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Wednesday, April 23, 2008 01:37 am

Seventh heaven

For Patty Redpath, family life was pretty good. It's about to get a whole lot better.

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The Redpath family (left to right): Patty, Tyra, Joey, Lauren, Olivia, Alex, Jesse, and Tyree.
PHOTO BY DUSTY RHODES

The first thing you see when you enter Patty Redpath’s house is two laundry baskets brimming with shoes — big shoes, little shoes, sneakers, boots, sandals. Aside from Patty, everybody removes his or her footwear at the door to minimize the amount of dirt in the house. The next thing you notice is that the little kids are in pajamas. Outside it’s still daylight, but Patty has a rule that on school nights they all have to be in their bedrooms by 8 or 8:30. “I need some time where I don’t have to manage, don’t have to supervise, but I can do what I need to do — pay bills or call somebody that I need to talk to without all the noise in the background,” Patty says.
Those rules might sound rigid unless you know that Patty is a single mother with seven kids, ranging in age from 17 down to 2 years old. They’re all adopted, all born to mothers with drug and alcohol dependency, most with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder and some with additional special needs. Patty, 49, sustains her brood on her salary as a school social worker. They live in a doublewide trailer home, with bookshelves lining the narrow hallways, bunk beds crowded into four small bedrooms, and the kind of furniture that comes in a box stamped “Some Assembly Required.” They eat a lot of macaroni, spaghetti, and Ramen noodles.
While a reporter snoops around, Patty fends off arguments from a second-grader trying to stuff a dozen books into a backpack and a teenager begging to buy a car. In a back bedroom, a fight is brewing over a game of Connect Four. In the kitchen, one kid is playing on an Xbox set up on a miniature table tucked beneath a countertop; in the adjacent den, another kid is watching a movie on a portable DVD player. Above it all, the television blares American Idol, and a toddler, barefoot and giggling, runs around trying to referee the action with a mouthful of gibberish and a tippy cup full of chocolate milk. Amid the chaos comes the sound of Patty laughing. To her, the constant stress and commotion and the infinite loads of laundry, the homework and housework, mean that life has turned out exactly the way she planned. “I wanted to create a family through adoption, and I wanted a large family,” Patty says. “This is kind of my life’s mission, my life’s work.”
 
What made Patty this way? She was raised by her paternal grandmother and her late father, a printer and bartender, whom she describes as a “very much service-oriented and kid-oriented” kind of guy. She helped take care of her older sister, who had significant developmental delays. Their mom lived elsewhere, and, without elaboration, Patty mentions that her last year of high school was spent “for various reasons” in an informal foster-care arrangement, with “someone who volunteered to let me live with them.”
“I always wanted to be adopted,” she says, maybe half-joking. “You know — family challenges.”
Adopting children, she figured, would be the best way to repay the people who took care of her.
She moved to Chicago, first as a student at Barat College of the Sacred Heart in Lake Forest, then at Loyola University, where she earned a master’s degree in social work. She found a job as a caseworker at the Allendale Association child-welfare agency, where she helped match special-needs kids with appropriate foster families. When she felt ready to start her own family, she went through the process of earning her foster-care license and applying to a private adoption agency. She had been enjoying having her first foster child for about two months when someone from the adoption agency called to tell her that they had a baby for her.
“It was cool. I still remember that,” Patty says. “There is nothing better, for me, than getting that call: ‘We’ve got your baby here — come and get him!’ ”
The agency asked her what she planned to name the baby, and she said Joseph Daniel. But a snafu with his birth certificate prevented Joey’s placement for several weeks. During the delay, even though Patty had never seen this child, she agonized over his wellbeing; she already felt like his mom. Finally, after a month of waiting, she brought Joey home. Because of his birth mother’s chemical dependency, he had severe gastroesophageal reflux and seemed hypersensitive to almost everything. Joey was, Patty says, a “very high-maintenance baby.”
But by the time he was 3, Patty was ready for another child. Almost as soon as she renewed her foster-care license, she got a new baby boy. He was officially a foster child, but his caseworker told Patty that he would likely be hers to adopt. This time there was no paperwork problem, and her Alex joined Joey at just 6 days of age.
“The awesomeness of having a really fresh one was really kinda nice,” Patty says, laughing. “A fresh babe!”
 
