the process, they changed their minds and asked for a child with special needs.

“We know (God) has chosen every one for us,” Julee said. “When they were the right kids, it would all fall into place.”

But keeping everything in place takes work and organization.

Inside the family’s one-story Richland home, tables are shoved together into a line stretching from the dining room into the living room. Six bedrooms are filled with bunk beds and cribs. Two refrigerators hold more food than most people can imagine.

A schedule hangs on a bulletin board in the hall, setting out blocks of time for each member of the family to have meals, showers, naps, do chores, pray or just kick back and relax during some free time.

But the fruits of Julee and Mike’s labor were evident during playtime Friday afternoon, when joyous peals of laughter wafted up from the basement playroom where five of the children jostled for their turn at a board game.

Berhanu ran into the living room and complained to Julee that the others wouldn’t let him play.

Siblings, apparently, will always be siblings, even if they’re not related by blood.

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