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Vernon couple open hearts, home to children with special needs

By Suzanne Carlson
Journal Inquirer

Published: Friday, December 31, 2010 11:50 AM EST

VERNON — David and Terri Greenier always have known they wanted a big family.

“When Terri and I were 17 and 16 years old, which was three years after we met, we had been talking about how many kids we wanted if we ever got married. We both had the same number: 17,” David, 50, said during a recent interview at the couple’s rented four-bedroom home on Regan Street.

Their family isn’t quite that large yet, but it’s getting close, and its warm home is filled with toys, books, restored clocks, colored drawings, and several pets. In addition to their four biological children, Martha, 26; Benjamin, 22; Sarah, 18; and Hannah, 16; the Greeniers adopted four more, Julia, 25; Erica, 12; Max, 11; and Shyheim, 12, who died Nov. 28.

It’s been a long, winding journey for the large and ever-growing family, which has formed a Christian ministry called “Lamb’s Way,” which seeks to support children with special health care needs and their families.

The mood in the couple’s home the night before Christmas Eve was warm and loving, but years before, Terri, 48, and David said their marriage was nearly torn apart.

“My life was nothing at one point, Terri and I were in divorce court,” David said. They married when David was 21 and Terri was 19, and five years later, “We were in a drug-infested area here in town, and basically what happened was alcohol, drugs, and affairs with other people … just really destroyed our marriage.”

Terri said she kicked David out of the home they shared with their daughter Martha and had his law enforcement brother scare him into giving up cocaine. After weeks of prayer, fighting, counseling, and discussion, they eventually reconciled the night before their first scheduled court date.

Instead of splitting up, they fired their lawyers and, “we started all over again,” Terri said.

They can laugh about their painful past now — “Where else am I going to find anybody who will put up with me?” David joked — but, “it took lots of time, it took years for us to work it back together,” Terri said.

In addition to having their own children, the couple always wanted to adopt, so after consulting their biological children, they took in Shyheim shortly after he was born in April 1998.

The still unnamed, 5-pound infant was suffering from the effects of drug exposure, but, “they said just take him home and treat him like a normal baby because we don’t know what’s wrong with him,” David said.

Over the next several months, the Greeniers realized their child was blind and severely disabled.

“He had so many issues they couldn’t even really give a clear diagnosis,” David said.

Among his other disorders, Shyheim suffered from microcephaly, a neurological disorder that Terri explained happens when brain doesn’t grow to normal size and cannot carry out much of the body’s functions.

“He did not like being touched, he did not like being cuddled. … You couldn’t give him a bath because he couldn’t deal with the sensory input,” David said.

Eventually Shyheim became more used to the world and his symptoms such as seizures subsided, but he spent much of his short life in and out of the hospital with pneumonia and other complications.

While David worked as a CNC lathe operator at a company in Bloomfield, Terri cared for Shyheim and the other children. Martha, who was 14 at the time, essentially ran the household for a couple weeks.

“It was just wrong, so we really started praying about it and the Lord really impressed upon me that Terri cannot do this alone,” David said.

After 13 years at a job he loved, he said God told him to quit and stay home, so he reluctantly told Terri the news.

“I said, ‘Praise the Lord! He told me that three weeks ago!” Terri said, laughing.

The family took in another infant, Max, in March 2000, and a few days later, David left his job at the age of 38 and the family now relies on state funding and community support.

Though they were hoping for a relatively healthy child, Max turned out to be hydrocephalic, a condition in which fluid in the skull squeezes the brain and must be drained regularly through a shunt.

“Once they come in, we’re committed no matter what, and so, there was no way I was going to send him back because there was a medical issue I didn’t want to deal with,” Terri said.

Because of infections and other complications, Max’s shunt, which is a tube inserted through a hole in the skull, had to be revised eight times in eight months.

“There was a couple of times that he almost died,” Terri said.

And “by the time he was 4, the neurologist told us that he was now a million-dollar baby,” David added.

Raising medically complex children requires great emotional strength and the Greeniers said they’ve thought hard about the issues surrounding their decisions, including how they are viewed by minorities for taking in two disabled black children and how other Christians feel about their choices.

“There are many people, especially in the Christian community, that wanted to know well, why are we keeping him from going to see Jesus instead of staying here with us?” David said of Shyheim. “Are we doing this for him or are we doing it to him?”

For two children with little mobility or cognitive function, “What is the standard of quality of life, how do you measure that? Really, we measure that in the child’s desire to live,” David said.

Because doctors are constantly on rotation in hospitals and “each doctor wants to make sure that they’re hearing from you clearly what your wishes are … every week you’re having to talk about the life and death of your son,” Terri said.

When they finally made the decision to remove Shyheim from life support, doctors said he would linger for several hours, but instead he died within 10 minutes.

After adopting Max, the Greeniers took in a little girl named Erica, who also suffers from a host of serious, but less-debilitating disorders, such as issues with her heart and kidneys.

They also met Julia, who was 19 at the time, at church, and upon learning of the personal issues she was struggling with, invited her to live with them.

Eventually, they legally adopted Julia, who also took their name.

“She had big issues, and we knew that going into it, but we also knew that more than anything else in the world, she just needed somebody to stop and love her. It was cool because how many parents get picked by their kids?” David said.

Julia married and moved out of the home, but returned a few weeks ago with her three young children when the relationship turned abusive.

Their oldest daughter Martha, who is now married, became certified as a home care specialist and now spends her days working in the family’s home, taking care of her younger siblings.

Benjamin, who was primarily home schooled, has decided to stay home and help care for his siblings as well.

Hannah — whose “special need” is that she craves affection, David joked — is also devoted to the family, and though Sarah is studying at a Christian college in Canada, she stays in close contact with those at home and said she expects to return and become a teacher one day.

The Greeniers know what people must think about their unusual lifestyle, and they and Benjamin laughed off assumptions that they raise their children in some kind of super-religious cult. Both Terri and David are extremely open with their children about their own checkered pasts, and they say they want their children to be able to come to them, no matter what problems they might be struggling with.

While talking about their family, a teenage girl David introduced as Princess walked in from outside and gave kisses and hugs all around.

“This is one of our blessings: Princess is an unofficial adoption,” David said, to which she replied, smiling, “I wish it was official.”

They would take in more children if they had the space, and are looking to find a larger, permanent home they can build into a full-blown facility for special-needs care. David said he envisions a community-type structure where older, retired individuals can come help care for children and young kids can learn how to raise crops and become self-reliant.

“We’ve learned a lot through these kids. … We know that we’re making a difference when people see what we’re doing and they love what we’re doing,” David said. “People have said they want to come live with us and help raise these children, and that just blows us away.”

It’s not the family they expected, but they say they wouldn’t change anything.

“Had we known what we were going to go through with them when we first started this, we would have run away in fear. But since then, many people have come to us and said, ‘You know, God bless you guys because there’s no way I could ever do that,’” David said. “And they’re right. You can only do what you’re called to do.”