Ly, a 17-year-old Vietnamese orphan crippled by polio, is upstairs with the flu. At 3 p.m. Sunee, 10, and Karen, 11, return from school on crutches. With them is another Vietnamese orphan, Phong, 12. Wendy, a 10-year-old Korean with a glass eye, breezes in. Next John Robert (“J.R.”), 13, who is both blind and paraplegic, arrives home and starts folding laundry. Meanwhile Twé, a blind 16-year-old Vietnamese, practices the piano.
The setting is not an orphanage for handicapped refugees but the Piedmont, Calif. home of Bob and Dorothy DeBolt. Over the past 30 years, Dorothy, her late first husband and now Bob have raised a total of 19 children—six of their own and 13 considered “unadoptable.” This unique family is the subject of a recently published book, 19 Steps Up the Mountain (Jove/ HBJ $1.95) and a documentary film up for an Academy Award.
Dorothy DeBolt, 54, is quick to argue that she and her husband “are not great saints. It makes us furious to be put up on a pedestal.” Bob DeBolt, 47, concurs: “It’s no saint who yells at a kid when he needs it or curses under his breath when things go wrong.”
Dorothy, the daughter of immigrant parents (a Swedish mother and a Dutch father), was born and raised in San Francisco. She married her first husband, insurance executive Ted At-wood, in 1947 and promptly started a family. After four children—Mike, now 30, Mimi, 28, Stephanie, 27, and Noël, 25—Dorothy had a miscarriage. “Ted and I realized how lucky we were to have healthy kids,” she explains. “He said maybe the way to thank God was to adopt a child.” They tried for a handicapped child, but the adoption agency objected, claiming Ted and Dorothy already had their hands full. “That’s like waving a red flag at me,” says Dorothy. “We were forced to go overseas and look for children of mixed race.”
Marty, a Korean-Caucasian, joined the family when he was 2½. “He weighed 17 pounds, had rickets and was the most frightened tyke you ever saw,” says Dorothy. “Then the miracle happened and he began to change.” Now 23, married and living in Hawaii, Marty just presented Dorothy with her first grandchild.
The Atwoods took in another Korean-Caucasian, Kim, in 1959—then had one more daughter of their own, Melanie, in 1960. Three years later Ted died of a brain tumor. Dorothy, whose brood totaled nine at the time, met Bob DeBolt, a divorced construction engineer with a daughter of his own (Doni), at a 1969 Christmas party. They were married the following June.
“I knew one thing when I joined the family,” recalls DeBolt. “I wasn’t going to be a figurehead father.” Courtesy, discipline and self-sufficiency are the household code—nobody, for example, is allowed to pick up someone else’s crutches. Without exception, this stern but loving approach has yielded remarkable results. Sunee, a Korean-American polio victim, and Karen, a black child born without legs or lower arms, often entertain the family with piano and marimba duets. Paraplegics Tich and Anh, who were wounded in Vietnam and wear braces, took a paper route that normal children had turned down because it included a five-story walkup.
The DeBolts’ toughest case was J.R. “He had been made into a vegetable, a real throwaway child,” says Dorothy. With the family’s encouragement, J.R. finally conquered his Everest: the 19-step stairway in the DeBolt home (thus the name of their book).
Bob quit his job in 1975, and now he and Dorothy devote full time to Aid to Adoption of Special Kids, the organization they established in 1973. Actress Pat Neal is international chairwoman. AASK has already found 300 homes for handicapped children. The DeBolts receive no money from AASK; for two years they have been living on the $100,000 commission Bob received from his last Bay Area construction contract. Will they adopt any more children? “My standard answer to that,” shrugs Dorothy, “is only God knows.”