By Sen. Mike Johanns
Each year, I have the honor of selecting outstanding parents who have chosen to adopt as ‘Angels in Adoption.’ And once again, I continue to be inspired by the number of blended families in Nebraska who have selflessly and lovingly opened their hearts to children without a permanent place to call home. But one family stood out from the others, and I’m pleased to announce Jay and Mary Saunders of Bellevue as 2014 ‘Angels in Adoption.’
The Saunders have one biological son and six adoptive children: Nick, 16; Ian, 13; Nathan, 13; Haylee, 12; Mara, 10; Christian, 9; and Kevin, 7. Nick, the eldest, is their biological child whose special needs inspired the Saunders to open their home and hearts to adopting other children with disabilities.
Mary always knew she was meant to adopt and have a big family. Nick was born with a number of disabilities, including Asperger’s and metabolic issues that requires a special, strict diet. The extra work caring for Nick inspired the Saunders to adopt children with special needs. When Nick was four, two-year-old Ian entered their lives. He suffered from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). But the moment they laid eyes on Ian, the Saunders knew he was meant to be part of their growing family.
Mara was adopted soon afterward. Today, Mary calls Mara her ‘life’s work’ and ‘little guru.’ When she came to the Saunders through a private adoption, she required special needs that resulted from abuse she previously suffered. This opened the Saunders’ eyes to the toll neglect can take on a child, inspiring them to look into fostering future children. Birth siblings Nathan, Haylee, Christian and Kevin were adopted together in March 2013, and came through the foster system.
Throughout the past 15 years, the Saunders have worked to integrate their growing family, both immediate and extended. This includes the birth families of some of the children, which has been challenging for Jay and Mary to explain at times. Mary often tells her children ‘you can never have too many people loving you,’ which doesn’t seem to be a problem in the Saunders household.
Through hard work, Nick continues to defy his learning disabilities – excelling in high school and planning to enroll in college. Ian no longer has attachment issues or suffers from ADHD. Mara has learned to deal with her emotions without medication. Nathan recently won a best athlete award for the Omaha-area. Haylee and Christian’s education has improved leaps and bounds since becoming part of the Saunders family. The youngest, Kevin, continues to follow in the footsteps of his older siblings. Together, the seven children continue thrive and grow, thanks to Mary and Jay’s love and support.
Since 1999, the ‘Angels in Adoption’ program has honored more than 2,000 groups and families for their outstanding support of adoption and the foster care system. The Saunders will be honored at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., next month. May their story serve as an inspiration to others who may be interested in pursuing foster care and adoption.