| We don’t let anything compromise bonding. They feel safe when they’re together. They move together like schools of fish.
Photo by Sam Arendt
Alan and Dayln Derzon planned to travel around the world when Mr. Derzon retired.
Instead, they have adopted or are guardians for 10 children, ages 4 to 17, of various cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds. That’s in addition to Mrs. Derzon’s two daughters, Trista and Marissa, who live in Milwaukee, and two grandchildren, ages 3 and 18 months.
Six of their children came to the United States through international adoptions that didn’t work out. Four are from Russia, one is from Romania and one from India. The other four are African-American sisters who were abused or neglected in Wisconsin foster homes.
All had emotional problems that caused them to lash out at almost everyone or withdraw within themselves, putting up barriers that said, “Keep out.”
Instead, their parents have helped them mend with structure, consistent discipline and love, albeit tough love at times.
“I’m not a huggy-love mother,” Mrs. Derzon said. “I think that’s an asset when adopting older children because they know when it’s not real. I wait for them to come to me.”
Sydahna, 16, came from India. Dayna, 12, is from Romania. Oleeyah, 11, Sopheyah, 11, Aleksey, 8, and Poppy Fay, 4, are all from Russia.
Sisters Tiyah, 17, and Tatyanna, 14, who are African-American, were raised in separate foster homes. The Derzons learned there was another sister Robyn, 13, and she also joined the family.
Mr. Derzon, an attorney, was a bachelor who drove sports cars and traveled around the world to witness total eclipses of the sun before he met his wife.
Now, he drives a white, 15-passenger van nicknamed Moby Dick.
“I’m living the best life possible,” he said.
The family’s journey started seven years ago when Mrs. Derzon’s sister dropped Bryce off at their doorstep, saying she couldn’t handle her 5-year-old son any more. Bryce, who is now 14, is of African-American and Norwegian descent and lashed out at everyone when he arrived at their home, Mrs. Derzon said.
“I was afraid of him,” she said. “Look at him now. He’s president of his class, polite and respectful.”
Bryce, who seems easy-going and usually has a big smile, said he remembers when he couldn’t control his anger.
“I don’t why. It just happened,” he said. “Now that I’m older, I know the cause and effect. If I do this, this will happen. It’s improved a lot. I don’t get angry as much any more.”
When Bryce arrived, Mrs. Derzon told her husband it’s easier to raise two children than one.
The next day an adoption brochure arrived in the mail and Mr. Derzon commented, “I always wanted a daughter.”
They inquired about a girl, who turned out to be Tatyanna, which eventually led to three daughters.
Tatyanna said she was eager to leave her foster home, which was in a rough neighborhood with gang activity at one of the end of the street. Her foster parents wanted to adopt her sister Robyn, but not Tatyanna.
She said if they even looked toward the gang activity her foster father “whopped’ them. They weren’t allowed out of the yard and had few playmates.
She liked the Derzons from the start.
“They seemed like the family we should have and they would take care of us and they were fun,” she said.
Robyn, who described the foster home as “terrible,” said she followed her sister and would do whatever she told her to do.
They are happy to be part of the eclectic group, but as more children joined the family, they sometimes questioned their parents’ wisdom.
“When we first heard they were going to adopt more children, we were excited,” Tatyanna said. “The first one was Oleeyah. Then they got Aleksey, and I wasn’t excited about it. Then Poppy Faye and Dayna and I thought, ‘That’s way too many kids.’ Then Daniel came for a week, but I knew it wouldn’t be a week.”
Tatyanna said she felt she wasn’t getting enough of her parents’ time or enough time alone. She found that talking to her sister Tiyah helped.
Tiyah was in another foster home and also adopted by the Derzons. The sisters saw each other occasionally when a social worker arranged visits.
Bryce, who enjoys the big family, commented, “They just kept coming and coming and coming. We were curious when they would stop. I don’t know if they have stopped.”
Each child has his or her own personality.
Bryce and Robyn enjoying acting and have appeared in community theater and school productions with their father.
Bryce was Joseph in the middle-school production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Tatyanna loves being on the dance team so much that basketball, which used to be her first love, has been relegated to second choice. She is also on the volleyball and soccer teams and plays the violin in band.
In addition to acting, Robyn is on the forensics team and in choir. She and Bryce will sing in solo and ensemble regional competition.
Oleeyah sings in the sixth grade choir. She was bounced around seven foster homes after her adoptive parents, who went to Romania to adopt her, gave up on her. She met the Derzon family at a July 4 parade in Cedarburg and asked if she could live with them.
They couldn’t refuse.
While reputable foreign adoption agencies prepare parents and offer support throughout the adoption process, some are just interested in the money and do little to prepare the children or parents. Often, the children come from poor orphanages where they receive little attention.
“Because of the severe neglect and behavioral problems, the adoptions don’t go well,” Mrs. Derzon said.
“The parents try to Americanize them and believe they are doing what’s best for the children, but that’s not how they see it. They feel they have been kidnapped and taken away from their families in the orphanage.
“The parents are saying, ‘I love you,’ and hugging and touching them and they just want to be left alone. It doesn’t take long before the bubble bursts and the parents seek a magic pill. They told everyone about their dream, and they’re embarrassed their dream hasn’t come true. They become isolated. Some move away, some go to another school.”
