By ELIZABETH SIMPSON
THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT

 

IT ALL BEGAN, say Cheri and Dave Bollmann, with an ordinary neighborhood event. Someone new moved in next door.

In this case, seven brothers and sisters – Country, E.J., Steven, Drew, Nancy, Cinnamon and Christopher – who had come to Virginia Beach with their father to live with relatives. Suddenly, on that day in May 1997, Lolly Lane was jumping with children. The Bollmanns and their four kids, David, Kelly Scott, Stacie and Sarah, welcomed the new arrivals. Before long, the two sets of children – ranging from 3 to 14 years – teamed up by age to shoot hoops and jump rope and play volleyball and watch Little Bear videos at the Bollmanns’ two-story house. “I asked Sarah to be my friend, and she said yes,” remembers Cinnamon, who thought towheaded Sarah looked like Goldilocks. “I thought she was cool,” Sarah says of Cinnamon, whose name describes the color of the girl’s brown skin.

Every Monday night in the garage, the Bollmanns ran a youth group called Children Living Under the Bible, or C.L.U.B., which drew dozens of neighborhood kids to the lively household of Christian songs and raucous laughter. A few more kids wouldn’t make much difference. Little did the Bollmanns know that their family would never be the same again. The relationship with the next-door neighbors quickly deepened. The children were often hungry and accepted invitations to stay for dinner. Although it was May, they weren’t enrolled in school. They hung out on their own during the day. Cheri had home-schooled her own children for eight years, so she invited them to share the lessons. The afternoons and evenings at the Bollmanns’ soon turned into sleepovers, first between four of the children who paired up: Cinnamon and Sarah, who were 5 and 3; and Stacie and Nancy, who were 7 and 8. “We would talk all night long,” Stacie says. The five older children started spending the occasional night as well. Bit by bit, pieces of their story surfaced: Their parents had split up, and their father had cared for them since. Sometimes they slept in their station wagon en route from one set of relatives to another. “He never knew where we were going next,” says E.J. “It was always, `Where are we gonna go?’ ”They were often left on their own, with no one setting curfews or tooth-brushing routines or meal times. Cheri had a dream one night that Cinnamon got hit by a car. This only increased her desire to look out for the children, to give them more boundaries and less time to hang out on their own. “I felt like someone needed to step up to the plate and take care of them, not just by saying I love you, but by reining them in.” The Bollmanns tried to give them structure through home-schooling and their garage ministry but still took care to respect any objections raised by the children’s father and relatives. The rules and lessons didn’t keep the young neighbors from coming over. They spent more and more time there. Cinnamon sidled up to Cheri once to ask, “Will you be my mother?” One day in August, E.J. told the Bollmanns they were moving again. Their relatives couldn’t keep them any longer. 

Cheri and Dave Bollmann discussed what to do. They had three options. They could stand on the curb, wave goodbye and go on with their lives. They could call Social Services to report their worries that the children were neglected. But they knew the seven siblings probably would be split up into different foster homes if they did. “They were each other’s strength,” Cheri says. “They’d gone through bad times together. If you break them up, you break up the only strength they have.” The third option was to offer help. The night the family left, Dave Bollmann approached the father as he packed the blue station wagon. He told him that if he ever needed help, the Bollmanns could take in the children until the father got a job and found a place to live. Dave gave the father some stamped envelopes and a phone card and told him to call if he needed him. “I didn’t really expect to see them again,” Dave says. Then the Bollmann family waved goodbye as the next-door neighbors loaded up and drove away in the last light of evening. “We wondered what would happen if they moved in . . . and what would happen if they didn’t,” Cheri says. “Either way was unsettling.” E.J. called a week later and said his father would take the Bollmanns up on their offer. Cheri took a deep breath. A softball player in her youth, she got a mental image of stepping up to home plate with the bases loaded. She and her husband wired gas money to the family in Harrisonburg, the city in the northwestern part of the state where they were staying. The next night, about 9:30, the blue station wagon pulled up once again. Most of the kids were asleep in the car. Soon, though, the Bollmann house filled with children and sleeping bags and cots and commotion. The three-bedroom, 1,500-square-foot house – with one bathtub – was stretched to its limits. “It was sobering,” says Cheri, a strawberry blonde with the passion and the discipline of a coach. “And yet, with kids there’s only so much sober you can be.” Standing in the middle of chaos that night, Cheri said, “Too big, too much, too loud,” a phrase that would become the family signal to bring down the noise level. The next day they went to Wal-Mart for cardboard bureaus, toothbrushes, towels, socks and ketchup – gallons of the stuff. The children’s father and Dave Bollmann signed papers at a lawyer’s office to give the Bollmanns physical custody.

