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Faith compels Christian family to keep on adopting, many with special needs

RICHMOND, Va. — Mike and Sharon Dennehy were living the American dream. They were in love, had three children and a steady income.

All it took was one black-and-white photo to change their lives.

“Boy with no arms in Romania desperately needs a loving home,” read the caption under the photo. One glance from each Dennehy sealed the deal, and they made arrangements to travel to the Eastern European home of their soon-to-be son George.

Adoption wasn’t always the plan for the Dennehy family. Self-described as being “career-minded” in college, Sharon Dennehy thought having three kids was the definition of a big family.

As her relationship with God deeply developed and her desire to help others grew, Sharon recognized adoption as something she and Mike could do to help children who wouldn’t otherwise have a home or a family.

Children with special needs typically have the hardest time finding a home, and the thought of taking on that responsibility on top of their already busy lives scared the Dennehys. However, their faith in God’s plan for them brought them to George.

“We had just heard an amazing sermon from the book of James about being doers of God’s work, not just hearers,” said Mike Dennehy. “The point of the sermon was pretty straight forward: You can just sit and listen and go to church every Sunday, but if you don’t put it into practice. you’re not living the way you want to live. We realized we were just being pew sitters instead of doers.”

Life without limbs

Although George’s biological family loved him, they didn’t have the means to support him and felt it would be best to take him to the orphanage. It's a common superstition at the orphanage and throughout Romania that children born with deformities are cursed. According to Sharon Dennehy, the orphanage questioned why these Americans wanted to adopt the boy.

“They thought maybe we wanted his organs or something,” she said. “After we went to Romania and convinced George’s biological parents that we had the right motives and shared some of our Christian beliefs, George came home with us and became part of our family.”

The Dennehys loved George, but having an armless child came with challenges.

Mike Dennehy wondered how his son was going to go from sitting to crawling to walking without any arms to stabilize his balance.

To ease their worries, the Dennehys hired a physical therapist to help George develop flexibility and dexterity in his toes.

The therapist had never assisted a child without arms before, but George proved to be very capable — something he has taken with him throughout his life.

When learning to stand, George scooted over to the couch and put the back of his head against the cushions as he pushed himself into a standing position.

The adoption process continues

After seeing George’s success and feeling the blessings he brought to their family, the Dennehys decided to adopt James, their son from Bangalore, India.

When Sharon saw James on the Internet, she noticed he didn’t have any arms and thought it would be good for George and James to grow up as brothers, understanding each other’s condition.

“They’re such typical brothers,” Sharon said. “They’re always competing with each other, but I think as they get older they’ll appreciate each other more and more.”

At that point, the Dennehy family was made up of seven, but their story doesn’t end there.

Before delving into the adoption process yet again, the Dennehys decided to do foster care through the Connecticut state system.

They took in a boy named Tom whose mother was going through rehabilitation. After caring for him for a year and a half, the Dennehys felt like he was already a part of the family and immediately accepted the invitation to adopt him.

When Tom was 2 years old, his biological mother gave birth to a little girl named Siobhan. Because Tom's mother was still going through rehabilitation, the Dennehys were asked to adopt Siobhan.

Shortly after Siobhan joined the family, Sharon and Mike learned about a baby born in Thailand without limbs. Because they had experience with special-needs children, they began to do a home study for her. Unfortunately, Thailand’s tight adoption rules prevented the Dennehys from adopting Hope at that time.

Although discouraged, the Dennehys were eager to adopt once more, so 10-year-old Caris joined the family from China.

As a member of several limb-deficient support websites, Sharon came across the profile of a little girl from Ethiopia who had no arms. Her heartstrings were tugged once again.

The girl's parents objected to her being adopted by a Christian family, but because they already had a relationship with the Ethiopian adoption agency, the Dennehys were asked if they’d adopt two sisters instead.

Andi and Cali made 10 children for the Dennehys, and they weren’t about to stop there.

