When I was four years old, I stood at the Philadelphia airport with my mom, dad and older brothers Jimmy & Bobby, and watched as an off-duty stewardess carried two little Korean ragdolls off of an airplane and into my family’s arms. That night in September of 1983, Sarah & Andrea Williams joined my family, and our lives were forever changed.
Me & my brother Bobby meeting our new sister Andrea for the first time
About two years before, my mom had begun talking about adopting an oriental baby. My dad was opposed to the idea and didn’t understand why they would adopt a child when they had (at that point) three healthy children of their own. They certainly had their hands full already with my two older brothers and me! But my mom didn’t give up on the idea, and one night in November of 1982 as my dad waited in line for our Thanksgiving turkey, there was an American couple in front of him that was holding an oriental baby. He struck up a conversation, and this couple told him that they had just adopted this child through Holt International, a Christian adoption agency based out of Eugene, OR. In my dad’s words, “The Lord got a hold of my heart that night”, and he came home and told my mom that he was ready.
My parents sat us kids down and explained they were thinking about adopting a child and asked if we wanted a brother or a sister. Well, my brothers wanted another brother, and I of course, wanted a sister…so they said, “Let’s look into a brother and sister combination!” What they got not long afterwards was a tattered black and white photograph of two beautiful little girls who had been left on the front steps of a police station in Seoul, South Korea. Our hearts melted and that was all it took to get the process going. That special September night in Philadelphia changed our lives, not only because Sarah and Andrea had come home, but also because my dad was hooked. “When can we do this again?” he shouted as we were leaving the airport. And do it again we did…
We went from a family of 5 to a family of 7 that night in September 1983. But that was only the beginning!
In 1986, my family moved to Orlando where my dad was instrumental in bringing the NBA to that city. Not long after we moved south, my parents loaded us kids up in the van and we made what would become the first of many trips to the Orlando airport to welcome new brothers and sisters. This time it was two twin boys from South Korea that joined our family—Stephen and Thomas. My mom had given birth to my little brother Michael just before Stephen and Thomas came, so we were now a family of eight. Eight is enough for most people—but not the Williams family!
I was in the fourth grade when my parents called another family meeting. We all sat down at the dining room table and my dad had a globe in front of him—I had a feeling I knew what was coming next. “Guys”, dad started out, “we’re considering adopting four brothers from the Philippines.” I remember thinking, “Cool, let’s do it!” and I couldn’t wait to get to school the next day to tell my friends. Not long after that, David, Peter, Brian & Sammy arrived from the other side of the world. I have to be honest and say that was the toughest transition for us as a family. Sarah, Andrea, Stephen & Thomas were very young when they came. The boys from the Philippines were older and had been used to living on the streets. They were accustomed to digging in dumpsters for food, and not only were they old enough to understand the magnitude of their abandonment, a few of them had also been severely abused by their grandmother before she too abandoned them. I watched as my parents struggled to keep some sense of “normalcy” in our family and to help these boys adjust into life in America. It was not easy, but eventually these amazing boys found their stride. The two eldest, David & Peter eventually went on to serve several years in the United States Marine Corps. They’ve made us all proud.
The Orlando Magic played its first season in 1989, and between my dad’s high profile job in Orlando and our adoption story, my family was beginning to gain major media attention. We were on Thanksgiving Day specials during ballgames, featured in Sports Illustrated, morning shows, you name it…we were on it. Everywhere we went, little old ladies would stop my mom and ask, “Are these children all yours, or is this some sort of picnic?” My mom’s favorite response was, “Yes ma’am, they’re all mine and believe me lady, it ain’t no picnic!”
In the early ‘90s, my mom began making trips to Romania with a local adoption organization and on one visit she visited Bucharest, the capital of Romania where they toured several orphanages. All were very dark and dirty places, and the children swarmed them asking for balloons and bubble gum. On their way out of one particular orphanage, my mom was halfway down the driveway when she turned around and saw a little child with her hand reaching through the chain linked fence as if to say, “Please take me with you.” Since all the children’s heads were shaved, she couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl. But my mom went back for information and later learned that it was a five year-old little girl. In the Spring of ’91, I went to Romania with my mom to bring home my little sister, Gabriela (Gabi). A few months later, Katarina (Kati) joined us from Romania as well.