Alex was just 4 months old when Patty was contacted by a caseworker who needed someone to take care of a toddler named Jesse for the weekend. On Monday, the caseworker asked Patty to keep Jesse for two weeks. At the end of two weeks, the caseworker asked Patty to keep Jesse for a month. Patty, realizing that Jesse needed help with medical problems and learning issues, said no, she couldn’t keep Jesse any longer — unless she could adopt him. The caseworker agreed.
SandTrap Tavern manager Min Costa, who also adopted a high-risk baby, has organized a poker run and silent auction to help Patty Redpath pay for her new Habitat for Humanity home.
PHOTO BY DUSTY RHODES
Patty decided that the three boys needed a sister and applied to a private adoption agency. Soon enough, she brought home a baby girl, just 3 days old, and named her Lauren. Like her new big brothers before her, Lauren had her birth mother’s drug problems to work out of her system, but Patty had learned to handle the process. In fact, she managed to singlehandedly pack and move her family from Chicago to Springfield when Lauren was just 6 weeks old. “See, by then Joey was 5, and I wanted him to start kindergarten in a place that was smaller and more familiar, a place that was less cumbersome for getting around as far as daycare and school and church. I specifically wanted him in Catholic school,” Patty says. She bought a home in a trailer park off North Grand Avenue, enrolled Joey at Little Flower School, and got a job as a school social worker. Once settled into the new surroundings, she got back to the business of building her family.
Illinois Department of Children and Family Services placed a 7-month-old baby girl named Tyra with Patty. But Tyra had a twin brother named Tyree, who was also in the foster-care system — somewhere. Patty became determined to reunite Tyra and Tyree in her home. At the time, though, she had another foster child — a child she knew she wasn’t going to adopt — which gave her a full house, by state standards. She spent two years fighting to get Tyree, eventually hiring an attorney. He was 3 by the time he came to live with Patty. The twins were 5 by the time their adoptions were finalized. Six years later, Patty adopted again, a newborn girl she named Olivia who might just be the finishing touch for Patty’s family — or maybe not. Having fostered an additional five kids among her seven, Patty says she might resume that work again. “I’ve thought about doing that. It kind of just depends,” she says. All of Patty’s kids were born with the kind of problems that foreshadowed the need for extra help, extra attention, extra love. Four were born to birth mothers with diagnosed mental illness; four have been found to have depression. One has intermittent explosive disorder. One child was born HIV-positive but, like many such babies, outgrew the condition at 18 months of age. Another was found abandoned in a crack house when he was less than a month old. Not many people want to tackle raising babies born with problems. Patty, howeve, is in seventh heaven. “I am so lucky. Even though it’s very challenging at times, I literally, really and truly, say thank-you prayers daily for each and every one of them,” she says. “I just believe there’s a reason they ended up with me. And why these seven? I think there’s a reason for that, too.”
 
