ADEL, Ga. — Often, a picture in the mail was all it took.
Word had gotten out about the couple willing to take in children, no matter if they were minorities or a sibling group or had special needs.
Drew and Nancy McDowell — married as teens and childless their first five years — made room. Some came alone, but six times they came in groups of three or more.
Today the McDowells count 41 children, all but one of them adopted.
"You might would have to be a little crazy to do it," Nancy, 61, admitted. "But if you're called, you go forward and don't think much about it."
The average American family has two children. The McDowells have multiplied that by just over 20 — in diapers, pacifiers, toy cars, dolls, bags of school supplies, trips to the doctor or dentist, requests/demands for candy in the checkout line and required deposits for extracurricular activities.
According to MSN Moneycentral it costs nearly a quarter million dollars to raise a child today. However, finances never stood in the way for Drew and Nancy, members of Massee Baptist Church in Adel, Ga., who adopted their first child, Julie McDowell Hisaw, in 1970.
"God's always met our needs," Nancy reflected. "Drew had a good job for years and we just learned to manage what we had. Over the years we've had several people feel led to do something for us or give us something. We never bothered to look at the statistics on raising a child."
Hisaw calls her mother a nurturer and her father a cut-up. Around the fourth grade she wanted a sister, so her parents adopted Sally, nine months older than Julie. A child here and there would be added through the early 90s, at which time there were "only" 10 children.
During that decade, however, more requests came and "kids just came out of the woodwork," Hisaw said.
All told, the McDowells have adopted from Georgia, Florida, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina. One daughter adopted in Alabama was part Filipino. That made Nancy want to look internationally. Soon enough a daughter and son from Korea had joined the brood.
A laid-back demeanor certainly helped, but where does one get the stamina in a household where bedroom walls with posters of David Cassidy, Leif Garrett and Journey were eventually replaced by New Kids on the Block and NSync before giving way to the High School Musical kids, Hannah Montana and the Jonas Brothers?
"I was an only child, but Nancy had two brothers and a sister with a large extended family," Drew said. "We kind of gradually got into (adopting). One day I look around and there's a T-shirt in my closet saying, 'Who are these kids and why are they calling me dad?'
"As we became more involved in adoption we realized how many children were in need," he said. "There are a lot of kids people don't know about that need homes. Through the years we've also learned that there is a difference in each individual."
Like other young couples, the McDowells envisioned a house full of children the "natural" way. A few years without getting pregnant led to a doctor's diagnosis of infertility. So they looked into adoption.
Members of Second Baptist Church in Warner Robins at the time, their Sunday school teacher was a freshman state senator named Sonny Perdue. The future governor introduced the McDowells to the state Senate as examples of those looking to provide stable homes for children.
Most of their children have been adopted through state services, with more than 30 coming from Texas. Many included sibling groups.
When Nancy was 35, the doctors were officially proven wrong regarding her ability to get pregnant. Justin, now 24, is a recent graduate of the University of South Alabama with a degree in X-ray technology.
Many of his siblings have gone on to college, largely through Pell grants or other financial assistance.
"It had been the desire of my heart to have a baby (biologically)," Nancy said. "Even through all those years I'd never given up on it. Even when I became pregnant and called my mother, she was still concerned and said I shouldn't be telling anyone about it. But when you're dealing with God, you have no idea how far His grace can go."
The road home
About 13 miles outside Adel, a dirt road leads to a series of homes with plenty of room around them. One driveway snakes past a small horse pasture and grove of pecan trees, winding up at a house bigger on the inside than the exterior suggests.
The 20-acre spread works for the family even if the house is barely half the size of their previous one. A 17-bedroom behemoth in Pass Christian, Miss., had served as the McDowell residence for years until Nancy's rheumatoid arthritis — a battle she's fought for 14 years — began acting up. In addition, fluid built up in her lungs. Doctors said the Gulf Coast humidity was no place for her to live, so the couple made plans to place the house on the market.
