There is an amazing woman with an amazing story living among our midst.
Donna Henry was at her home in Thayer one snowy day in March 1994. She had been working at Ozarks Medical Center in West Plains. Henry is a certified respiratory therapist and a registered nurse. She suffered an injury while working at the hospital and was forced to go on disability. She was finally recovering and was feeling better.
"There was a knock at my door and there stood this young girl, she was probably 16, with a 6-month-old baby in her arms. I had never seen either one of them before in my life. She asked me to take the baby for a while and she would come back and get her," Henry said.
Henry didn't know what to do. "All I knew was it was cold and snowing like crazy and this girl was asking for my help. I took the baby, Tawny, and never saw her mother again," she said.
That was 15 years ago. Tawny is now 15 and Henry is her mother. And, oh, by the way, she has 13 sisters.
"I kept her like she was my own for about a year and prayed like crazy her mother would not come back," Henry said. She went through all the legal proceedings and a year later adopted Tawny.
"She knows her past as all the girl's do. She is a good student, a cheerleader, plays in the band and is on the school dance team," she said.
Two years after Tawny came, the family expanded further. Marci, 12, came from California. McKayla, 7, who had heart surgery when she was 18 months old, came from Joplin, Mo. Ana, 12, is from Korea. Fidana, 14, is from Bulgaria. Galena had severe medical problems and died two years ago this July. Alexandra, 13, is from California. Sarah came next; she is 11 and from Russia. Abbie is 15 and she's from China. Annakate came to the family next and she is from China. Samantha is 5. She is from Thayer and is Henry's granddaughter. Gabby is 15 and she is from North Carolina. Kaitlyn is 4 and she came from Florida. Cierra, is 12 and came from South Carolina, and one week later came Aubriana. She is 12 and from Arkansas.
Eleven of the girls are adopted by Henry and three, Abbie, Aubriana and Cierra are what Henry called private placements. More than any of that, they are one big happy family.
Several of the girls are special needs children. Ana has severe Autism and severe mental disabilities. She attends Horizons State School in West Plains. "She is probably my most challenging child. I receive help with her from Missouri Home Care and the Newton Group," Henry said. Ana is non-verbal but can communicate enough to let her needs be known. She does not interact with the other children. Henry said she will always need to have someone take care of her.
Makayla has Down Syndrome. She attends first garde at Thayer Elementary School. "She will need to be checked on and assisted, but I really believe someday, when she is an adult, she will be able to live on her own," her mother said.
Kaitlyn was born to a woman who was addicted to drugs. She was born with no bones in her legs and her legs were amputated. She attends Thayer Head Start. "Kaitlyn is very high functioning. She may need assistance as she grows older because she has no legs," Henry said.
All the other girls in the home attend regular school and are very capable of taking care of themselves.
"The older girls help with the younger girls. They are very supportive of each other. They are sisters and love each other," she said.
Henry comes from a large family. She has seven brothers and one sister and receives a lot of support from her family, especially her brother Robert and his wife Robin. Their daughter Stephanie works for Donna during the week and she pays her out of her own pocket. Her younger brother Joe and his wife Donna also help a lot. Henry is taking college classes at Drury in Thayer working to earn her masters degree in social work. Joe and Donna come to her home and stay with the girls the three nights a week she attends classes.
"I remember the fun and the closeness and support we had as a family when I was a child. I just want to make a difference in these little girls' lives and help them reach their goals," Henry said.
All of the girls are good in school. "I insist they do their school work and they have a study time after school. When that is accomplished they are allowed to participate in extra activities including cheerleading, dance, gymnastics, All Stars, which is an elite gymnastics team, and horseback riding," she said.
The family owns a large van the entire group can ride in. They live in a big house on North Third Street. They have 14 bedrooms and three bathrooms. The family receives no outside income other than Donna's disability and no food stamps. All of the girls do have Medicaid cards to help with their medical needs.
Henry is very proud of her daughters -- all of them. "At school, Tawny and Gabby were asked to write a story about their hero. They both picked me which made me very proud. I would have never expected it. They are my heroes. They have all gone through things I don't know if I could have dealt with. They have suffered loneliness and lack of self-worth among many other trials. I tell each and every one of them I will protect you, and will not let anyone hurt you. I will give you a good home and I will always love you," she said.
There are issues in the Henry home just like there are in any normal family. "They are disciplined just like any other children are. They may have their cell phones taken away, have a time-out or stand in the corner. These children need to be in a structured environment. They need to know everything is going to be the same and they are always going to have a place to live," Henry said.
The family attends the local Assembly of God Church and are involved in church activities.
Henry said her mom and dad meant the world to her. "When my mom died I thought I couldn't make it. Then my Dad died three weeks later. My younger brother Joe said, 'What would Dad want you to do? He would want you to raise these girls and go on with your life.' I want to see them happy and successful in their own way. I expect them to show the love they have been given," she said.
These girls have known hunger, abuse and hate. "They don't now. When they go to bed at night they can say, 'someone loves me.' I look at them and say how can one woman be so lucky?"
What's the best part of living with so many adopted girls? "We are a real family. It's not like you're my child one day and you're not the next. If I go somewhere, they go with me," she said.
What's the worst thing about living with so many adopted girls? "People that say I am doing it for the money. They don't know my heart and they don't pay my bills. I have nothing to hide," she said.