Fostering through faith: One woman's courage and compassion through loss and grief
On a warm June night, DeeAn Thompson and her elderly neighbor, N.E. Tittle, scan his pitch-black, 20-acre field with their flashlights. It's after 10 p.m., and DeeAn's husband Jeff should have been home hours ago after mowing for Tittle.
In the hours since dusk, DeeAn's annoyance with her husband's tardiness has been replaced with a growing sense of dread. When she and Tittle reach the far edge of the property and find nothing, a sick feeling fills her stomach.
The pond. DeeAn noticed horses gathered around its edge. That should have been a clue. She ran. The bank was surrounded by tall grass, obscuring its edge. The beam from her flashlight swept across the water. An overturned tractor. The mower attachment. A pair of boots. A 911 call. Blinding panic.
"Oh, dear Jesus. Oh, dear Jesus. Oh, dear Jesus," she repeated over and over again. The operator said, "Ma'am, you have to calm down," and DeeAn thought, "I'm as calm as I can possibly be at the moment."
When the police arrived, they took her flashlight away. An officer led her to the front seat of a squad car where she could make phone calls to friends and family in privacy.
Life as she knew it had crashed around her.
He caught her eye
DeeAn Davis met Jeff Thompson at a party on the basement level of the Martin Hall dormitory in 1982 when they were both freshmen at Baylor University. Jeff and his hall mates invited every cute girl pictured in the freshman annual. DeeAn and her roommate figured “why not?” and took a break from studying to check the party out.
She says Jeff caught her eye because he was the only guy there who owned a computer. They played Pac-Man and met up in the Penland Hall cafeteria the next morning for a breakfast date. She was stressed out and miserable because she was afraid she’d bombed her chemistry exam. He embarrassed her in front of the whole cafeteria by belting out, “Gray skies are gonna clear up. Put on a happy face…”
“He wasn’t a very good singer,” DeeAn says, laughing at the memory.
He asked for her hand on Dec. 16, 1983 at Lake Waco, seven days after DeeAn’s birthday. Jeff gave her a package, telling her, “It’s a birthday gift.” Inside was a sweatshirt that said ‘Merry me?’ It didn’t register at first – DeeAn didn’t read it carefully and thought it was a Christmas sweatshirt until Jeff told her to lift it out of the box. Beneath the words was a ribbon attached to the shirt with the engagement ring tied to it. On the back of the shirt he had written ‘The future Mrs. Thompson.’
DeeAn says it was creative, sweet gestures like that proposal that made her sure Jeff was “the one.”
“I thought, ‘I don’t think I’ll ever find this in anyone else,’” she says. “He was just very romantic. He was very good at thinking of things. He would write poems. He would make a lot of things. When we were at Baylor, he would send things like flowers and balloons, and sometimes a pizza would just show up at our dorm room. So he was really thoughtful and sweet about those things.”
They married at First Assembly of God in Dallas in May 1985. They were 21 years old. DeeAn left Baylor, and Jeff worked and went to school part time at the University of Texas at Arlington to finish his degree.
DeeAn’s mission in life is to take care of children. It’s fulfilling and comfortable. She always knew she wanted a big family. When she thought about her future, six kids sounded like the right number. Jeff agreed, although DeeAn says with a wink that she thinks “he just said that because he wanted to marry me.”
In the early years of their marriage DeeAn worked as a teacher’s aide in a special education class and there, she fell in love with an adorable 18-month-old baby girl named Ashley. All the teachers loved her, and often squabbled over whose turn it was to take care of her in school for the day.
Ashley became severely disabled as a newborn. Born prematurely, doctors suspect she contracted encephalitis at the hospital and suffered serious brain damage because of it. She could hear, but couldn’t see, speak, process language or walk. She would require as much care as an infant for her entire life. Overwhelmed by Ashley’s needs, her biological mother abandoned her. Her father relied on his own mother – Ashley’s biological grandmother – for much of Ashley’s caretaking.
DeeAn experienced a miscarriage while working as a classroom aide and “was lonely for a baby.” She daydreamed about adopting Ashley but dismissed it as a silly idea. “I’d have to marry Ashley’s dad,” she thought to herself, “And I already have a husband.” She wrote a note to Ashley’s grandmother offering to babysit on weekends, thinking, ‘What could it hurt?’ Ashley’s grandmother immediately accepted the offer.
