August 27, 2009, North Prairie, WI
As the mother of eleven children — ten adopted with special needs– Dee Dee Shipley already has her hands full. But add to that 42 years of diabetes and the fact that in 2002 Dee Dee lost her sight in a heart by-pass surgery. Still, Dee Dee sees miracles every day and unfailingly puts her full trust in the Lord.
I had diabetes for 42 years. I was diagnosed with it when I was 22 months old. I had injections from the time I was that age. Twelve years ago, when I was 36, I got a kidney/pancreas transplant. The pancreas was defective, so they had to take it out 10 days later. Four years ago I got my second pancreas transplant and I haven’t had diabetes since then. The healing was instantaneous. As soon as they put the pancreas in it started functioning perfectly, so for four years now I’ve been completely cured of diabetes. I’m just doing great. Before I got my last four kids — they came as a sibling group — I asked the Lord, “Where am I going to get the energy to raise another group of kids?” And then my transplant came and there it was. My little daughter had been praying her whole life that my diabetes would go away, and it did.
What motivated you to adopt such a large number of children and why did you chose special-needs children?
My husband and I always wanted to have a large family. When I was young, I half-heartedly joked about having twelve kids cause I just thought having twelve kids would be really cool. And my husband grew up in a large family and he liked the idea too. Doctors recommend that diabetes patients like me only have two children. So in 1986 we had our first child, but when she was born she only weighed 1 pound 14 ounces. Three months early. Our miracle baby. We are so fortunate to have her.
I went into respiratory heart failure with her, but I survived. I knew I would because I had a blessing that said I would be happy and healthy and I had faith in that. Shortly after that, when our daughter was 2 or 3 I developed kidney disease. At that point, my body started shutting down some of its important faculties and one of them was my ability to have more children. So I wasn’t able to get pregnant again, but it was probably a blessing that I didn’t. My husband and I had wanted more children, but we didn’t think we could go through the process of adopting because of my health. No one was going to give us a brand new little baby with my health record. There was no way we would qualify through standard adoption channels.
We heard about a program that placed special-needs teenaged boys in homes. When you take in special needs children, the institutions are much more lenient with their parental qualifications. So we qualified. My husband’s and my goal had always been to be “professional parents” and bring in as many children as the Lord would allow us to.
We were given a boy from a residential treatment center. We love children and we really thought we could make a difference in these kids’ lives.
About a year and a half later, we got another son from the residential treatment center and he too was 13 when he came to our home. Our two boys had known each other at the center but they weren’t brothers. Both boys required “line of sight” supervision. So I had to be able to see them or hear them at all time. It was kind of like the gestapo! We had to watch them every minute of every day because of the trouble they could get in to.
Did you ever question your decision?
Yes. Before the boys came to us, we thought love alone would be able to change these kids. We thought would be able to change their internal value system with nurturing and structure. Once we had the boys, we realized it was going to take a lot more. We finally resigned ourselves to the fact that we weren’t going to be able to change them. They were going to have to change themselves. But all of the children we’ve brought into our home we’ve brought with the intention of adopting them. We never wanted them just to be foster children.
With these boys… I could tell you stories. They did just about everything you ever could. One of our sons found a huge marijuana plantation in the state forest and he brought some of it home and was trying to sell it at school. The kids at school turned him in and the drug enforcement officials searched our house. That was something else! In that instance, the therapist that was working with us at the time suggested that if he liked “weed” so much, let him weed! We had a huge strawberry patch in our garden behind our house so as a consequence he spent about 25 hours “weeding” in our garden until it was looking perfect. It was an appropriate consequence for home, in addition to his community service.
You mentioned a therapist. Does a therapist come with each of these children to help you understand their past and their needs?
We’ve had therapists with each of the children. There were psychiatrists involved too. IEPs were in place for the children — Individual Education Plans. Those are curriculum plans that parents, teachers, school psychologists all work together to put in place for that particular child.
