There's kids in a far-off country that we can turn our back on. We can live our entire life and not even think about them. But they're children just like you and I once were. They're children just like my children in this home. They are every bit as deserving as any biological child I ever had. And that's exactly why it's hard to say no. —Deanne Walker
That's how Deanne Walker, mother of 18 children, describes her daily life.
"It's always busy," she said. "There are always things happening, there's always something to accomplish. But at the same time, there's always laughter and smiling and playing."
Deanne and her husband, Doug Walker, have 18 children, ranging in age from 5 to 27. Thirteen are still living at home. Nine of them are biological and nine are adopted.
Deanne comes from a family of 10 and Doug from a family of five. The Walkers didn't start out with thoughts of having a large family.
"At some point early on, I told her dad 'We're not going to be as crazy as you are with 10 kids,’ ” Doug Walker said with a smile.
"We kind of thought six or seven," Deanne Walker said of their family, who live in South Jordan and are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "And then, it exploded."
Their words were interspersed with the sounds of children laughing and playing and the movie "Frozen" in the background. Deanne Walker constantly had a baby in her lap or children running to give her bear hugs before they went off to play.
Deanne said the couple knew early on that they were going to adopt a child of a different race.
"I had a dream," she said. "And it was the first time I had a dream that made me think, 'There's something more to this.’ ”
At the time they had two children, and one was still an infant. Although they started looking into adoption right away, the timing wasn't right.
She gave birth to five more children before she had a strong prompting to start the adoption process immediately. They did, and six weeks later they were on their way to Chicago to adopt a baby boy.
They brought their 6-month-old daughter, Hannah, to the hospital to pick up the new baby. When the nurse brought the baby to the window, Hannah had a big smile and started waving her arms excitedly.
"She knew that was her brother," Deanne Walker said. "She was waiting for him. And those two have been like twins, the best of friends, ever since."
In the next three years, the Walkers adopted four more children and had another biological baby. It got to the point where their 5-year-old daughter thought babies came from the airport.
"We were talking about going to the airport and Hannah thought we were getting a baby, because every time we had gone to the airport in her young life we had come home with a baby," Doug Walker said.
He said his wife has always been a very spiritual person, and the promptings to adopt another child always come to her.
"I am a very spiritually based person," Deanne Walker said. "But there have been enough times when I have felt like we have another child coming, and then it didn't happen in the time frame that I thought. So then I question myself, 'Maybe I didn’t really know.’ ”
She said although sometimes these promptings have been difficult to follow, she made the decision when she was a young girl that she would never shut the door to another child in her family.
The Walkers have adopted children from the United States, India and China. Some of their adopted children have special needs, including cerebral palsy and Down syndrome.
One of their daughters, 5-year-old Bria, has a condition called amniotic banding. While she was in utero, little threads wrapped around her body, restricting development.
Bria has only two fingers on one hand and a few short stubs on the other, but that doesn't stop her. Deanne Walker said she recently saw Bria carrying a full gallon of milk with one hand.
"It takes all four of my fingers to do what she does with one," Deanne Walker said. "She can do anything and everything you do. She can draw, she can write, there's nothing she can't do. OK, she can't play on the monkey bars. But I don't know if there's anything else she can't do besides the monkey bars."
Last year, the Walkers found a baby boy in China with severe heart problems. He was living in an orphanage after his parents abandoned him on the side of the road. He had very little chance of survival.
When the Walkers found him, they instantly knew he was theirs. But most doctors said his heart condition was so serious that even if he survived the trip to the U.S. and made it through surgery, he probably wouldn't live for very long.
"(The doctor said), 'Leave him there,’ ” Deanne Walker said. “ ‘Go get a child that can be fixed; there's plenty of those.’ ”
She was so angered and hurt by this comment that it only deepened her conviction that the little boy was theirs.
"I was so overcome by the Spirit," Deanne Walker said. "But making the actual decision was hard, because you're looking at spending $30,000. We had to lean on our knowledge of eternal families to really make that decision."
The adoption went through and they were able to bring the little boy, Gideon, home. They had him for 10 months before he passed away — after being sealed to the Walker family in an LDS temple.
"The understanding of the adoption, if you're not looking at it from a spiritual perspective at all, why would you bring a child into your home that isn't going to last?" Doug Walker said. "But with the eternal nature of things, we don't care if he's only with us for a day. He's ours. It wouldn't have changed our decision."
As a mortgage banker, Doug has an income that varies each year. But he said whenever they have felt like they needed to bring another child into their home, the resources have been available.