In April 2006 the family took a trip to Wild Adventures in Valdosta, Ga. Nancy felt the climate suited her and talked to her husband about selling their current home. Georgia wasn't new to them. Years before they had lived in Dunwoody and Warner Robbins.
"Who was going to buy a house with 17 bedrooms?" Drew remembered wondering.
A Bishop Adel (talk about foreshadowing) from a church in the Bronx saw the home and contacted the McDowells, wanting to purchase it as a ministry center. Soon enough the family was relocating.
Changing what a child has learned the first years of his or her life is tough. Early on, Nancy often would have to convince them they didn't have to eat everything on their plate and ask for more — there would be more tomorrow. Some had been living on the street. One daughter talked about the particulars of dumpster diving.
"Just like anyone else who's had children, there are going to be ups and downs and good times and bad times. But the kids have quite a transformation from where they came from to being in a stable home environment," she said.
The McDowells acknowledge that having such a large family — no matter how close-knit — can add tension, particularly during the years of teen angst. Some strained relationships exist between child and adoptive parent. In fact, Hisaw said the majority of her siblings, herself included, at one time or another thought there had to be a different life, a better one.
"Raising a family isn't cookie cutter," Hisaw said. "There are problems and influences from the outside world. We'd ask why our friend's momma and daddy bought this and we couldn't, then hear how those people didn't have 14 brothers and sisters."
In the way time reveals and teaches, Hisaw now has a clearer grasp as a mother herself.
"I find myself repeating things to my children and younger brothers and sisters that I heard from my parents. I see some of the ones who have drifted off coming back because this is the only family they've ever had. Momma and Daddy's dedication to us as their children is a ministry in itself."
Seeing the results
"We've tried to give (the children) better than what they had," Drew said. "We wanted them to have an education and take them to church and learn about God."
"My wife and I marvel at how well they've done with those kids," said Stanley Hendricks, pastor at Massee Baptist. "The children are heavily involved in our youth group and active in the church's ministry."
Hendricks came to Massee as interim pastor a little before the McDowells moved to Adel. Hisaw was a member at the time and so Hendricks had heard about her rather large family in Mississippi. It didn't prepare him for the initial meeting, though.
"The first time they came to the church I walked out of the office and stopped," he said. "Those children were coming out of everywhere into the sanctuary."
He's also noticed the mutual devotion.
"They love one another; that's obvious. The kids absolutely adore their parents. After the service they all go to their momma and daddy first then go see their friends. They're just an unusually well-behaved bunch."
Although learning about God can be done at church, Hisaw recalls the level of discipleship the McDowells taught at home.
"The Bible teaches about unconditional love," Hisaw said. "You may stray from the flock and we may not agree with the choices in your life, but Momma and Daddy love unconditionally."
Heather, 21, currently works in Colorado as a college financial aid officer. She admits that after moving out she learned to appreciate her parents more.
"I've come to realize why my parents were strict and always pushed us to do well no matter how hard it was," she said. "I used to always get angry when they didn't let me go out with my friends when I didn't have my homework done or little things like that, but now it's a very different story.
"The simplest things they did for me that I thought were not fair actually helped me to succeed in the real world."
While maintaining an ironclad resolve to their calling in providing children a home and family, Drew and Nancy don't gloss over the challenges that come with it.
"It's easy now that we only have 14 (in the house)," Drew quipped. "There were 32 at one time. With that many you have to run a tight ship."
Standing outside in the south Georgia twilight recently, he pointed out the importance of not simply viewing his children collectively.
"You have to understand that each one of them is an individual, even in sibling groups," he said. "They have different needs, ideas and wants. You've got to deal with them accordingly. I've drawn a line in the sand with every one of them, and every one has tested it. Some test it every day."
With a mixture of focus and contentment, Nancy's observation sounds somewhat like a mission statement.
"When we were contacted with a group we'd just take them in. Looking back over 36 years it hasn't been that hard.
"It's our calling." –
(EDITOR'S NOTE — Barkley is production manager of The Christian Index, newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Convention.