When seven siblings lost their parents in a 2018 car accident, Pam and Gary Willis of California stepped in to give them a loving home

By Susan Young
June 17, 2021 12:04 PM
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Life had been harsh for 12-year-old Adelino, who had been caring for his six younger siblings since he was about 6 years old — and things looked even worse after both of his parents were killed in a 2018 car accident involving the entire family.

"When we were with our biological parents, I was just living life day by day, trying to survive, trying to go to school but sometimes staying home to watch my sibling and make them food," Adelino, who turns 16 on June 21, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "I gave up on the thought of me having a future."

But from the tragedy came hope after the youngsters were adopted by former nurse and now attorney Pam, 50, and Gary Willis, 53, of Menifee, California. The couple, who have been foster parents since 2013, had already raised their own five children, now aged 32 to 20, and were grandparents.

Gary was retiring from the post office after his first retirement as a Navy corpsman and the couple was looking forward to winding down to their retirement years.

Then fate threw a curve.

willis family
The Willis family
| Credit: Jon Silver Photography

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Adelino Anjos, 43, and Christina Fassett, 31, had both been in foster care as children, and carried on a cycle of poverty, domestic violence and addiction. They moved the family from Henderson, Nevada to Lakeside, California just six months before the accident, but their lives didn't change.

Adelino and his sister, Ruby, now 13, took over the parent roles. They tried tending to their siblings with little or no food available to them, or any resources.

"There were a lot of times where I stayed at home instead of going to school because our parents ended up just disappearing," Ruby says.

For more on the Willis family, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here

Ruby recalls how it took "quite a while" for her to adjust to a life with more stability in the Willis home.

"I get to be more of a kid than a parent," she says.

Right before the accident, after his parents had been evicted from their San Diego East County apartment and were attempting to drive to Texas in a dilapidated car and U-Haul trailer, Adelino says he was thinking, "Man, how am I going to keep this up for another few years?"

The crash ended his parents' lives, and sent their children into a spiral of uncertainty.

As the children, from an infant to 12, were taken to various hospitals to treat their injuries ranging from minor to severe, there was little hope that the close-knit siblings would be able to stay together.

Their future seemed bleak after they were released to live together in a temporary private foster home in San Diego. Local news highlighted the children's plight.

That's when the Willises learned about them and knew the kids needed to stay together in a stable home. They had a big home that was now empty as they pondered downsizing.

"We were at a crossroads. I saw this story and it hit me so hard," Pam says. "We had room for them and I started falling in love. This was the answer to what we were supposed to be doing."

The children — Aleecia, now 9, Anthony, 8, Aubriella, 7, Leo, 5, and Xander, 4 — came to live with the Willises in March 2019. 

While their biological children were fully supportive, they were a little concerned.

"I think that they were taken aback a little with the permanency of it all and like, 'Wow, mom and dad, you're not 25 anymore,'" says Pam, laughing. "My oldest one, he was 30 at the time and he was future-minded, like, 'Are you guys going to be okay with retirement and things like that, and financially?' And we were like, 'Yeah, I think we'll be okay.' "

The kids' adoption was finalized in August 2020, and the crew jumped into the public eye after a video of their journey went viral. Now the family chronicles their adventures on their Instagram account.

Almost two years after their new chapter began, Pam says they are like any other family now that the children have rehabilitated from the accident and worked to overcome their fears and insecurities from their challenging former life.

"We've moved past that first year that was so incredibly trying for all of us," Pam says. "The fact that we expected it and knew how to manage it didn't make it any less difficult."

Instead of being bitter about the life he had been handed, Adelino says he's vowed to make his life count.

He tells PEOPLE that he stopped thinking, "Wow, life really sucks," and shifted his mindset: "I want to help people so they never have to feel like this. I want to make sure my family is happy."

And he has his sights set on becoming a special victims detective, "because what happens to [them] really makes me upset," he says. "I want to be there to help those people have a shoulder to lean on."