The children the Derzons adopted were all given up by their adoptive parents, who paid anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000 to adoption agencies and lawyers.
“A lot of people aren’t prepared,” Mr. Derzon said. “They get these glossy magazines and see all the beautiful children and testimonials. Whenever you have big money, you have problems.
“Sometimes, they’re offered two children for $50,000. With that kind of money, someone will rubber stamp to make the deal. The parents think, ‘We’re going to adopt this child from a Russian orphanage and save him.’ But that’s not how the child feels.”
When parents adopt through the State of Wisconsin, they must attend classes on trauma and rejection before children are placed in their homes. They are foster parents for a year before the adoption becomes final. That’s if the parents surrender their rights. If not, the adoption may never be finalized and the child will remain in foster care.
Children who are raised in the sparse surroundings of an orphanage or poor home are often overwhelmed when they go to their new home filled with colorful toys and bright lights.
Similarly, an elementary school classroom can also be overwhelming with its wealth of activities, sights and sounds, and children pulling on their sleeves to play with them.
“It’s no wonder the children sometimes lash out,” Mr. Derzon said. “It’s the only thing they know.”
Their children attend Grafton schools. There is a Derzon child in almost every grade.
“We single-handedly diversified the student population,” Mr. Derzon said.
Three of the four high schoolers made the honor roll this semester. The other one just barely missed the honor.
“For them to get on the honor roll is a challenge,” Mr. Derzon said. “They started so far behind.”
Greg Kabara, principal of John Long Middle School in Grafton, said the Derzon children are good students.
“They get along with everybody,” Kabara said. “They not only provide us with different cultures not typical here, but also with religious components. They practice the Jewish faith and share that also.
“They’re just a really nice family to have in our learning community. Mr. and Mrs. Derzon are doing a phenomenal job. Whatever they’re doing at home is working. They’re neat kids and a fun family to work with.
“We’re providing them an education, but I think they’re also providing us an education.”
While she’s happy the children are doing well in school, Mrs. Derzon said she is even happier about their social adjustment.
Each had serious emotional problems and abuse issues to deal with.
“The biggest issue is how can you learn in school when there are other issues on your plate,” she said.
Her biggest concern is that the children meld as a family, not whether they complete their homework, although they usually accomplish that as well.
The family sticks together. They eat meals together. When they go on outings, they stay together.
“We don’t let anything compromise bonding,” Mrs. Derzon said. “They feel safe when they’re together. They move together like schools of fish.
“We don’t get in between their fights. They have to resolve them themselves. When they’re out on jobs, they have to learn to get along with everyone.”
She has seen remarkable progress in the children, noting Alex wouldn’t talk when he joined the family.
“On May 10, he just started bursting out in song, singing ‘Bye, Bye Birdie.’ He had been diagnosed as autistic and now he’s one of the top kids in his class,” Mrs. Derzon said.
Sopheyah, who is Russian, has been speaking English for only two years and never attended school before. She, too, is a bright child who has made remarkable progress.
Poppy Faye has challenging developmental disabilities and a captivating personality.
“Don’t you love Poppy Faye’s enthusiasm?” her mother said. “She loves life. She gets excited about everything and makes you feel young again.”
All families could benefit from having meals together and doing activities together, Mrs. Derzon said.
“Our kids don’t have play dates. We’re not in 50 activities or sitting in cars waiting for someone to finish practice,” she said. “If we can help heal these traumatized kids by doing these foundation builders, what would happen to a healthy family if we went back to the basics?
“I think people go through the drive-in at McDonald’s and think they’re eating together. We sit down at 6:30 p.m. and sometimes don’t leave the table until 8 p.m. because we’re having so much fun talking.”
She said people sometimes look at their family and are amazed at how well they get along considering the different cultures and religions.
In addition to their different cultures, two are Muslim, three are Baptists and the others are Jewish. Mrs. Derzon, who was raised Catholic, converted to her husband’s Jewish faith, noting it was Jesus’s religion.
“When we go out to eat, people will think, ‘Oh, no. I hope they don’t sit by us,’” Mrs. Derzon said. “By the end of the evening, they will say, ‘It was the most enjoyable evening watching your family.’”
The children clean on Saturday mornings and try to get finished by 10 a.m. Everyone has a chore to complete.
Saturday is also the day one of the children gets to go with their dad somewhere.
Last week, it was Bryce’s turn. He chose the Dairy Queen for ice cream.
Bryce resembles President Barack Obama and ran for class president on the campaign theme, “I don’t just look like a president, I act like one.”
He promised to improve the school lunches and have pizza available every day.
Bryce and his father attended Obama’s inauguration along with Mr. Derzon’s brother Bob, who lives in California. They didn’t get close to the podium, but enjoyed the experience of being there, despite the frigid weather conditions.
They were staying in a hotel in downtown Washington, D.C., so the trip was easier than for those who had to travel into the city.
Bryce noted his eclectic family resembles the type of culture Obama espouses.
Mr. Derzon said he hopes their story encourages people to adopt children with special needs.
“I wish people would realize how much more they get than they give,” he said.
“What makes me a better parent at my advanced age is the realization how fast times goes. I realize these kids are going to be out of the house so soon. I try to live for today and make every day a happy day.”