Lessons in Love | Holly Richardson

Thank you. Today I want to share
with you some lessons I’ve learned about love,
when I followed my heart and ended up living
a life that was totally different than the
one that I had imagined. Perhaps you’ve heard
of 19 and Counting. Well, I’m here to
tell you our family can count higher than that. From the time I was a
little girl kissing boo-boos on my dollies, I wanted two
things: I wanted to be a mom, and I wanted to make a
difference in the lives of those around me. By the age of 19, I
was a registered nurse, and two years later, I
married a boy I met in church. One year after that, I had my
first baby, and it was heaven. I was on my way to having
the perfect little family that I had dreamed of. Nineteen months later, I gave
birth to my second child, a daughter that we
named Elizabeth. The morning after she was born,
a doctor that I did not know came into my room and, without
waiting for my husband, pronounced, “We have serious
concerns about your daughter.” He rattled off at least a
dozen things that were cause for concern, and the real
kicker was when he said, “We do not know how long she
will live–maybe a month, maybe a year–but her
life will be short.” And just like that,
the pretty little life I’d imagined for myself
went out the window. And as I lay sobbing
alone, I felt great grief for the first time in my life. I managed to call my husband,
and I choked out, “There’s something wrong with the baby.” Have you ever asked
yourself, “Why me? How could God do this to me?” Well, those were the questions
I was asking that day. I felt completely
unequipped to deal with a child with special needs. And I knew all the
churchy answers. But right then, they
felt stupid and trite. I hated it when people
said to me, “Oh, God must think you’re special people
to give you a special child.” I didn’t want to be special. I wanted to be normal. I loved that baby fiercely, of
course, but I was struggling. You see, I was still grieving. But to layer onto the grief,
I felt guilt for grieving. I thought if I only
had enough faith, that I could accept God’s will
without murmuring and in fact not only accept it, but I
should embrace it graciously. Well, in reality, I
was not embracing it and I was definitely
not gracious. Then one week, that all changed. Elizabeth was nine months old. Aaron, our oldest, was two, and
I was pregnant with our third when we decided to
attend a conference. I don’t remember how
many classes I attended or what else I learned, because
one class became my lifeline. It was a class on
adversity that taught me a great lesson about
love, and it changed my life. I learned that it
is OK to grieve. It’s normal. I learned that other
people much stronger than I had struggled
with the load that they were asked to bear
and that even Christ Himself had asked His Father to
remove the cup from Him. It was hard. And it was OK that it was hard. It was OK to grieve. It was OK to want
things to be different, and it was also OK to move
forward in faith and love, trusting in the
Lord, while still working through the grief. And with that permission
to grieve without guilt, the sun broke through
the clouds and I’ve never again felt guilty for grieving. I have learned, through
more experiences than I would have liked, that
grief and love are intimately connected. And as hard as it is
to slog through grief, it’s also a reminder of
how deeply I have loved. Two years after
Elizabeth was born, my husband, Greg, was
flipping through TV channels and he landed on a Barbara
Walters 20/20 special about Romanian orphanages. “Come here,” he said. “You’ve got to see this.” For the next hour, we watched as
film crews went into orphanages and showed some of the most
shocking, inhumane conditions imaginable. I remember so clearly one
cameraman–someone you never hear–groaning out loud, “My
gosh, these are human beings.” We saw children
with disabilities naked and tied to beds,
treated worse than animals. But we also saw families
who had figured out how to navigate
the complex process of international adoption. As we sat there, I was on
fire with the Holy Ghost. I knew this was our path. And I looked at my husband
and I said, “I have to go.” And he said simply, “I know.” A few weeks later, I was
sitting in a little apartment in downtown Bucharest
while Greg was home with our three little kids. I did not know how
long I would be there. I did not know how
much it would cost, and I didn’t even
know if we would be successful in adopting. But I knew what I had felt,
and I knew that God knew it. I was determined to act
on an undeniable prompting to get out of my chair and
leave my comfortable home and go and do the hardest,
scariest thing I had ever done in my life. Eight and a half weeks
later, I came home with two little girls
and a burning conviction that we could make a difference. That does not mean it was easy. No, we had a barely
potty-trained four-year-old, a two-year-old, and
three one-year-olds, and three of the five
had special needs. I felt like I had been thrown
in the deep end of the pool, and it was sheer survival
for the first year. In fact, it was so
overwhelming I actually have very few memories of that year. Maybe if you’ve ever been a
mom of more than one toddler, you’ve felt the same way too. Eventually, though, I learned