"It's kind of a joke," Deanne Walker said. "The only time we make any more money than we actually need is when there's an adoption."
They said they get all kinds of reactions when people find out how big their family is. Deanne Walker said as their family grew, trips to Costco started getting longer and longer because she was stopped by so many curious people.
"It finally got to the point where I had to teach my children — and this is so not like me — I had to teach them, 'Look down, we're in a hurry. You can't look at anyone. Because if you don't look at anyone they're intimidated and they don't want to stop,’ ” she said. "I had to teach my kids not to be friendly!"
While most people are curious and accepting of their family, she said they have also received some negative judgment.
"People are worried that we're not giving enough attention to all of our kids; that there's too much responsibility," she said.
But the Walkers see it as the complete opposite. With a family of that size, they feel there is so much more love to go around.
Their kids said they like having so many brothers and sisters because there is always someone to play with.
They play baseball and kickball, jump on the trampoline and play on the giant slip-n-slide that they set up in the backyard every summer. The family goes on hikes, goes to the dollar theater and goes on a family vacation about every other year. This year they're going to Nauvoo, Illinois, which is rich in LDS Church history.
LeAnn Williams, a good friend who has been in the Walkers' Mormon ward in South Jordan for the past eight years, said one thing that impresses her about the family is how well-behaved the children are.
"A large family like that, it's just amazing," she said. "When you go in their home it's fairly peaceful. They are a really organized family."
She described Deanne as fun, spiritual and sincere, and Doug as "just a really good guy." She said the relationship between the husband and wife is very loving and supportive.
"(They are) just a really steadfast, faithful family that just amazes you," she said. "Their desire to have these children and what they went through to get them is just astounding."
By the time they reached kids nine and 10, the Walkers constantly had people telling them they needed to write a book about their family. Deanne Walker's first reaction was a big "no."
"I don't have time," she remembered thinking. "I'm barely keeping my head above water here. I don't have time to be writing a book."
But Doug Walker thought that at least starting a blog would help spread awareness about adoption and maybe give them a chance to share the gospel.
She said for her, the hardest part of blogging is opening herself up to judgment and trying to get over her "perfectionist syndrome." But faith, prayer and the hope that she might touch someone for good have kept her going.
She said two strangers who they had never heard from before recently commented on one of her posts, saying it was exactly what they needed to hear.
"There's always that little bit of anxiety," Deanne Walker said. "But always the constant reminder of I could make a difference today."
The Walkers said their decision to have such a large family has completely changed them from who they once thought they would be.
"It's not the big, beautiful home anymore," Deanne Walker said. "It's not dressing nice, having the praises of the world. It's refined us. It's altered how we think. It's altered what we value."
However, they said there have been times when they look at people and wonder what "could have been" had they decided to do their lives differently.
"We did go through a phase for sure where we really struggled," Deanne Walker said. "And we would look at those families with three and four kids, OK, even five or six, and think, 'OK, we could be almost empty-nesters. We could go away for a week at a time. We'd be going out to dinner. Oh, think of the car we'd have, I could drive something other than a 15-passenger van!’ ”
But she said they had to stop this thinking.
“Those thoughts brought negative feelings," she said. "There was no gratitude in any of those thoughts. And when we realized how bad that was for us to think that way, we committed to each other we would not let ourselves go there anymore. That we were going to be grateful for where we were and the blessings Heavenly Father has given us. But with the greatest blessings come the greatest challenges. And so we’re going to look at those challenges as great blessings, and we are going to fill our lives with gratitude. Our thoughts will be focused on gratitude, not, 'If we only had ' because those are weeds. And they take over fast.”
The Walkers recently started a nonprofit organization, My Gift of Love, to help birth mothers connect with LDS families. They said they hope their agency will be able to make adoption more affordable and to help mothers find suitable, wholesome homes for their children.
"There's kids in a far-off country that we can turn our back on," Deanne Walker said. "We can live our entire life and not even think about them. But they're children just like you and I once were. They're children just like my children in this home. They are every bit as deserving as any biological child I ever had. And that's exactly why it's hard to say no."
The Walkers said they don't know exactly why God has chosen them to raise such a large family, but they are happy to do his work.
"I think because he takes everybody's talents and he uses them to the fullest," Deanne Walker said. "And somehow we must have, in the pre-existence, developed talents for parenting. And so he's using us to the fullest."
Erica Palmer is a writer for the Mormon Times and Features department. Email: [email protected]