We were a family of fourteen, and you’re probably wondering by now, “How in the world did your parents do it?” Let me assure you—we had a lot of help. By this point, we had a full time nanny, extra help with the afternoon driving and a part time chef to help with feeding over a dozen kids. My mom got more organized with each adoption and my dad joked that she wore sergeant strips on her pajamas. I think she might’ve, because she sure ran a tight ship! We had morning and evening jobs around the house, a stringent exercise regimen, we weren’t allowed to watch TV, and in our house, your tenth birthday meant that you had to start doing your own laundry. Being in a family that large certainly taught me responsibility and independence at a young age.
My parents took a trip to Brazil in the summer of 1992, and they were introduced to an eleven-year girl named Daniela (Dani) and an eleven-year old boy Richie (un-related) and they joined our family later that year. That same trip, they also found another brother/sister combination, and on Christmas night of 1993 Caroline and Alan arrived to boost the count to eighteen.
Growing up in a family with that many children is not something very many people experience. But I have enjoyed the blessing of growing up in such a unique, international family. There was never a shortage of someone to hang with or talk to or lean on. That’s not to say things were always easy. I get asked all the time, “Wasn’t it hard?” And the truth is, yes—it was hard at times. I'd be lying if I said anything different. My dad and I wrote about some of the struggles in our book, The Takeaway (HCI 2009). It’s not easy bringing that many personalities, that many nationalities and that many emotional issues into one household. But there aren’t many rewards as great as coming home for Christmas to a house so full of life and laughter. My parents went through a very difficult divorce when I was in high school and things really fell apart for a while until my dad married my unbelievable stepmom, Ruth. Ruth had 1 daughter of her own, so that’s when we became a family of nineteen!
One of my greatest joys in life has been welcoming my 14 nieces & nephews into the world (so far...I'm sure there are more to come!) and realizing that none of this would have been possible without the miracle of adoption.
As a songwriter, I can't help but write from a very personal place, and I've written many songs over the years about my experience with adoption. But there's one that stands out, and I included it on my debut record Only You. It's called Just May Be, and it includes a couple of cameo's from one of my nieces. :) Over the years, I've had people come up to me at concerts and say "I just wanted you to know that hearing your family's story is what prompted my wife and I to adopt our 3 kids." Those stories blow me away EVERY TIME (and make me cry!), and it has made me realize that we can ALL make a difference. Just because we don't always hear the stories of how we've impacted someone doesn't mean we haven't made an impact. So, I wanted this song to be an encouragement that you can make a difference in the life of a child, all you have to do is say “yes.” We each have the opportunity to be “the answer to a prayer, the one to meet a need.” I think we get overwhelmed sometimes with the negative statistics surrounding an issue like adoption, and we turn our heads thinking "I can’t change the world and help every single person that needs it." And you know what? You’re right…you can’t. But you can help one person, one child…and change their life forever. My parents didn’t sit down and all at once plan to adopt that many children. They just saw a need, felt the call, and said “yes”. As a result of their selfless decision, I have brothers & sisters from different parts of the world my brothers and sisters; I have fourteen of the beautiful nieces & nephews in the world (but I'm not biased or anything....) and my parents have changed our family history for generations to come.
So let me leave you with this thought—you are making a difference in someone’s life, you have a ministry right where you are, and you can do something today that will impact one person’s life forever. My prayer through my family’s story and through the message of my music is that you’ll feel encouraged, challenged and inspired to go pick up one more starfish, throw it back into the ocean and say, “It made a difference to that one”.
Holt International: Founded by Harry & Bertha “Grandma” Holt in 1956, Holt International is a Christian organization finding and supporting permanent, loving families for children who are orphaned, abandoned or separated from their families. Harry Holt once said, “Every child deserves a home” and that is Holt’s mission: to give all children the love they need and deserve. Eight of my brothers and sisters were adopted through Holt International, and I’ve teamed up with them to help encourage other families who are interested in adoption. For information on how you can adopt or sponsor a child, please visit www.holtinternational.org
Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI): In 2009, I was invited to sing at CCAI’s “Angels In Adoption” Event. My dad was honored as a national “Angel” in 2003, so I was excited to come back six years later to be a part of such a special night. I debuted this song “Just May Be”, and the response that night was so overwhelming that it resulted in a partnership with CCAI and a music video that features adoptive families from all over the country. I feel very honored that the adoption community has embraced this song and is using it to bring awareness to the need for adoptive families. CCAI is committed to helping raise awareness about the millions of children around the world in need of permanent, safe and loving homes, and to eliminating the barriers that hinder these children from realizing their basic right of having a family. www.ccainstitute.org