Without knowing anything about DeeAn’s thoughts of adoption, Jeff remarked during that first weekend with Ashley, “What if we could be Ashley’s parents and her grandmother could just be her grandmother instead of being like her mother?” On Sunday evening, they dropped Ashley off at her grandmother’s place. The next morning, the school received a call from Ashley’s grandmother. One of the teachers relayed a message to DeeAn: “She was calling to find out if you would be interested in adopting Ashley.”
DeeAn’s jaw dropped. She couldn’t believe it. After several months of weekend visits and then a year of living with the Thompsons full time, Ashley’s adoption was finalized when she was 4 years old. On the date of their finalization, DeeAn also had her hands full with her firstborn biological child, Jenny, who was 3 weeks old.
The year after Ashley’s adoption was finalized and Jenny was born, twins Jeffrey Jr. and Katy arrived. Then came Christy, and, finally Amy, their last biological child. DeeAn’s dream of being a mom to six came true.
The years passed. Their kids grew up, and DeeAn started thinking and talking about something she’d been interested in for as long as she could remember: foster care. What brought it to the forefront of her mind was a passage from the book “The Purpose Driven Life” by Rick Warren.
“I think it was the part where it says, ‘What energizes you?’ and I thought, ‘Really, taking care of my kids is what energizes me.’ You know, I might be exhausted, but somewhere I’m going to find the energy to keep doing whatever I need to do. So I thought, ‘That’s really what energizes me and this is what I need to do.’”
Jeff was on board with the idea of fostering and together in the early 2000s they made an inquiry about the process of becoming certified. They learned that their own kids were too young for them to take additional children into their home, so they took it to mean God was telling them, ‘Not yet.’
In 2009 when Ashley was 24 and Jenny was 19, the Thompsons again began the process of foster care certification.
“They weren’t looking to adopt, so their motivation was totally different from what we typically see,” said Sheree Scott, the Thompsons’ foster care home developer with Buckner. “Most families come wanting to expand or begin their family, but with the Thompsons, fostering was what they were called to do: to be servants. They felt like they were just called to be foster parents, and that there was a need for foster families.
“When I first met them I could tell they were very warm, very friendly. I remember thinking they were a very close family and a very strong Christian family. DeeAn relies heavily on her faith.”
DeeAn acknowledges that she and Jeff were “pretty green going in.” Some foster kids were easy to care for and others presented more challenges. Sometimes when a child would leave their home to be reunited with family or go to a different placement, the Thompson kids would breathe a sigh of relief and DeeAn would tell them, “I know. It’s OK. It was hard.”
She can look back today and laugh at the dramatic, several-hours-long tantrum an 8-year-old foster child threw after Jeff reprimanded him for pestering his baby brother, but in the midst of it as they listened to him cry and cry, she says it was pretty stressful. The boy refused to come to the dinner table for hours, and his fit only worsened when he heard Jeff say the blessing before eating. He wanted to be the one to do it.
She also looks back with pride to think of how far some of the foster kids came in their time living with her and Jeff. She thinks of a 16-year-old boy who she still sees occasionally when extended family invites her to birthday parties or other events. She says she sometimes worries about him and the choices he makes, but he’s always sweet and polite when he sees the Thompson family again.
Life screeches to a halt
Sheree learned about the tractor accident the day after it happened. After recounting the details over the phone, DeeAn told her it would be best for the two girls they were fostering to be placed in another home while her family grieved and figured out what to do next.
It was a hard time for everyone. The older of the two foster girls was afraid of men due to a trauma in her past and had never let Jeff hold her or pick her up until just a week before the accident.
“We had been at a graduation party at our church, and that was the first time she had ever let him hold her, because we were dancing,” DeeAn recalls. “There is a really cute picture of the two of them. He was so happy that this little girl had finally let him hold her while they were dancing.”
Charlie Brown, pastor of The Crossing Baptist Church in Mesquite, Texas, was one of the first people to arrive at the scene after the police and emergency crews. He stayed there with DeeAn while she waited for hours in the dark for a wrecker to come and pull the tractor and Jeff out of the water.
In the wake of Jeff’s death, the church screeched to a halt. The entire congregation was in shock when they heard the news.
“Jeff was the outgoing one,” Charlie said. “He was an amazing, amazing man. He had a real passion to minister to men, to make sure men had a real strong walk with the Lord and that men were caring for their wives and their families in a Christ-like way.
“He wrote the name of every man in the church in the back of his Bible, names and phone numbers. Every week he would call some man and say, ‘How about going to lunch?’ And he’d ask them two questions: ‘How’s your walk with the Lord?’ and ‘How’s your relationship with your wife?’”
