This is not an ordinary story, but then Joe and Jan Willinger are not ordinary people. They won’t tell you that, but just ask Celeste, Shannon, Jeremy, Rodney, Andrew, Lawrence, Tiffany, Michael, Marcus, Alicia, Sabrika, Isaac or CeCe.
Any of them would say their parents are built with a staggering capacity. That quality enables them to carry the hopes, dreams, burdens and heartaches of others, and it has allowed them to pour out their lives to rescue children, break traumatic generational patterns and live for something greater than themselves.
In case you didn’t count, there were 13 children listed above. The Willingers adopted 10 of them through foster care. Two of them are their own grandchildren. Eighteen more grandkids stop by their Owensboro house regularly. Another 20 foster kids called the place home at some point. Eight Willinger kids now live in Owensboro, one in Louisville, one in Seattle, one in Orange County, Calif., one in West Palm Beach, Fla., and one in heaven.
The story begins, though, in 1986 in Orange County, California, where a yuppie (Jan) and a former hippie (Joe) got married. It was the second marriage for each, so they started off with a blended family – she had two kids (Shannon and Andrew) and he had adopted his first wife’s daughter (Celeste). Unable to have biological children, Joe got a prophetic word at church after they were married that he would be the “father of many,” like Abraham the father of the Israelites.
In what would become a running theme in their life, “seeds had been planted in our hearts to reunite kids,” Jan said.
Her job as a corporate marketing director included directing charitable giving for her company, so she witnessed firsthand how their giving affected foster kids. Joe had a coworker whose grandkids were separated, which stung his heart as well. A couple of years into their marriage, they decided to take foster classes.
“We were never intending to adopt,” Jan said. “We just wanted to help out and do something.”
As soon as they were licensed, a social worker asked if they would take medically fragile 12-month old twins (Michael and Marcus) into their home. They didn’t want to split the boys up, so they agreed, and six months later, they were asked to adopt the twins. Jan was 38 years old.
Raising five kids in Orange County proved to be too expensive, so in 1993, the Willingers packed up and headed to Owensboro, where Jan’s brother lived. They still wanted to foster, so when 9-year old Lawrence came to their home as a foster child and they knew his three siblings were scattered throughout the system, they worked for five years to adopt them all. In 1999, adoptions were finalized for Tiffany (13), Lawrence (14), Rodney (15) and Jeremy (17).
Sabrika came as an 8-year old in 2001 and was adopted in 2006. Alicia came from the Guatemalan jungle as a 12-year old in 2004. She knew no English, didn’t understand houses and neighborhoods and streets and had no birth records. After a trip to the Guatemalan embassy in Washington D.C. in 2009, her adoption was finalized, a month before her 18th birthday.
“It was fun always having people to play with and entertain us,” Marcus Willinger said. “Always having new people there was just kind of what mom and dad did.”
In the middle of all this activity, Jan found time to go back to college, earning a Bachelor’s degree in Spanish and Education from Kentucky Wesleyan College in 2008. She worked as an English as a Second Language teacher for Daviess County Public Schools before the family had to move back to California in 2009 because Joe had been laid off from his job at Daramic and found work back in their home state.
They took with them their two teenage girls and their grandson Isaac, who they had been fostering since he was seven days old in 2007. His adoption finalized in California, as did that of his little sister CeCe. The Willingers gained custody of her at seven weeks old in 2014 on the day of Marcus’ wedding. (CeCe also happened to contract RSV that day). Jan was 61.
Michael went to live with his parents in California for six months. After returning to Kentucky in 2012, he was killed in a car accident in Louisville. He was 21, and his death ripped a hole in the Willinger family. “It just messed the whole family up,” Jan said. “They had already been through so much trauma.”
In 2015, due to a desire to hold the family together after Michael’s death and the opportunity to buy their trusty old home back, the Willingers made the cross-country move yet again. Joe still commutes to work in California thanks to a flexible schedule, while Jan keeps the home fires burning.
Through the years, Joe and Jan have dealt repeatedly with the difficult trauma that comes with neglected and abused kids. They have found a way to handle psych wards, drug-addicted babies, life-threatening medical conditions, legal issues, addiction, unexpected pregnancies and dysfunction beyond belief. They have been cussed at and rejected again and again, they have sent two kids to war, they have taken care of children who would soon be out of their house, they have fought to keep the family together after a devastating death, and they are still pouring themselves out for others even as rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis and back pain begin to decimate their bodies.
The natural question is why?
“We keep doing it because there’s such a need,” Jan said, “It’s insanely hard work, it’s way more than I ever expected to experience … all of that fades away in light of loving these kids into the kingdom, giving them parents, showing them family, showing them the heart of God.”
Jan is now 65 and Joe is 67. They are raising an 11-year old and a 4-year old, and, if not for their health, would be ready for more.
“I still desperately want to have more foster kids, but my body is so wrecked,” Jan said. “I would do it in a heartbeat if I were still healthy.”
“My life would be completely different if I wasn’t with them,” Marcus said. “It’s a true blessing. It’s an honor to be their son and be in their family. It takes a special heart — I always tell people they are saints.”
In a house on Newbolt Road set back among the trees, dozens of kids have found life. It’s not picture perfect — in fact, it’s messy and chaotic and hard, but in the midst of a life that most cannot comprehend, the joy, hope and peace that radiate from Joe and Jan Willinger give testimony to their determination and their faith.
A beloved son is buried 50 yards from the end of their driveway. The legacy of fostering and adoption that started with him and his brother lives on in the shouts of children that still echo down that driveway.
The Willingers wouldn’t have it any other way.