how to swim in that deep end. And when my head was barely
above water, I thought, “Well, things are going pretty well. So I bet we could
do that again.” After that first
burning-bush experience, it took but the
faintest whisper for us to go and do another
adoption, and then another and another and another. And today my husband and
I are the proud parents of 25 children. They range in age from 4 to 31. They’re from eight
different countries. They have all sorts of
backgrounds, abilities, and disabilities. And clearly I gave
up on the idea of being normal a long time ago. Now, does that
sound overwhelming? It’s OK; it does to me too. I mean, who does
stuff like this? I get asked all
the time if I had planned to have
such a large family, and my answer is, “Heck, no. Who plans this?” At our peak, we had
20 children at home. We had ages 1 to 17 with
four in diapers and three in wheelchairs. And that was also the year
our house caught on fire and we were homeless
for three months. Yes, it is as stressful
as you are imagining. I have never regretted, though,
acting on a prompting to love. And I know that as
you follow your heart, your life might not
end up as you planned. In fact, it probably won’t,
but it will be amazing. Because of the lessons
of love and service that we learned from
our daughter Elizabeth, all of the children
that we’ve adopted were labeled “hard to place”
for one reason or another. We adopted a daughter
who is missing a leg. One of our daughters from
Romania had Down syndrome. Several struggle with
attachment disorder and other mental health issues. We have three sibling sets. Several of our kids were older
when they joined our family. And one of our
daughters was born to a mom who could not
shake her addiction to meth even though it was
killing the baby she carried inside of her. Rebecca was born
five weeks early with a heart twice
its normal size and in full-blown
congestive heart failure. In case you’re not
sure, that’s not good. The doctors gave her
a 5 percent chance of survival, which
really is code for “She’s not going to
make it, but we don’t really want to tell you that yet.” I sat by her bedside
and wept while she went through drug withdrawals. And her heart
struggled to pump blood through her tiny
four-pound body. Seven weeks later, though, after
many prayers, many blessings, and many miracles,
she came home. Eighteen years later, and she’s
now a high school graduate; she played varsity basketball;
she works as a photographer. And earlier this
year, she came with me to serve in an orphanage
because in all the right ways, she still has a big heart. Some of the labels that
our kids were stuck with, though, were just silly. Two of our kids were
diagnosed with furunculosis. I still have no
idea what that is. But one of our little girls,
when I went to adopt her, the orphanage worker shook
her hand in my face and said, “This is a bad baby. Why do you want to
adopt a bad baby? There are lots of
good babies here.” You know what made my
16-month-old daughter bad? She was missing some
fingers and toes. That’s it. For that, she was
labeled a bad baby and considered hard to place. I was never really too worried
about her level of disability, by the way. She grew up. She graduated from high
school with excellent grades. She now manages a retail store,
and she’s going to college. And it’s been my
honor and pleasure to be the mom of that bad baby. So I have learned
that love multiplies. It never divides. It’s always possible
to love another. So love as much as you can. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
said, “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.” You do not need a
college degree to serve. There is no age limit. I’ve seen tiny
toddlers to people well in their 90s who
have found ways to serve. There are no special skills,
there’s no financial threshold that you have to meet, and you
do not need to wait for someday when you have plenty of time
and plenty of money to go and serve–because believe
me, that day never comes. I also know that the needs
that surround us are great. Sometimes they’re so
great and so overwhelming, we might not know
where to start. You might think, for
example, that if you can’t start an orphanage
or adopt 20 kids, that you can’t serve. But it’s not true. We can all serve. The world knows Mother Teresa,
of course, and her great work, but Mother Teresa knew
the value of the one. She said, “If you can’t feed
100 people, feed just one.” Freda Billiter did just that
in the 1920s in Indianapolis. It was during the
Great Depression, and times were rough. Jobs had evaporated. Many families were facing
really desperate circumstances. But there were some families
who had enough and to spare. My great-grandmother
Freda was one of those. And she always fed the men who
knocked on her door looking for food after they did
the odd jobs that she kept for them, just for
them, around her house. Freda never went on
to start a food pantry or a nonprofit organization. She never campaigned for
public policy change. And most of the men that
she fed probably never even knew her name. She didn’t even have to
cross the street to serve, but what she did mattered. Feeding one person mattered. It matters that we all serve. I love to see the many ways
that people are serving. And there are as many