Once Andi and Cali learned English, they were able to tell Mike and Sharon that they left behind their older sister, Tamer, in Ethiopia.

“I’m really a believer in trying to keep biological siblings together, so I went on kind of a research binge to find her,” Sharon said. “When we located Tamer, she was 11 at the time, and it worked out so that we could bring her into our family two years after her sisters came.”

Two years ago, the Dennehys received the good news that Hope, the child they’d previously wanted to adopt from Thailand, was up for adoption once again. They soon began the adoption process, and in February 2012, Hope joined the Dennehy family as the 12th and youngest child.

Now, with 12 children and several dogs, the Dennehys have a full house that not even Mike and Carol Brady could compete with. Their family has been described as looking like a miniature United Nations meeting.

“Because a lot of our children are different, it helps take away their insecurity of being different,” Sharon said.

Relying on their faith

Faith is a big part of the Dennehys' home.

“Adoption is sort of a model of what God does for us,” Mike said. “We’re all pretty messed up and then God says, ‘It’s all right, I’m going to rescue you and bring you into my family.’ We just try to tell everybody that adoption on earth is just like the adoption that’s coming later for everyone.”

George Dennehy, 19, recently posted a video on YouTube titled “I like adoption.” With more than 400,000 views, the video depicts the Dennehys’ everyday life and what a miracle it is to be a family.

George inspires others through music. He plays three instruments with his feet, including the cello, the piano and the guitar.

George started playing the cello at 8 years old, but he didn’t enjoy playing very much.

“I had to practice every day for an hour, and it was more of just a chore for me,” George said. “Then in sixth grade I realized the cello isn’t really the cool instrument to play, so I started playing the bass guitar.”

In middle school, George began to be very discouraged by his limb deficiency and his faith in God was wavering.

“I started really doubting God’s goodness because I saw myself in the mirror and thought, ‘How could a loving God forget to put arms on me?’” George said. “I would pray for arms every night and it never happened. That’s when the Holy Spirit really tugged my heart and told me I needed to understand that God does what he does for a reason.”

George's musical success

Music was his solace. The summer after his high school graduation, George was awarded a music appreciation scholarship. A part of the scholarship meant he was going to play at the Strawberry Fair, which his hometown holds each year.

George played the song “Iris” by The Goo Goo Dolls and posted it on YouTube. In just two days the video went viral, and George was contacted by the drummer of The Goo Goo Dolls to open for the band at Musikfest in Pennsylvania in August 2012.

“Playing at Musikfest was a big jump for me,” George said. “I got a much bigger fan base and I was involved in some press conferences.”

At that point, George’s music had reached an international audience.

The Romanian TV program "Antenna One" discovered George was originally from their country, and they invited him to do a spotlight on their show for an entire week.

An emotional reunion

George was thrilled to return to a country he didn’t think he’d return to for a very long time. He traveled with his mom and her friend to Romania, where he talked to reporters, traveled to his hometown and, most importantly, was reunited with his biological family.

“I surprised my (biological) mom and she couldn’t believe it,” George said. “I showed up at her house, and I called to her as she was picking vegetables in the backyard. She turned around and instantly knew who I was.”

It was an emotional reunion for a mother who gave up her son 17 years previously.

The language barrier makes it difficult for George to keep in contact with his Romanian family, but Google translate has assisted in keeping up the relationship.

George spends most of his time playing music and speaking to students and other audience members. He enjoys inspiring people because he believes he wouldn’t be alive today without the hand of God and his experience with adoption.

“Adoption is a constant visual reminder that there’s more to life than what you see with your eyes,” Mike said. “How can we complain too much when there’s kids all around us in wheelchairs and doing homework with their feet? Every day we’re surrounded by all those little inspirations.”

Megan Marsden is an intern with the Deseret News writing for the Faith & Family section. She is currently a junior at BYU-Idaho studying communication. The views of the writer do not reflect the views of BYU-Idaho.