Home of love multiplied

| Christina Capecchi | March 29, 2016 | 2 Comments

Part five in a 14-part Year of Mercy series highlighting local Catholics who live out the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

From left front, Maggie Thibault runs to a local park with Stas (in stroller), Dan, personal care attendant Brittany Wiitala and Ricky. Back left: Chuck Thibault (holding Susha), Bobby and Gretchen.

From left front, Maggie Thibault runs to a local park with Stas (in stroller), Dan, personal care attendant Brittany Wiitala and Ricky. Back left: Chuck Thibault (holding Susha), Bobby and Gretchen.

Gretchen Thibault will never forget the news footage 17 years ago that altered her family forever: a CBS News special showing a Romanian orphanage where malnourished toddlers were tied up in cribs.

“It was like, ‘Poof!’” she said. “Something changed. At that moment I realized I had a special spot in my heart that was just waiting to be used. It was filled with love.”

She and her husband, Dan, followed that love, which eventually led through a thicket of doubts to four adoptions: a Guatemalan toddler in 2000, a local newborn with Down syndrome in 2006, a Ukrainian 3-year-old with Down syndrome in 2010 and a Ukrainian 4-year-old with Down syndrome in 2013. During that period, the Shoreview couple also had their fifth biological child, now 13, bringing the grand total to nine children, the oldest of whom is 22.

As their house filled, the love kept multiplying, say the Thibaults, who belong to St. Charles Borromeo in St. Anthony. Perched on Turtle Lake, their bustling home centers around an extended dining-room table lined with seven chairs, two high chairs and two benches. It can be upstaged by the piano room, where Ricky, a husky 9-year-old with red hair and blue glasses, performs impromptu guitar concerts, drawing from a vast repertoire and seldom lacking an audience. “It’s crowded, but not overly crowded,” said Chuck, a senior at St. Agnes High School in St. Paul.

Stas, right, enjoys a playful moment with personal care attendant Brittany Wiitala.

Stas, right, enjoys a playful moment with personal care attendant Brittany Wiitala.

The Thibaults are quick to point out that their openness to life does not mean they are holier than thou. “We are like every other family with a variety of struggles, some small and some big,” said Gretchen, 47, a stay-at-home mom. “God just moved our hearts, and we needed to respond.”

“We cringe when people say things like, ‘Oh, you have an amazing family.’ Or, ‘You’re saints!’” added Dan, 49, a corporate tax consultant. “We don’t feel that way. We just know we have commitment.”

The sacrifices they’ve made to expand their family have been richly rewarded. “If anyone really understood the amount of love that has grown in our hearts and in our minds for these children with Down syndrome, they would go great distances to have them as well,” Gretchen said. “It can be tiring at times, but we never feel they are a burden. We feel honored to be able to love them as they are.”

Hearts of service

When Dan and Gretchen wed in 1992, the high-school sweethearts chose a theme for their union: servants of God. (Richard Gilliard’s hymn “The Servant Song” still moves Gretchen to tears.) The cradle Catholics welcomed new life again and again and again, leaning on their faith to guide their parenting and strengthen their marriage. Praying as a couple each morning, they learned, helped them feel connected through the day.

Their first adoption — adding a dark-skinned toddler to their four biological children — was “the most intimidating,” Gretchen recalled. “We had never had a child who wasn’t ‘flesh and blood.’ We didn’t know what it would be like.” She and Dan recognized what emerged: a capacity to love without distinction. Jenny was part of the family in every way, deeply and fully.

Their new daughter made Dan and Gretchen look at the world differently. “There was this extra warmth for people of all races,” she said.

Jenny gives Susha a ride on her shoulders.

Jenny gives Susha a ride on her shoulders.

When they felt called to consider another adoption, Dan suggested a child with Down syndrome. He had a brother with Down syndrome who died at a young age, and the Thibault family had always described Gary as the best thing that ever happened to them. It was time for Dan, then a father of six with considerable breadwinning pressures, to not just articulate that belief but act on it.

