By KATHRYN ACREE
In 1971, a representative from Catholic Social Services spoke to Anna Lee’s fifth grade class at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic School about welcoming foster children into their homes. For Lee, those words would lay a path for years to come.
“I just had this feeling like something big was going to happen, but I didn’t know what it was,” Lee said.
Inspired by a flier sent home with Lee that day, her parents came to foster 19 children as she grew up.
“We grieved when the children left because we knew we wouldn’t see them again,” Lee said of the way the process was closed while she was growing up. “But, each child that entered our lives was not a loss but a gain. We didn’t feel jealous. That child was part of our family.”
Today, she and her husband, Alan, have 19 children ages one to 30, both biological and adopted. The number expands to 52 when counting the foster children they’ve welcomed over the years.
But before starting a family of her own, Lee had left Birmingham to attend college at the University of North Carolina and then law school in Michigan. During her career as an attorney, she met and married Alan, a CPA, when she was 26 and he was 37. After a whirlwind courtship, the two eloped after six months and welcomed the births of three children in the next three years.
Even as a mom to her own small children, Lee hoped to take in children who needed a home.
Because she was still practicing law, her interest at the time was with older children. “I wanted to help the ones that got left in the system,” she said. “I was different from many adoptive parents, in that I wasn’t seeking a baby; we had three small children already. My motivation was to be part of a solution and help.”
She felt a calling on her heart to foster more children but didn’t push Alan about it.
On a trip to Cheaha State Park for their fifth wedding anniversary, the Lees met a group of pre-teen girls who lived in a group home, the Presbyterian Home for Children in Talladega. One of them said she knew Alan even though they had never met.
Later, Alan asked if these were the kind of kids his wife was talking about taking in. Lee said yes. “Oh, I could do this,” he said.
Within six weeks the Lees became a respite sponsor to 12-year-old Gail from the group home, who visited on some weekends and holidays. She became closer to the family and soon visited every weekend. It would take five years, but they eventually adopted Gail.
One Christmas, Alan began talking about a strong feeling he had that another child would soon join the family.
In mid-January, Lee got a call from an agency saying they had child in Missouri in immediate need of a home, and she knew this was the child Alan had envisioned.
Six-year-old Heather came to live with the family within a week. She’d been in seven different homes and diagnosed with an attachment disorder, an extremely challenging condition in which children simply don’t learn to trust. The Lees adopted her within six months. Sadly, Heather died in a single-car accident driving to Texas in January of last year. She was 18.
“The loss of Heather was a struggle not only for us, but also her biological family that we’d kept in touch with through the years,” Lee said.
The Lees have made the choice to keep biological family members in their adopted children’s lives, when and if it is a good situation for the child.
As the family continued to grow, they needed a bigger home than what they had in Homewood.
“It’s funny, but I said I would never live out on 280,” Lee laughed. “When Alan convinced me we needed to look at Mt Laurel, I loved it as soon as I saw it.”
The EBSCO team convinced them they could build a home that met their needs—with eight bedrooms— in Mt Laurel.
Their home has a fenced backyard at the end of a street, close to the shops and stores of Mt Laurel. “A lot of people know we have 19 children and sometimes [the home] looks like we have 19 children, but we work to blend in seamlessly with the community,” Lee said.
So what is daily life like with such a full house?
Ten loads of laundry run each day. The family goes through six gallons of milk in about a day and a half. A food-service company delivers frozen food and stocks the kitchen basics. A 15-passenger van takes the family wherever they need to go.
“We go everywhere together,” Lee said.
The teenagers are generally homeschooled, and elementary age kids go to school. “The teenagers who came to be with us needed to see the stability of a family,” Lee said.
Early on, the Lees established a covenant with all their kids. “Once we say you’re staying, you can’t ‘act’ your way out of our home,” Lee said. “We don’t put limitations on our caring for them.”
That means no limits to loving through emotional trauma, acting out and even raising additional children when their adopted children have become pregnant.
“Our caring for them doesn’t just end when drama happens. This is part of what we see as helping these kids have a new life,” she said.
What does she say when people tell her they could never do what she does?
“Do whatever it is you feel led to do,“ she tells them. “Whether it’s helping older people, taking care of your family, working at a mission, whatever. Whatever it is you’re supposed to do, do something. Don’t sit around and just listen to yourself. Your life is so much better when you’re not just living for yourself, but living to help others.”