After their first adoption in 1997, an Arizona couple have fostered or adopted over 30 special-needs children in their home

By Rose Minutaglio
Updated August 21, 2015 11:35 AM
Bill Lewis

Over the past 18 years, Richard and Paula Charlebois have welcomed 35 adopted and foster children into their Glendale, Arizona, home – the majority of them “troubled” or “disruptive” teens with no one to turn to or neglected, sick infants with nowhere to go.

Some of the kids joined the family fleetingly – as foster babies who are adopted quickly, or as 17-year-olds on the cusp of becoming legal. A handful lingered for only a few years, receiving necessary guidance on the importance of education and nutrition and social skills until they could be adopted. Some have lived with the family for all 18 years of their childhood.

But all of them have a place in their heart.

“We’ve gotten criticism for adopting children of other races, for taking in our daughter who was in a wheelchair, for allowing our son to identify as transgender, for taking in special-needs kids ” Paula Charlebois, 46, tells PEOPLE. “But I learned a long time ago that I don’t care what other people say. I do what is best for my children, I’m blind to their differences. I love all of them so much.”

It Was Fate

After trying to conceive for six years in the early 1990s with no luck, Paula and Richard, 46, decided to adopt a baby boy from foster care.

“I started praying and started thinking, ‘Do I want to be a mom or do I want to have a baby?’ And I knew that it didn’t matter, we just wanted to be somebody’s parents,” says Charlebois. “Nine months later we saw Justen on Wednesday’s Child and our journey of heartbreak and infertility was over, our paths merged. I think God brought us together. It was fate.”

Justen moved in with Paula and Richard in 1997 when he was 8 years old. He had never lived in a home with a mother and father and suffered from severe behavior issues at first, “lashing out” and “refusing love,” he tells PEOPLE.

“I was violent, rowdy – an animal. They taught me the basics of societal function and how to cope with things,” he says. “They saved me. I had a hard time coping with people, with negative situations, and they taught me to forgive and let go and move forward, to be loving and patient and understanding. They brought about a better way of living.”

Now 26 years old and looking for work, the Charlebois’ first son reminisces about his first Christmas with the family.

“Christmas was always rough when you were in foster care,” he says. “Seemed like nobody cared about you, that you were just part of the group. But I’ll always remember my first time celebrating at the Charlebois house. I felt like I had parents for once in my life, like I belonged to a family. I had someone who actually loved me.”

Looking to expand their family, Richard and Paula adopted 8-year-old Jessica six months later. They planned to stop with two kids, but Jessica, who had negative experiences in the foster care system, convinced her mother to consider being a foster mom.

“When she joined our family, Jessica told me, ‘You need to be a foster family!’ and we would say ‘No, that’s not in our hearts,’ ” says Charlebois. “I couldn’t handle the thought of loving a child and then having to let them go. But she kept saying it, and I knew that I could provide a good living environment as a foster mother.”

And so Carl and Bridget joined the Charlebois clan. And then siblings Eleanor, Angel and Maritzah. And dozens more over the next decade.

They Don’t Change the Child

The family’s former foster care advocate for 12 years, Caren Jablonsky, tells PEOPLE the two parents have a knack for instilling love, sociability and acceptance in the children they care for.

“The biggest change you see over the course of time is the increase in sociability,” says Jablonsky. “A lot of times when a child is placed in a home, they are very closed off and introverted because of the trauma they have experienced. The Charlebois philosophy, and why they are so successful, is that they change whatever they need to, to accommodate the child coming into their home. They don’t try to change the child.”

Although it’s unusual to see a family this large – there are currently 10 children living in the Charlebois’ 4,200-square-foot house – Jablonsky says their system works because the abundance of brothers and sisters helps the kids with their ability to form bonds and emotional connections, prompting an openness to affection most lacked prior to joining the family.

“It works because all of the kids have a high level of respect for the love and caring they are receiving,” she says. “The kids themselves get along so well. It’s because they’re taught within the home to have respect for each other, they’re so helpful to each other. Their household looks like a mini United Nations, but you wouldn’t think anything other than these kids are Paula and Richard’s children.”

Family First

10-year-old Luke, a transgender boy who was adopted as a female baby named Sheila, explained to Paula and Richard his name was Luke and that he was a boy on a family vacation to Hawaii in 2011 when he was 7 years old. Six weeks later his parents worked hard to get his name legally changed. Luke tells PEOPLE that his family protects him from bullies.

“I like having a big family because if I was an only child I wouldn’t have anybody to go to bully problems with,” he says. “They stand up for me. My sister Shyrah tells them to leave me alone. She stands up for me because I would stand up for her too. I like that we’re all different, it makes our family unique.”

Paula and Richard were told by doctors that Shyrah, who had health issues, would grow up deaf and blind. But the little girl is completely healthy today – and an all-star in her local gymnastics class.

“We are all different, and that makes us special. I was a sick baby, but my mom took care of me,” Shyrah, 10, tells PEOPLE. “We’re all different and that’s good because when I go to school my friends say we don’t look alike and I tell them I’m proud to be adopted. I love my parents because they take such good care of us and they get us ready for school in the morning!”

Almost all of the children have harrowing tales of their lives before coming to Paula and Richard, but the success stories like those of Luke and Shyrah is the norm and the expectation for the kids who have lived in the Charlebois home.

“Don’t get me wrong, this is not all candy-coated; it’s hard to connect with some of our children, but the alternative of not adopting them is completely unacceptable to us,” says Paula. “If you were to say I could be the wealthiest superstar on the plant, this is still the journey that I would choose. I wouldn’t change this for the world.”