Ricky brought joy they had never before imagined, putting everything into perspective for the well-educated parents and their high-achieving, homework-laden teens. “We’re all expected to fit in this box,” Gretchen explained. “When your typical kids are outside that box, it’s so scary. You’re like, ‘Get back in the box. People notice you’re not in the box!’ When you have a child with special needs, it’s like, ‘They’re not in the box, nobody expects them to be in the box.’ They’re free to be who they are. They can just go ahead and reach whatever their maximum is.”

With seven children, Dan and Gretchen felt their plate was full. Then the 2010 earthquake in Haiti shook their hearts open again. They considered adopting a Haitian child, but ultimately were led to Ukraine. Their oldest daughter, Lizzy, found herself on a website called Reece’s Rainbow, a Maryland-based organization that promotes international adoption of children with Down syndrome and other special needs. A trip to Stas’ Ukrainian orphanage was horrifying, like a 1950s mental institution: toddlers with shaved heads gnawing themselves, some tied down, others curled into the fetal position. They felt grateful for the chance to provide a loving home to 3-year-old Stas, who has surprised them over the years by being so attuned to their emotions.

Three years later Dan and Gretchen made another trip to Ukraine to adopt Susha, a tenderhearted blonde whom they first glimpsed on a Facebook video. They stayed at the rectory of a Catholic cathedral named God The Merciful Father.

Looking back, said Gretchen, she can see how they were prepared for four adoptions one step at a time. “When you open yourself up once, God stretches you a little further. I have no idea what’s next, but I also trust that God will help us deal with it.”

Ricky plays Mass in the living room in front of family members.

Ricky plays Mass in the living room in front of family members.

Short term, it means gearing up for a family trip to Florida, where travel and pool time pose some dangers to the youngest kids. “I’m prepping with all of my guardian angel prayers,” Gretchen said. (She also credits their earthly helpmates: three personal care attendants who keep the family functioning throughout the week.)

It also means planning a wedding for their firstborn, whose March 13 proposal inspired a re-enactment between Ricky The Entertainer, dropping on bended knee, and his mother. Not only is Ricky funny, but he’s also affirming, said Jenny, a St. Agnes sophomore. When she puts on a dress for church, she can always count on Ricky to compliment her. “Why can’t all guys by like this?” she said, smiling.

Pieces of a journey

Longer term, Dan and Gretchen keep striving to pay it forward. They helped start Philomena House in St. Paul, which shelters homeless pregnant women for no cost. They are also involved with a Wisconsin-based Catholic mission to Ukraine called Chalice of Mercy, helping to build a therapy center for children with disabilities in Stas and Susha’s hometown. They are also organizing a medical exchange program for Ukrainian students to spend time in the United States, live with a doctor, receive training on the spiritual dimension of their work and get to know the youngest three Thibault children, all of whom have Down syndrome. It’s all part of building a culture of life, Gretchen said. “To see how God aligned all the pieces of this journey is amazing.”

The journey has planted seeds in the Thibault kids that will bear fruits in untold ways. Several of the teens say that, one day, they could see themselves adopting. Already they can see how their diverse family has made them more understanding of people who don’t look or sound like them. They’re quick to befriend a peer being teased. For Chuck, that homegrown compassion recently compelled him to give a Chipotle gift card to a homeless man in St. Paul.

Nearly 24 years ago, when Dan and Gretchen said “I do” and committed themselves to be servants of God, they never could’ve imagined what they were saying yes to. It’s been an incredible ride — and it could make a believer of anyone. To surrender control to God, to summon him each morning and thank him every night, to let his mercy thaw the frozen ground in your heart, is to gulp up lots of grace.

“While we have a large family, I know that not everyone is called to that,” Gretchen said. “Not everyone is likely called to adoption. But I do feel that we are all called to more than we think we are capable of.”

Photos by Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

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Category: Featured, Year of Mercy