Christie Jameson sometimes wonders if the idea to adopt 35 children was planted when she was 12. She came home from a doctor’s appointment with her mother one afternoon and discovered that her only sibling, Buddy, 15, had accidentally hung himself while playing on a rope.
“He was such a sweet, outgoing brother — everybody loved him,” Jameson, now 73, tells PEOPLE. “It left a huge hole in my heart.”
After she married and gave birth to two children of her own, Jameson, who now lives in South Jordan, Utah, decided with her husband, Alva, that “nobody can ever be loved too much.”
She and Alva felt they had room in their home and their hearts for several more children, so they began to adopt. One child led to two, then five, then 10, then 20. Over three decades, the Jamesons adopted 35 children in all — 26 of them with special needs.
“We didn’t go looking for our family — most of them came to us, once the word got out that we would take the kids nobody else wanted,” says Jameson, now a single mom (Alva died of cancer in 2009) caring for 11 disabled children at home, including six with serious heart defects.
“All kids deserve a real home of their own and I just couldn’t bear the thought of my kids going into institutions,” Jameson tells PEOPLE. “In my heart, I knew there was always room for one more. And I know there must be other people out there who would do the very same.”
Although silence was rare and the kitchen table was always crowded, “I loved watching my parents get to know the needs of each child that joined our family,” Kristin Jameson, 45, one of Christie’s two biological children, tells PEOPLE. “I loved all of my siblings and enjoyed helping to raise some of them. It was really difficult when I had to leave home and go away to college.”
Now a special education teacher in southern Arizona, Kristin says that her career choice was inspired by her mother.
“The knowledge I have as a teacher didn’t come from college, but rather from living and working with my siblings,” she says. “My parents instilled such a strong work ethic in each of us. From them, I learned the importance of teaching each child to reach their own special potential.”
Over the years, Christie Jameson has adopted children who have Down syndrome, spina bifida, cerebral palsy and fetal alcohol syndrome. Some of her children were physically or sexually abused and some are blind or deaf, while others have weak immune systems and are not expected to live full lives.
“Of the 35 we took in, we’ve lost 12,” she says. “Every time, it’s heart-wrenching, but if I had to do it all over again, I would. They deserved every happiness they could get in the short time that they were here. They brought a lot of joy into my life.”
At each of her childrens’ funerals, Jameson played Garth Brooks’ “The Dance,” because she relates to the lyrics, “I could have missed the pain, but I’d have had to miss the dance.”
“That’s honestly how I feel — I simply can’t imagine missing the dance in any of my kids’ lives,” she says. “It’s been an honor to be their mother.”
Of the children living at home, the youngest, Eli, who was born with Soto syndrome (cerebral gigantism) is now 22.
“He’s 6 feet, 6 inches tall, wears a size 20 shoe and functions on the level of a 2-year-old,” says Jameson, “but you should see that kid put a puzzle together. He’s capable of so much more than most people imagine. Every one of them are.”
All of her special needs children went to school until they were 21, “and now it’s up to me to keep them motivated and learning,” says Jameson, who takes those who are able to the gym three days a week and to volunteer at a local thrift store.
“Right now, they’re crocheting caps to give to refugees in our community,” she says. “They, more than anyone, know the importance of giving back.”
Although she now has two assistants come in daily to help with bathing and feeding, Jameson didn’t receive state subsidies for her family’s care until just before her husband died.
“Alva worked as an accountant, and for 15 years, I cleaned toilets and mopped floors at our church to bring in a little extra to augment his salary,” she tells PEOPLE. “We’ve always made our own meals and lived a very simple life. But it’s been a good life, a happy life. Nobody has ever gone wanting.”
To ensure that her family is cared for once she is gone, Jameson put her home and her life savings in a trust “so that they’ll always feel loved and protected,” she says. “For the rest of their lives, I want my kids to be loved and cared for. They’ve done the same for me for my entire life. They’ve given me much more than I could ever give them.”