If you venture up to Queen Creek, Arizona, you may chance to meet an incredible couple called Nathan and Lori Ryberg. They have been married for 33 years and have six biological children. They have also adopted seven, and – even more amazing – all the children are -or have been-homeschooled by Lori.
The couple met at university, and found that they both enjoyed working with children and adults with special needs. Soon after they were married at 22 after they graduated they started taking in foster juvenile delinquents for five years.
“You can’t save the world, so I decided to save a few kids. We became foster parents,” Lori says.
In 1997 they adopted for the first time: two boys, John, 12, and David, who was 5 – both had already been in Nathan and Lori’s foster care. Nathan, at that time, had a job working in residential treatment for boys with drug and sexual addictions. Hearing the boys’ stories of their arresting officers impacted Nathan to the point that he decided his energy was best spent in the police force as an officer to help the police culture change from ‘para-military to human service’. His social work degree continued to help him at the Tempe Police Department.
“I have gotten to practice more social work being a street cop than I did as a social worker,” he says.
Lori was working for an adoption agency at that time.
“I loved doing that, finding families for kids. That was going to be my whole life and then we decided to take our first [foster child],” she says.
Nathan explained that the process of adoption just ‘seemed to happen’ to them. When the Rybergs started having children of their own, they changed their fostering license to include disabled children. “Then it just started,” Nathan explains. “[But] it’s been slow.”
In 1999 they adopted two-year-old Faith and in 2001 they adopted Hope, then 1. They had also been in the Rybergs’ foster care. By then they also had five biological children, Samuel, Elizabeth, Luke, Elijah and Jeremiah. By 2004 they had another biological child, Grace and in the past two years they adopted three more children: Mercy, Gabe and Obie.
Lori says that to date they have had between 18-20 children with disabilities.
“We’ve had, I think, between 18 and 20 kids who all had medical issues, all had extra stuff on top of their needing foster care and adoption.”
Sometimes those children are able to go back to their homes. Those children were in the foster system because their parents didn’t understand their medical needs. In those cases the Rybergs step in and teach parents how to care for their child. But that doesn’t always happen, which is why the Rybergs have adopted seven foster children, which Lori described as a privilege.
“We’ve been able to provide a home for kids that not only needed a home because of something with their families, but they also have medical needs. I think that’s the key component is that these kids are in foster care for no reason – nothing to do with them.”
“It’s not their fault. Even if it is the reason – because their parents can’t take care of their medical problems – it’s still not their fault and it is still nothing to do with them. And they still deserve as interesting a life as anybody else can get.”
By today most of their children are over 18, which helps. John is 32, Samuel, 28, Elizabeth, 26, David, 24, Luke, 22, Elijah, 20, Faith, 19, Jeremiah, 19, Hope, 16, Grace, 12, Mercy, 3, and Gabe and Obie are both 2.
Originally the children were enrolled in a public school, but because they had behaviour problems, it was just so time consuming, always going back and forth to school meetings, and dealing with Special Education needs. Added to that there were times when the kids needed different therapies in school.
‘We did originally have our two older adopted sons in public school and dealing with the public school Special Ed programs – that was time consuming. It was constantly meeting, constantly having to help them intervene on behavior and all that other stuff.
Finally Lori made the decision to homeschool her family. She firmly believes that children with behaviour problems respond better to being in smaller groups, rather than in large classes.
“You really do lessen the amount of behavior problems with kids with special needs when you don’t have them in a big group like that,” Lori added.
Homeschooling has advantages for Lori in that she can schedule doctors appointments whenever she wants to, instead of only out of school hours. School work can always be done in the car on the way to the doctor, in fact most curriculums are based that way so they are easy to travel with. Lori proudly admits that with four kids in college or through college, she must be doing something right.
As if she didn’t have enough on her plate already, Lori enjoys cooking and makes sure that there is a home cooked meal on the table every night. She admits that she relies heavily on the slowcooker, and cooks many casseroles, but has no complaints from anyone!
“I really like to cook, so that’s a really easy thing to do. I make a lot of casseroles, though. It’s not steak,” she laughs. “It’s tuna casserole, it’s spaghetti… crockpots, that kinds of stuff is pretty much all the time.”
On top of it all, Lori runs errands with all her kids because she doesn’t like to leave any of them behind.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had ten kids trailing behind me at Costco or more. And thank goodness it’s quite fun,” she said.
