"We went into it thinking that we would be the blessing to these kids, but they’re the blessing to us," says The Seven Longest Yards author Chris Norton
Seven years after being paralyzed, Chris Norton walked seven yards down the aisle with then-fiancée Emily by his side in April 2018, and the moment captured people’s hearts.
“Everyone saw our highlight-reel moments,” Chris tells PEOPLE. “We want to show people how we got there.”
When he was 18 in October 2010, Chris fractured part of his spine during a football play gone wrong. Doctors told him he had a 3 percent chance of moving anything below his neck again, but Chris proved them wrong, walking at his college graduation and again when he got married, each time with Emily to lean on.
Today, the couple is still supporting each other as they raise their five daughters, whose ages range from 3 to 20.
“They just bring so much energy to our lives — there’s never a dull moment,” Chris says of being a young parent.
“We’ve been out in public, and people will just stop us and ask us, ‘Are these your kids? Please tell me these aren’t your kids,’ ” he adds.
Whittley, 20, the first of 17 kids that the couple has fostered, is only six years younger than her adopted dad. Her bond with the Nortons dates back to Emily’s high school days, when she mentored Whittley. The couple adopted her as an adult in December.
Once, when Whittley needed to be picked up from school because she was sick, the nurse told Chris that high schoolers could not sign out other students.
“Oh, no. That’s my dad,” Whittley said in response, Chris proudly tells PEOPLE.
The couple’s four younger daughters — Ava, 10, Liliana, 8, Isabella, 6, and Ariana, 3 — are biological sisters whom the Nortons adopted in February.
“We were able to grow our family this year, which was really special, and make it just official that they are our daughters forever,” says Emily. “It’s been an absolute joy to be able to be there for these kids, through hard times, through good times.”
Chris adds: “We went into it thinking that we would be the blessing to these kids, but they’re the blessing to us.”
The Nortons say that their daughters have become a part of their mission to give back. In June, the Chris Norton Foundation hosted a wheelchair camp for 25 kids who have spinal injuries and their families — and the four girls came along as counselors in training.
Chris admits that while the kids are a “joy,” some parts of parenthood can be difficult given his circumstances.
“There were things about being a dad that I really wanted to do. I always wanted to be the dad that can throw my kids around in the pool or play catch,” Chris says. “I just focus on what I can do as a dad. … I just cannot let my physical paralysis paralyze my mindset.”
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Emily has faced her share of challenges, too, specifically when it comes to her mental health.
“Right after the graduation walk [in May 2015], I actually went into a dark depression and struggled with anxiety,” she tells PEOPLE. “I was in such a low place, a place I had never been in.”
The depression took a toll on Emily and her relationship with Chris.
“For a long time I buried everything I was feeling down on the inside and it just came out in anger,” says Emily. “It was really hard for our relationship, and just for me, the darkness I was in.”
Meanwhile, Chris “felt like I was failing at my job, that I wasn’t doing enough, that I was to blame.”
“Seeing someone that you love so much and that’s the love of your life suffer that much, and to be that angry and that alone and depressed, you want them to know that they aren’t alone,” he adds.
Emily credits her Christian faith and returning to church with leading her to seek professional help.
“You can feel better and life can feel better, regardless of what you are going through,” Emily says.
In a book foreword, written by Tim Tebow, the former football star writes that after meeting the family, he felt that Chris and Emily could not be “better examples of parents that live out faith and determination every day.”
If readers take anything from their story, Chris says, “We want other people to find the courage in themselves, through our example, to keep pushing the limits and leaning on each other.”