Mary’s BIG Family Story – 20 adopted children!

November is National Adoption Awareness Month

Although I primarily blog on apologetic-related themes, once in a while, I veer off simply because I feel an inspirational story must be told. Mary’s story is one of those stories a writer simply cannot pass up! 

I first met Mary Doelman through Biola University’s online Masters program in Apologetics. I was drawn to her after reading her student biography. She has adopted 20 children! Who does that? This was a woman I definitely wanted to meet. So, during the residency portion of the Masters track, Mary and I were “dorm mates” for two weeks. It was during this time that I got to know Mary, and hear the incredible story of how her family grew. Here is Mary’s story:

She has adopted 20 children! Who does that? Share on X


Mary got married on December 27, 1977, and she’ll be celebrating her 40th wedding anniversary with her husband, Hank, next month! They both wanted a big family (10 to 12 children), and started a family right away. By August of 1980, they already had three healthy babies, but there was a complication. After Mary’s second child, the doctor warned her that her uterus was in danger of rupturing and that she should not become pregnant again. She argued with him. The doctor relented, and Mary went on to have a third, successful pregnancy. After that pregnancy, Mary decided to play it safe, and she received a tubal ligation so she would no longer be able to conceive. Unfortunately, later Mary learned that her doctor was inexperienced, and because of it, he didn’t realize that many women have a very thin uterine wall when they are full term. It didn’t mean that Mary should refrain from having more children, but it was too late by then.

As God often does, He takes our trials and turns them into testimonies. Mary was always interested in orphaned children, and remembers as a young child how she played “orphanage,” pretending to take in all the children that were maimed or unwanted and make them her own. So, a childhood dream began to be realized.

Mary’s own sister had adopted by the time she realized this was the only way she’d be able to continue growing her family. So, she consulted her sister about the options and method of adoption, and the adoptions began.

At first, Mary and Hank took in children that were older than theirs, and therefore, harder to place. Then they began to take in children with special needs. They had met several adoptive families by that time, and they realized that these ‘hard-to-place’ children had done nothing to deserve rejection.

“They needed a family just as much as any other, and we knew we could not refuse them due to special needs,” Mary said. However, she said that they did want to be independent of their children one day. “So, the only stipulation we made to adopt was that they had the potential to someday be independent adults.”

Mary said that it wasn’t so much that they sought out disabled and medically needy children, but these kids were so readily available because many families didn’t want them. So, they applied and were approved year after year. By the time she’d been married five years, they had ten children!

One wonders how they managed financially. “We were so very blessed,” Mary replied. “We started in the dairy business when it was fiscally at a good point. We were also very frugal and poured money back into the business. When we needed funds for an adoption, we used money from our business to finance us.” During the time Mary and Hank began adopting, adoptions were also less expensive than they are now. To reduce the fees and other expenses, Mary said they always “doubled up.” They would either take siblings, or asked for two, unrelated children to come together. That cut down on many of the adoption costs.

Yet, Mary explains that finances were not the biggest challenge to adopting a lot of children. She said her biggest challenge was when they had seven kids in High School, and a couple in Jr. High all at the same time. She said that some of her children were very rebellious and instigated the others to rebel, too. They had strength in numbers to defy them, and sometimes, misused their home.

“It was like walking on egg shells in our own home,” she explained. “They were especially disrespectful to me as I was not as strong and authoritative as Hank.” Nonetheless, through their faith and lots of prayer, Mary said that they just kept going, holding onto the hope that if they could just get through this, things would get better. And they did. Today, Mary reports that they have good relationships with all their adult children.

Most of her adult children are pictured here after attending a funeral.

For privacy, Mary only wishes to list the areas her children are from:

USA – 2 girls, 1 boy
Colombia – 3 girls, 2 boys
Costa Rica – 2 girls, 1 boy
Brazil – 2 boys
Taiwan – 2 girls
Haiti – 2 boys
Jamaica – 1 boy
Bulgaria – 1 boy
Ethiopia – 1 girl, 3 boys
Difficult times either drive couples apart or bring them closer together. Mary said that she grew closer to Hank, and that they always backed each other up. Their Christian faith got them through the good and bad times. “We never let the kids drive a wedge between us,” Mary went on. “Even if we didn’t understand what one spouse was doing, we stood with each other, and trusted that there was a good reason for a decision or behavior. We’d talk about it later.”
It became increasingly apparent that God had given them this ministry. That was such a comfort to Mary because she knew that God would see them through it. The results were not dependent on them, and Mary rested in that. There were many good times. She had plenty of reasons to celebrate life, from the birthdays to holidays and ‘Friday movie night” with caramel corn. She said they also had family slumber parties, both inside and outside.
“There were many times when our family was just one big family, with all the normal sibling stuff,” she said. “It was only later, when we adopted some difficult older children, that we had serious problems, and ended up with the local sheriff at our door.” Even then the kids got along with each other but rebelled against them at times. Most of them respected each other’s property and privacy. There were a couple who violated those rights and they had to keep a close eye on them.
Some of her adult children with their grandkids.