ways to serve as there are people in the world. I have been blessed
with an opportunity to serve my
community in my home, but I’ve also been
blessed to travel around the world to work with
orphans and refugees. My friend Helen is a
retired schoolteacher. And in the last year, she’s
gone to Turkey and to Bangladesh to work with refugees. My friend Sarah is a busy
mom with a young family who felt compelled to do something
for children in some pretty desperate circumstances. And so in 2016, she
started Dolls of Hope. And in a little over two years,
she has seen over 13,000 dolls and bears go to all four
corners of the earth. My daughter Katie
saved her money from her entry-level
job for months and then spent half
of her annual income to go serve in an
African orphanage. My son Joshua helped a
little boy learn how to swim. That might not sound like a
very big thing, but you see, Joshua was born with
physical disabilities, and we didn’t think he
would ever learn to swim. When he did, it actually
looked like he was drowning. It was pretty scary. But eventually, he figured out
this way to swim kind of like a mermaid–or in his case, a
merman–and then he shared this unique talent with another
little boy with similar disabilities who also
thought he would never swim. You see, it mattered
to that little boy that Joshua would take
the time to teach him. But it also mattered to Joshua
that he had the opportunity to serve. I often think that one
of my greatest teachers about love and service was
our daughter Elizabeth. I sometimes wonder what it
was like before we were born. God must have had a plan
for us and the family that we needed to
create, but He was working with really young,
inexperienced parents with a lot of
preconceived notions about what family meant. I wonder if Elizabeth
volunteered to come teach those young parents. She must have known that
her body would never work in this life,
that she would never be able to roll over
or to walk or to speak. But she taught us
lessons in love and service her entire life. She lived for 17 years in an
imperfect body–far longer than the initial predictions that the
doctors had when she was born. And now with the benefit of
time, I can look backwards and say Elizabeth
came into our life and caused a sea change in
the direction of our family. Without her, I don’t think
we ever would have adopted. And now I can’t imagine
our life any other way. I have learned and been
taught over and over and over that everyone
can serve and that if you ask God for help, He
will provide a way. Serve as much as you can. I think I might know
one of the questions you might be asking
yourselves right now. At least I know the one I
get asked the most often. And that is, “How do you do it? How do you raise
such a large family? How do you afford it? How do you have time to do
international humanitarian work? And how do you feed them all?” Well, the feeding
question is easy. We octuple our recipes, OK? But like most people, I don’t
actually have unlimited money or unlimited time, and I cannot
cross the ocean as often as I would like. Some days, some weeks,
or months, even, I can feel really overwhelmed. I know I cannot do it alone. And I know my husband and I
can’t do it with just the two of us. But I also know that through
Christ, who strengthens me, I can do all things. I am not perfect,
but I try to keep up my end of the deal with God. I go to church. I read scriptures. I pray a lot. I spend time in
meditation, I journal, and I ask the Lord to help
me and to strengthen me. I ask for help in
managing my schedule. I ask God to help me know how
to best parent each child. And I ask for the ability
to bear the load that is sometimes so heavy
and so difficult, it makes me want to
shrink and not partake. Those prayers have
been answered. The Lord does strengthen me. Sometimes the
strength and insights come slowly, drop
by drop by drop. Sometimes it’s an
immediate infusion. Sometimes I can only
see it in hindsight, but the answers do come. For years our family
motto has been, “Because I have been given
much, I too must give.” And still I sometimes find
myself telling the Lord, “I am too tired, I’m too
broke, I’m too busy to serve.” Sometimes it even feels like
service is just one more thing to add to an already
overflowing to-do list. But then I remind
myself that I know and I have lived the
amazingly beautiful paradox that the more I serve others and
not just my immediate family, the better able I am
equipped to handle the heavy demands at home. Incredibly, with
God’s plan, it also seems like I have more time. Over and over again, I
have seen that the more we lift and share others’ burdens,
the more our own are lightened. I have learned for myself
through more experiences than I can count
that we are not here on earth to find our way alone. I know that the Lord will
support you just as He has supported
me–sometimes directly, often through the
acts of others. I know that when we ask God,
“Who can I serve today?” He will answer us. The world’s problems are many. I do not know or
understand them all, but I do know one part of
the answer to every question, and that is love. Love deeply, love
broadly, love more. And God will make
up the difference. Thank you.

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