We had a really tough time with the boys. I remember at one point sitting in a Relief Society meeting and the teacher was saying, “You’ve always got to look for the good in situations. There’s always a bit of good.” That was such a low point in my life. I thought, “There is nothing good about this.” My husband and I were really heartbroken. Actually, we have wonderful relationships with the boys today. It’s a happy ending.
What are they doing today?
Our oldest is 28 and currently working. He lives close by. We see him for all of our family gathering and holidays. He loves coming over.
Our second son finished a program through Job Corps [a free government education and training program]. He got a certificate to be a welder and has regular jobs doing that. He found a wonderful gal and they’re getting married next month at our local ward’s chapel! We tried to adopt him three times, and we finally succeeded last January. He was 24 when he became an official part of our family.
Why is it important for you to adopt these children, even at age 24?
They just need to be part of a family. They need someone who will love them no matter what. Unconditional love. Christ-like love. Someone who will be there for them. They have no one else to go to bat for them. They’ve learned not to trust adults. It takes special needs children a long time to learn that they can rely on other people. I feel like it makes a difference for them to know they legally belong to somebody.
How has the Spirit guided you in making decisions about these children?
You know, when our first son came to us, I was really wondering, praying, questioning if should I bring him into my home. What will this do for us as a family? Inspiration came to me in the form of a scripture line from a hymn: “With God, nothing is impossible”. With my second son, the Spirit encouraged me to let him follow God’s plan for him. All he wanted to do was find his birth family, and he did. And then he found out that our family wasn’t so bad! There was stability here and we followed the commandments and we had Family Home Evening and scripture study and prayers. And that was a comfort to him.
What affect did this all have on your daughter?
Oh, poor girl! She was the “good child”. Actually, the perfect child. She compensated for all the time and effort we put into the others. Even though she’s a really righteous girl it’s hard: “Why do I always have to the one setting an example?”
It really has been an emotional journey. After our older boys left home, I was able to let the Spirit talk to me and say, “Laugh and dance and be silly and do whatever you want to.” A sense of peace and happiness came over us after years of a stressful situation.
You mentioned your oldest son is now 28 and living on his own. Who is at home still?
We have the 10 other children still at home. We have children between 28 and 2.
Every one of our children came with a miracle. About three years after the boys left home, my husband said, “I think it’s time that we get more children.” And I thought, “Oh man. I just can’t do it. I can’t bring in any more children.” But I knew in my heart that I really should do this. It was shortly after that that we got a call about three little girls who were available. As my husband told me about them, the Spirit hit me and I started crying, saying, “I can’t do this. I can’t do this again.” And in the next second, “I CAN do this! I can!” I was talking to the adoption worker about them and I mentioned that our religion is very important to us. And she said, “That’s interesting. The girls’ religion is very important to them too. In fact, I think they were recently baptized Mormon.” The missionaries had knocked on the door of their foster mother’s house and they learned about the gospel there. They got baptized and lived there for about 18 months, going to church and being Mormons! And we didn’t even find them through the Church, we found them through Wisconsin Lutheran Social Services. That was a miracle.
For our next little girl, my husband had a dream and in it, he saw a little girl who was visually impaired. He dreamed we were all in our garden with her, working on the plants side by side. He told me about his dream and said, “I think we need to find that little girl. I think she’s out there for us.” So we prayed about it and I called our adoption worker and said, “I know this is going to sound funny, but we’re looking for a little girl who’s visually impaired between 5 and 10 years old with light colored hair.” The lady said, “I’ve worked here 14 years and we’ve never had a visually impaired child come through.” Fourteen months later, here comes our little girl! From the time we got the phone call from our adoption worker we knew she was our “dream girl”. We’d never seen a picture of her but when my husband went to meet her, she took off her glasses and he looked into her eyes and he said, “Yep, that’s my little dream girl.” So that’s how she came to us.