“I like taking kids to the grocery store, I like taking kids out. I want them to be part of the public. I want them to see how things work. I want other people to see them.”
“I think a lot of families with kids with disabilities are fearful of taking their kids out. They’re afraid of how they’ll behave, but the more you take them out, the better they become. They’re more comfortable. My kids are all really comfortable.”
“Our big goal in life is to make sure that our kids, no matter what their disability is – that they’re socially appropriate. It is incredibly important to make sure that our kids can be part of the world.”
When they adopted their daughter Hope in 2001, who has Down Syndrome, Lori was asked if they knew that this would be a life time job. She replied that they already had three children with Down syndrome and knew exactly what they were taking on. They knew that it would be a long term commitment, and they were happy to be a part of Hope’s life.
Their other children with disabilities are Faith, who has Spina Bifida, Jeremiah, who has cerebral palsy, Mercy, who was born extremely premature, and Gabe and Obie, who also have Down syndrome.
“We looked at them like they had horns coming out of their head,” Lori says. “Yes. We do understand that. We had already adopted three children with spina bifida and that is for a lifetime too… We very much understand that this is where we’re going to be in our long-term and that’s really good with us.”
“Lori added that it’s an honor to be able to care for these children.”
I can help my community, I can help my city, I can help my state by taking a few kids and making sure that they get everything that they need. As hard as that is sometimes.”
“What makes it easier is that she says her children with special needs have a positive attitude and appreciate the little things in life.”
“It is really typical to say that Down syndrome children are never sad, they’re always happy… That’s not true at all.”
“But at the same time, they wake up every morning happy as can be. They start off the day happy. They don’t always end that way… but they can’t wait to see what’s going to happen and that’s definitely the way I like to see life.”
One of the children, Faith, has Spina Bifida which means they need a wheelchair for her. When she was younger, lifting Faith up and into the car was easy as she was so little, but this became a problem as she got older.
“I can barely lift her now, to get her in the car,” says Nathan. “It kind of just snuck up on us.”
On their $85,000 a year shared salary, Nathan and Lori considered buying a minivan, although they were very expensive and their whole family wouldn’t be able to fit into one. However, some of Nathan’s co-workers stepped in to help the family.
The Tempe Police Department started a ‘GoFundMe’ page to raise money for new transport, the idea being to raise money to buy a 15 passenger bus and a wheelchair lift. To date this venture has raised $57,000. The goal for the bus is $75,000.
“We just really want to express our gratitude for the GoFundMe page and all the support we have gotten from people,” Nathan said. “We’re just really grateful that my friends did this.”
Nathan plans to retire in four years time, and he says that although they will take on a little less fostering, they will certainly continue until they no longer are able to. They have become involved in recruiting and training foster parents.
“We will continue to take foster kids as we are able,” he said. “We will definitely slow down and do one at a time, but we are involved in recruiting and training foster parents so we will continue to care for kids as they are brought into our path.”
“I know this is where we’re supposed to be,” Lori added. “It’s really something we’re really good at and I’m hoping to be able to do it for the next 20 years.”
These days the house is not quite so full anymore, as some of the children have married and moved away to start families of their own. Lori says that they only have 12 people in the house these days!
Lori says that fostering is what they are meant to do, it is something that they are really good at and they plan to continue. Years ago foster parents were warned against getting too fond of the children, but both Nathan and Lori disagree with that. According to Lori, the best thing you can do is to get close to them and teach them how to love other people.
Lori sees her fostering job as a privilege, she says she is honoured that the state of Arizona see her as a suitable person to care for disabled children. This is just what she does, and she and Nathan love it.
“I was telling somebody not too long ago: ‘I don’t feel very special. I do not understand. I don’t understand why people are interested in this whole thing’.”
“I’ve actually spent some time talking to them about it and they’re like ‘But you don’t understand, Lori, I would never be willing to do this” and I’m like, ‘Oh, you don’t know what you’re missing out on’.”
“I didn’t know people weren’t willing to do it, I just thought that the opportunity never came to them. But it really is true that there’s just no way, that they’d rather just do something else.”
“And this is what I would rather do. And that’s what makes the world go round, is just everybody has their thing and this happens to be ours.”
Source: Daily Mail