It’s been three years since the accident, and for many of Jeff’s friends, the wound is still fresh.
“To this day, a man will sometimes come up to me and say, ‘I miss Jeff Thompson.’” Charlie said. “It kind of rocked their world, and they would say, ‘I really haven’t gotten back to what I consider even-keel.’ It’s just kind of an ongoing grief that he is gone.”
DeeAn took a break from fostering to mourn and find her footing as the sole manager of her home and her late husband’s architecture firm. Her head was spinning, but her mother-in-law, Joan Adamski, was there to keep her grounded.
Joan had set up the books for Jeff’s company from the start and helped get them updated several times a year when she came up to visit from her home near Houston. She was a patient teacher when DeeAn was gripped with uncertainty and insecurity. The business had always been Jeff’s thing and children had always been DeeAn’s thing. Being forced into this new role of businesswoman stretched DeeAn beyond comfort and also opened her eyes to some of the stress Jeff must have experienced.
After three months of getting affairs in order, filing paperwork and learning payroll and billing systems, DeeAn called Sheree and said she was ready to take in foster kids again.
“She said she still just felt that was what she was led to do. She still felt called that this was what God had asked her and her family to do,” Sheree said.
“We all thought, ‘That is quick,’ and wondered, ‘Has she really grieved or does she just need to keep going?’ There are some people who just need to continue on the journey God has put them on. Some of us thought it was quick, but who am I to say how someone is to grieve? I think her faith in God and belief is so strong that she was able to grieve the way she needed to, and have a lot of understanding and acceptance that what happened was God’s will. She knew that even though we don’t understand it, we have to accept it.”
The family settled into a “new normal.” DeeAn woke up before sunrise to get Ashley ready for the day. At 6:30 every weekday morning, she put Ashley on a city bus for the elderly and disabled to send her to The Achievement Center of Texas. She came home by bus at about 6 p.m. In the hours in between, DeeAn would take care of her foster children, run errands and manage the architecture business.
On Oct. 26, 2011, just four months after Jeff’s death, DeeAn took in a 5-month-old girl named Isabella. Bella, as DeeAn calls her, is a girly-girl with big, olive eyes and dark, straight hair. She’s curious, smart, strong-willed and rambunctious. She loves to dance and twirl through the house and works on her curtsy like a princess.
Her curly-haired, blue-eyed baby sister Chloe was placed with DeeAn a year later at just 2 days old. She clings to DeeAn and has been attached from the start. Sheree says Chloe is starting to find her voice and recently learned to walk; she does things in her own timing.
When it was clear to DeeAn that both kids weren’t going anywhere and had become adjusted to life with her, she knew adoption was a possibility.
Charlie remembers when DeeAn told him she wanted to be Bella and Chloe’s forever family.
“We were all like, ‘Are you crazy? You’ve got kids coming out of college, your baby is coming out of high school and you’re adopting two little girls that are about 3 years old?’ She was just unflappable,” he says. “‘Yep,’ she said, ‘I love these girls, and I really need to make sure they have a good home, and so I’m going to try to adopt them.’ And she did. It was official several months ago.”
There has been more loss and upheaval in their family. Ashley died peacefully on April 16, 2014 following an illness and brief hospital stay. In a text message to Charlie, DeeAn’s faith and hope shined through despite the sadness. She wrote, “Ashley can now walk, run, see and talk for the first time ever, and all her firsts are with Jesus.”
DeeAn has continued to foster since the adoption. Right now she takes care of a 3-year-old and her 21-month-old brother. Toting around four kids under 4 years old, DeeAn can be quite a spectacle.
“She’s just dedicated and committed to the kids and foster care,” Sheree said. “Even when her daughter died, we were looking for respite for her, but she said, ‘I don’t want them to go to respite. They are still uncomfortable being around strangers.’ She felt they’d be happier and more comfortable at home. She’s very selfless. The foster kids’ needs come first. She’s thinking of them at a time when people would be thinking about themselves and their own families.
“I think it’s very obvious that she’s committed to what God has called her to do, to be a servant and take care of ‘the least of these,’” Sheree continued. “She’s never wavered from that.”
Lauren Hollon Sturdy is the web content editor for Buckner International. Contact her at lsturdy[at]buckner[dot]org.
If you would like to learn more about how to become a forever family to a child through Buckner, please visit www.beafamily.org.