In hindsight, if she had to do it all over, she’d adopt just as many kids as she did, twenty in all, in addition to her three, natural born children. The only thing Mary would change, she said, would to be less controlling. She thought she needed to keep order and be firm, but that is not her personality. Looking back, Mary realized that a controlling parenting style didn’t work for her as a child, either, and it wasn’t the way to handle these kids who had already gone through trauma in their lives. Nonetheless, through God’s grace, Mary thinks that things probably would have turned out about the same.

“Some of our kids ended up in prison, but it was really due to the circumstances they had experienced before they came to us,” she admitted. “Those kids were already formed. I just think that my true nature would have served me better if I wouldn’t have been under so much stress.”

Adoption is not for everyone, Mary said. It’s not rosy, and adoptive kids are not going to show gratitude at times. So, if you are considering adoption, Mary encourages you to go into it very prayerfully.

“If someone believes God is calling them into adoption, then He will see them through it,” Mary said. “But often people want to do something for those poor orphans and they don’t realize the ramifications that it will have on their family. These children will be their family and must become part of them. It’s a full commitment.”

Yet, Mary does not want to discourage someone who has a calling or a dream to adopt. She merely encourages everyone to go into it with eyes wide open. She says one needs to do it for the children, not for oneself. Mary says adoption is a blessing, but not in the ways one might expect.

To adoptive families, Mary encourages parents not to take things too personally, which is very hard, she realizes. As much as possible, she said to consider things from the child’s perspective and realize what life has been like for them. Look to outside sources for emotional support and fulfillment. She said not to expect an adoptive child to fulfill you; kids are not capable of that. Mary says to trust God and know that things will be ok.

For those with ill or handicapped children, Mary said to recognize that an ill child is just as valuable to God as a well child. While society may not always treat them comparably, this is due to ignorance and lack of education. Make sure all children understand that they are precious to their Creator. Also, Mary advises not to be afraid to seek outside help. Parents, she said, need time to refill their reserves so that they can give again to the children.

Mary is pictured in the purple dress, standing in front of her husband, Hank, in the middle with about half their kids.

The best memory Mary has of her big family is looking at her children in church. “We took up two pews and the kids were all shapes, sizes, and colors. I loved it!” The best part of the adoption process, Mary said, is getting to meet your new children and look into their eyes finally!

Some of those eyes Mary can no longer see. Two of her adopted children, the two youngest daughters, have gone ahead to heaven. This is very difficult for Mary and the family. But they knew that those girls had terminal illnesses when they adopted them. Nevertheless, Mary and Hank believed that those girls should be given every advantage of a family that loved them for as long as possible. She said that they both became Christians and lived longer than doctors expected.

“Our youngest daughter, Margaret, came to us at three months of age,” Mary said. “She never knew any other parents, even though she did eventually go back and visit Taiwan. She was like a birth child. She spent her last two months living with us again, and it was such a privilege to be able to care for her on hospice. We have such sweet memories of that time.”

Adopting all these children has made Mary less naive than she was in the beginning. She knows adoption is hard work, but sees it as worthwhile work, and equates it to Christians being adopted into God’s family.

“God has taught me so much about the value of the person, the handicapped, medically ill, especially those considered undesirable through no fault of their own,” Mary said.

Mary’s Background & Future Plans

Growing up in the church and accepting Christ as a young teen, Mary is very familiar with the Bible stories, but she lacked a deeper understanding of why the Christian faith is evidentially true, especially when contrasted against other religions and atheistic views.

Mary received her MA in Apologetics from Biola University, and enjoys theological discussions with friends and family. Mary also has a MA in Counseling Psychology, and received her BA in Education. Both those degrees helped in working with her kids from diverse backgrounds and cultures.
Mary, in her sixties now, has plans to renovate her big, empty house for the purpose of hosting missionary families. Meanwhile, she makes quilts and shawls for those who are hurting and need comfort. 
God bless you, Mary! You are a shining light in this world.


For anyone interested in the adoption process, contact the local DSHS (Department of Social and Health Services), or adoption agencies, domestic and foreign. A favorite agency of Mary’s is Adoption Advocates in Port Angeles, WA.





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