Family Our Way
Johnny and Heather Gibson wanted a large family, but adopting eight children wasn’t in their initial plan. Now, they’re living the dream—doing lots of laundry, driving a big van and sharing lots of love.
What is life like with eight children?
“We attract a lot of attention, and we drive a gigantic 12-passenger van—don’t be jealous!” Heather said with a laugh. “You can see people counting as we walk through a store or down the aisle at church. Some of our kids even look like us, so you know they’re thinking, ‘Girl, don’t you know what birth control is?’”
The Gibsons tried to start a family in the traditional way, but it didn’t work and neither did several years of fertility treatments.
“We decided to close that chapter and move on to adoption,” Heather said.
Five years ago, the Gibsons joined a support group at Crossings Community Church for adoptive and foster parents—and their hearts opened up to fostering children.
“We knew we wanted a family, and we didn’t really care how kids came into it,” Johnny said.
Their first foster experience was with two little girls, but when the girls returned to their birth dad, the Gibsons were devastated.
“The whole goal of fostering is to reunite children with their birth family,” Heather said, “But in that situation, they shouldn’t have been. It wasn’t a good thing. We were done with fostering, but then God said, ‘No, actually you’re not done.’”
And they weren’t! They’ve since fostered 12 more children, adopting eight of them, who currently range between the ages of six and 14.
In 2014, the Gibson family was selected to move from their tiny Edmond home to Peppers Ranch, a privately-funded neighborhood outside of Guthrie, specifically designed for foster and adoptive parents with large families. Unlike a group home where children are assigned, Peppers Ranch provides homes for 12 different families who choose children from state custody.
The ranch has a central community center where services are provided for the children, such as tutoring, horse therapy, art and dance therapy.
“These kids come from hard places and all kinds of trauma. Some of their stories are horrific,” Heather said. “They were born to parents using drugs or alcohol, or they were abused or neglected. Sometimes you forget they have special needs, because they don’t look any different—but they need much more patience and compassion.”
“I had to change my view on how to father these kids,” Johnny said. “I always believed in spanking children when needed, and I said I would never medicate my children—but I’ve had to adjust, because some of these children came from abuse situations, and some of them are on medication.”
The Gibsons have also adapted their approach to teaching responsibility to their children.
“Our older kids are extremely helpful with the younger ones, but we don’t go too far with that. Some came from homes where they carried the responsibility for younger siblings or had to be the parent. We want them to be normal kids, so we’re thankful for their help, but we don’t require it all the time,” Heather explained.
How does one manage a household of eight children? With a great deal of structure. The children are expected to learn basic self-care skills, such as showering, from an earlier age than might occur in a smaller household with parents who can dedicate more individualized time to each child.
Now that all the children are old enough to attend school, Heather has a little bit more time to manage her non-stop list of daily chores.
“Everyone at the grocery store knows me, because I stock up every couple of days,” Heather said. “Being a stay-at-home mom is what I always wanted to do, so I’m living the dream, even when it doesn’t feel that way.”
Fortunately, Johnny has a schedule that allows him more daytime hours at home to assist with chores and errands. As an Edmond firefighter, he works variable 24-hour shifts, which then provides him several days off.
“I get to be home when most dads aren’t able to, so I help Heather around the house with all that laundry, or take the kids to ball games or therapy appointments,” Johnny said.
As part of his firefighting work, he visits schools to teach fire safety to children. “I’ve always had a heart for helping people. As a firefighter, I do that every day, whether it’s providing education or attending an emergency scene,” Johnny said. “I believe in making a difference for somebody.”
Making a difference is constantly on the minds of Johnny and Heather as they try to help their challenged children develop normal lives.
“My dream for them is that they take their rough start and turn it into something good,” Heather said. “I hope they’re productive citizens who give back and help others.”
Despite their hectic schedule, Johnny and Heather describe life with eight children as action-packed and fun.
“It’s never boring! Some kid is always saying something hilarious,” Heather said. “They act like biological siblings, even though they aren’t. They have fun together and they fight together. We recently went skating, and it was gratifying to see the big kids helping the little ones as they fell all over the place.”
Certainly, the Gibsons can’t avoid the stares of others watching their overly-large family do any activity together, but they don’t worry much about it.
“It’s funny to imagine what they must be thinking or how they are judging us—but whatever,” Heather said. “You should see the looks when we go to a restaurant and ask for a table for 10!”
Soon, it will be a table for 11, because on Mother’s Day, Heather found out that she’s pregnant.
“The kids are really excited, but a little confused,” Heather said. “Now, if we’d said the Department of Human Services will be here in an hour with a baby, it would be like no big deal. But their reaction to this was, ‘Wait, you mean we don’t have to adopt this one?’”
The Gibsons recommend fostering and adoption for anyone, like them, who couldn’t start a family in a traditional way. With 11,000 Oklahoma children in custody, the need is great. They went through Angels Foster Family Network in Edmond, but suggest that any foster agency is a good place to learn and prepare for the challenges of foster parenting, because it’s not always easy.
“From where these children have come, they have every right to be upset at the world,” Johnny said. “But I believe that love can break the cycle. At the end of the day, what these kids want is a little structure and a little love.”
What they found is a large family that offers a lot of love.