With our last group of children, we received a voice mail from our adoption worker who said she had three children, ages 6, 5, and 4 months, who needed a home. As I listened to the message, the Spirit confirmed to me that they were to be our children. After 20 years of hoping and praying, we never thought we’d have another baby. But this one dropped into our laps. They’re wonderful — they have a lot of problems! — but they’re great kids. They have the same mother but different fathers. The older two have been baptized, the baby is still too young. She’s three now. And about a year after adopting them, we found out that their mom was pregnant again and we got another newborn baby — the girls’ little brother. And he’s 2 now.
What role has your husband played in raising these children?
Our goal has always been to be professional parents, so most of the time he works out of our home. He is so supportive and so wonderful and he’s so good with teenagers. I’m much better with little children. He just is so logical and explains things so well and comes up with great examples and really is in tune with our teenagers. He’s been an inspiration to me.
In the middle of this, in 2002, you lost your eye sight. How did that happen?
Well, I’ll tell you, of course it was a surprise. Everyone was shocked by it and it rarely happens. I had heart by-pass surgery and during the operation, I had a double optic nerve stroke. But before I woke up from my surgery, I had a dream. In my dream, my husband came to me and told me to not worry, everything was going to be fine and I would to be able to see. And that’s when I woke up from the heart by-pass surgery. I felt my eyes, and thought, “Did they put bandages on them? What’s going on here?” And then I remembered my dream and my husband telling me everything will be okay. I still had an intubation tube in my mouth and I couldn’t tell them right then that I’d lost my sight. Eventually when the tube came out and I told them what I was experiencing they rushed me around and found out I had a optic nerve stroke. In the subsequent blessings that I’ve had and through that dream, I know that I’m going to get my sight back someday. I’ve been promised that.
What changed in your home after this happened?
It took me about a year to recover from my heart surgery. The doctors had told me that’s what it would take and I had laughed. I said, “A year? That’s impossible.” I had a wound in my leg where they had taken out the veins and it took nine months for that thing to heal. I had my leg propped up to control the swelling. At first I did a lot of sitting but I was able to talk with my children and hug them and hold them and hear them. Initially, I had thought it would be better to lose my hearing rather than my sight, but after I lost my sight I knew it was better to be able to still hear my children. I could hear them say, “Mom, I love you.”
So the women of the Relief Society came to the rescue, of course. They helped my children with laundry and they made meals and cleaned my house and put my children down for naps and let me rest so I could regain my strength. They were a blessing and a miracle.
Where do you get the strength and the love you feel for all eleven of these children?
It’s from the gospel. My family was Catholic and I happened to be 8 years old when my family was baptized into the Church. That first Sunday after I was baptized, I bore my testimony and I started crying. And I thought, “Why am I crying?” I thought it was so odd. But even at that time, I felt so strong about the Gospel that I knew it was true. Ever since that time I have never doubted or waivered in my trust of the Lord. Sometimes I don’t always submit my will to Him, but now that I am as old as I am, I try to do that all the time because He has much better plans for me than I would have for myself. His road is much smoother and easier than taking the rocky road and doing things the hard way.
Has your blindness brought your children closer to the Lord?
I think it has. They’ve learned a lot about compassion. There’s a lot more tenderness and love in our home because of it. I have some wonderful teenaged daughters. They help with our toddlers and they do our laundry. There are usually about 14 loads a week. We have double washers, double dryers. Two dishwashers. We had them put into this wonderful house that the Lord brought into our pathway and saved for us… That’s another story!
I’ve had so many miracles in my life I can’t even count them. I’m grateful to be a part of this gospel and a member of this Church and be able to have a testimony of the Savior and His love for us. If we follow Him, we’ll have a great life.
At A Glance
Dee Dee Shipley
Location: North Prairie, WI
Marital status: Married 25 years
Children: Eleven (ages 29, 26, 23, 18, 15, 11, 10, 10, 9, 3, and 2)
Schools Attended: Milwaukee Area Tech College
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Convert to Church: September, 1969
Interview by Neylan McBaine. Photos used with permission.