The wall in the dining room of Wayne and Marilyn Brisbane’s French Road home near Olympia is adorned with an unusual family tree.
From the apple tree entitled “The Promise of Adoption” hangs 28 smiling faces in the shape of apples, each representing one of their grandchildren.
What makes the family tree truly unique is that the number of adopted children — 15 — outnumbers the biological children — 13. And the vast majority of the children adopted by three of the Brisbane’s five biological children have special needs that easily could have left them in an orphaned, empty life.
The family matriarch, Marilyn Brisbane, 76, remembers growing up in a Port Orchard home with many foster children — some with special needs — and a 12-year-old adopted brother who had lived in 23 homes. Her parents, Niels and Sylvia Ibsen took kids into their family in the 1940s and 1950s long before society was supportive of adoption or foster care.
The selfless child-rearing by the Brisbane clan goes far beyond what they’ve done as a family.
Starting in 1998 with a modest inheritance of $5,000 from her dad, Brisbane formed a non-profit group called the Ibsen Adoption Network which provides education, financial assistance and support groups for adoptive families.
The network has distributed more than 400 grants valued at more than $500,000 — all going to families like theirs who chose to adopt children with significant physical and mental health challenges.
Marilyn, her daughter, Anne Anderson, and her granddaughter Mindy Avden, all serve on the Olympia-based non-profit’s nine-member board of directors. Leander Avden, Mindy’s 3-month-old son, doesn’t know it yet, but he could be called on to keep the family tradition alive.
Their Christian faith and their personal experiences growing up with foster care and adopted siblings motivate them to help find homes for children from a variety of cultures born with Down syndrome, club feet, cleft palates, spinal abnormalities and other conditions that take adoption to a more challenging level of commitment.
The grants are modest, typically no more than $1,500. And they can only be used to help parents pay for costs incurred when adopting. But no one is turned away. Next month the 12 applicants during the full grant cycle will all receive a grant, Brisbane said.
“Even though it’s a small amount of money, it’s an important signal of support,” Anderson said. “It helps them to know that they are not alone.”
After losing a daughter at the age of 10, Anderson and her husband, David, adopted three special needs Taiwanese infants over a four-year period, including two born without arms. Their biological daughter, Mindy, describes growing up with her new brothers and sister as the “new normal.”
“They were independent and capable kids,” she recalls. “We had great relationships.”
Apart from the grants, Ibsen hosts monthly adoptive family support groups in Olympia and Centralia. Aided by some 30 volunteers Ibsen also provides counseling for families struggling with post-adoptive issues.
The non-profit sponsors adoption fairs to encourage families to adopts. Ibsen also offers individuals consulting services to families considering adoption.
“They do fill a need, working in an area not covered by anyone else,” said Olympia attorney Melanie Hantze, who specializes in legal services for adopting families. “They’re awesome.”
One of Ibsen’s goals is to make adoption more visible in the community, Anderson said.
“We need schools that understand the challenges of raising special needs kids and churches that stand by their folks when they adopt,” Anderson said.
One of the Ibsen brochures speaks to the demand for adoptive families. For instance:
* Each day, some 5,760 children become orphans, adding to a population that UNICEF estimates at 210 million.
* About 20 percent of the 500,000 children in foster care in the United States are legally free to be adopted.
* Some 250,000 children are adopted each year, but some 14 million children enter adulthood from life as an orphan each year.
Ibsen relies on private grants for about 90 percent of its funding, most of it raised in Thurston County. The group is always looking for donations as well as more volunteers to help with event planning, mailings and the support groups. For more information, visit www.IbsenAdoptionNetwork.com.
For those interested in learning more about adoption, Nov. 23 is the 13th Annual National Adoption Day celebrated in nearly 400 cities across the United States. Since its inception, the annual event the Saturday before Thanksgiving has helped nearly 44,500 children move from foster care to forever families. Visit www.nationaladoptionday.org for more information.
Here in Thurston County, Hantze said a National Adoption Day public event is set for 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., Nov. 21 at Family and Juvenile Court, 2801 32nd Ave. SW, Tumwater. It’s a chance to learn more about the adoption process, meet adoptive families and children and witness a few adoption decrees signed by a judge.
And, yes, the Ibsen Adoption Network folks will be there, too.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444