Despite their backgrounds, Patty says, all of her children are normal. “I’m a special-ed social worker, so ‘normal’ for me is pretty broad,” Patty clarifies. “They all have challenges they have to deal with on a daily basis.”
But each of her children also has his or her own special charm. Joey, now 17, is “very charismatic,” Patty says, and “has a way of working himself into people’s hearts.” Jesse, 16, is exceptionally intelligent and can learn “highly technical stuff by rote very easily.” Alex, 14, and Lauren, 11, are “pivotal” to the peace of the household, Patty says. “They can talk to all the kids and hold their own with any of them,” she says. Tyree, 8, is thoughtful, loving, a “people-pleaser,” and his twin, Tyra, is particularly good with the elderly. Olivia, just 2, has speech problems yet manages to be extremely expressive. Her status as the baby of the bunch gives her the magical ability to relieve tension among the teens. “Sometimes, with adolescents, there’s a real yuck energy, and she just balances that kind of thing,” Patty says. “Everything is so new and fresh to her, everybody just enjoys her.”
Lauren claims that Olivia even counsels the older kids after they’ve gotten a lecture from Patty. “After my mom’s left, Olivia will come up and talk to whoever’s in trouble,” Lauren says. “You can’t be mad at Olivia. She’s got that face.”
As the designated spokesperson for the kids, Lauren chooses her words carefully, but only for accuracy, not politeness. She describes the twins as “boisterous.” She calls Joey lazy but stubborn. She describes Jesse as hot-tempered, but she’s plainly in awe of his diligent job search, estimating that he applied at 20 different businesses before Harbor Freight finally hired him. The cool thing about adoption, apparently, is the freedom it gives a popular preteen to disown her siblings on a whim. “I’m not related to any of them,” she quips — making an exception for the delightful Olivia. “Oh, that’s my sister,” Lauren says. She has no complaints about the crowded conditions of her home — “I’m used to it” — or the economic rigors of living on a tight budget. “We know that we can’t always be asking for everything, and we all kind of remind each other,” she says. She doesn’t even seem to mind her weekly chore: cleaning the tub, toilet, and floor in the bathroom she and Tyra share with Patty and Olivia. “It’s better than the other bathroom, because they’ve got the cat litterbox in there — and boys,” she says.
What kind of mom is Patty Redpath? Her daughter Lauren, 11, says, "a great one."
PHOTO BY DUSTY RHODES
As for her mother, Lauren calls her “a great one.”
“Sometimes, like, at night, I thank God that I got this great of a family,” Lauren says. And other times? “Other times, I close my door and blast music.”
 
Life is about to improve for the Redpaths. On June 19, the family will break ground on a new home, being built by Habitat for Humanity of Sangamon County. With five bedrooms, it will be the largest residence this Habitat chapter has ever built. Before construction gets under way, Patty and Habitat must come up with at $40,000 in donations. Fortunately, Patty has discovered she and her children have more friends than they ever imagined.
Last month, Tim and Tina Hogan, who are members of her parish, turned the tragic death of their 24-year-old son, T.J., into a fundraiser for Patty, asking that mourners contribute to Habitat Home No. 75 in lieu of flowers. Patty says she’s not sure whether she ever met T.J., but she now feels he must be her guardian angel in heaven.
Even more surprising is a fundraiser planned by the SandTrap Tavern and the Black Pistons Motorcycle Club. Called “Biker Insanity,” it’s a poker run, silent auction, bake sale and 50/50 raffle scheduled for May 24, Memorial Day weekend.
Patty — an associate of the Dominican Sisters and a member of the religious laity — doesn’t normally hang out at taverns with bikers. “I don’t drink; I don’t smoke; I don’t do any of that stuff! I’m not really a Redpath,” she jokes, acknowledging her extended family’s hard-partying reputation, “and I’m not a biker! Oh my God!”
In fact, Patty normally insists on driving because she makes such an unpleasant passenger, constantly asking “Oh, we don’t have to go that fast, do we?”
But SandTrap operator Min Costa has organized this fundraiser because she and Patty are soul sisters — Costa also adopted a high-risk baby girl, now an eighth-grader on the high honor roll. “They tried to discourage me in every way, but between God and love that’s how that child blossomed and developed. You’re not going to tell me any different,” Costa says. “When I heard Patty’s story, I said, ‘Gotta do it’ — because she didn’t get just one,” Costa says, “she got seven kids! How miraculous is that?”
To hear Patty tell it, her family wasn’t so much a miracle as it was a product of her own bullheaded naïveté. “I think when I began I was a lot younger, certainly inexperienced . . . and I think I had some of that all-they-need-is-love kind of thing,” she says. “Well, it isn’t all that they need. They need a lot more than that. Somebody once told me: Loving them through something is more crucial than just loving them.”
Her training as a social worker for special-needs kids has helped, she’s sure, though she’s found parenting to be a different game. She believes that her preprogrammed personality simply led her to this life. “How I’m wired makes a difference,” she says. “You know, if I didn’t have my faith, if I didn’t have my sense of humor, I wouldn’t have been able to do this at all.”

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com
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