A month later, the story took an unexpected twist. The children’s mother – who had been in and out of their lives during the past several years – called from the Greyhound bus station in Norfolk. She said she was starting over again in Virginia Beach and wanted her children back. So Cheri picked her up at the Greyhound station. The children’s eyes lit up when they saw her, and Cheri and Dave wondered whether the mother, rather than the father, might be the children’s destiny. The mother moved in for three weeks while the Bollmanns helped set her up in her own apartment. The children started spending the nights there but continued to be home-schooled by Cheri. To see the children go between the two households became a struggle for Cheri and Dave. The rules and lifestyles differed. The mother wanted to take a night job, and the Bollmanns questioned the safety of leaving the children on their own at night. “It was breaking our hearts,” Cheri says. They wrestled with their feelings, prayed and did the best they could, believing that time would provide answers. It did. A knock at the door interrupted Cheri’s home-school lesson one day in October of 1997. She looked out the window and saw a police car, a van and two other cars. She opened the door to find two social workers from Harrisonburg. Cheri had no idea what was going on. The social workers said they had been investigating the children’s family when they lived in Harrisonburg. About the time in May when they had concluded the seven children needed to taken into custody because of neglect, the family had disappeared. The social workers lost track of them for months. Finally, they found the father, who told them where the children were. The social workers had a court order to take the children back to Harrisonburg. They told Cheri they would wait while the children gathered their belongings. Cheri’s knees shook, and her stomach felt queasy. She stepped back inside and saw that the seven children had scattered, the smaller ones huddled in the corners of rooms crying. Her own children looked shell-shocked. She showed the custody papers to the social workers, who told her a hearing would be held at the end of the week where the Bollmanns could plead their case. Cheri tried to call her husband at work, but he wasn’t in. She called her pastor, and they prayed together over the phone. She gathered the children together and quieted them. She told them the social workers were there to help them. The Bollmanns would go to a hearing later that week to ask if the children could return.

God had a plan, she told them, that they all had to believe in. “Your future is not in my hands,” Cheri said. “It’s not in the social workers’ hands. It’s in God’s hands.” “Didn’t we just learn that God is everywhere, Miss Cheri?” said Steven, who was 10. Then, one by one, Cheri had the children – including her own – shake hands with the social workers and introduce themselves. Before the social workers loaded the seven siblings into the van, the family held hands and prayed, then sang “Amazing Grace.” By this time, it wasn’t the children who were crying, but the social workers. “It was like we were rescuing them from saints,” says Patty Sensabaugh, a Harrisonburg foster home coordinator. That afternoon, Dave Bollmann walked into the kitchen, not knowing what had happened. “It looked like someone had died.” By week’s end, however, the Bollmanns rallied. They gathered together letters of testimony. Family members wrote about how the family nursed Cheri’s brother in their home when he was dying of AIDS. Navy co-workers attested to Dave’s stability and skill in training Navy SEALs. Church members from Chesapeake Vineyard, who had helped the family buy clothes and food, wrote letters about the family’s faith and strength. A church member rented a 15-passenger van for the family – an expression of faith that the Bollmanns would return with 11 children instead of four. At the hearing, a lawyer for Social Services asked that a home study be done before giving the family custody. The judge left the chambers for a while, had background checks done, returned and gave the Bollmanns emergency custody, ordering them to take foster care training as soon as possible. The Bollmanns picked up the two younger children in Harrisonburg and drove to Lynchburg to pick up the five older ones at a group home. Nancy remembers seeing them pull up. “I was worried someone would adopt two or three of my brothers and sisters, but not the rest,” she says. “When I saw them, it was like a dream.” On the drive back, reality began to set in for Cheri and Dave. “What just happened?” Cheri thought. “What did we just fight for?” But the weight of worrying about whether the birth parents could care for the children had been lifted from their shoulders. Social workers would work with the parent's, coordinate supervised visits and determine whether they were ready to care for the children. In the meantime, the Bollmanns would receive foster care money. In the next weeks and months, Chesapeake Vineyard church members helped them close in the garage and a back porch to make more bedrooms. A second bathroom was installed. Cheri’s mother, who had built an addition above the garage, moved out to give them more room. A three-bedroom house grew into a six-bedroom house. They bought bunk beds for the bedrooms, and a monitor system so they wouldn’t have to yell up and down stairs. Tutors came in to help Cheri home-school the children. Counselors helped the children deal with their emotions. A dentist donated his services to repair their teeth, which had been damaged from neglect. Cheri divided up chores among the children and set up a system of penalties – withholding allowances and writing sentences – to make sure they were done. “It was food in, food out; laundry in, laundry out,” Cheri says with a laugh. In 1998, David retired from his Navy SEAL job. He became an independent contractor in maritime work, which reduced his time away from home. Instead of dividing along family lines, the children split among ages.

The five older children were dubbed the seniors; the three middle children, the juniors; and the three younger ones, “the Peanuts.” The older ones look out for the younger ones. “Before we were always standing up for our own brothers and sisters,” E.J. says. “But then it was more like looking out for all the younger ones, making sure they did
the right thing.” And while there was plenty of room for hurt feelings and a never-ending shortage of privacy, the children grew closer. “They taught us how to share,” recalls 15-year-old David. “They had been doing that all along anyway, with their clothes and everything, and we learned to do that from them.” In August of 1998, Harrisonburg social workers called the Bollmanns to tell them the parental rights of the children’s birth mother and father were being terminated. Did the Bollmanns want to adopt them? The couple talked with the “home-growns.” “What do you think, can we do this?” Dave asked. “You’re already their parents,” Kelly Scott said. Still, the four Bollmann children faced sharing their parents’ time and resources, not just temporarily, but forever. David would no longer be the oldest. Stacie might not be the first girl to be married. Their parents would no longer be “Mr. B” and “Miss Cheri” to the seven foster children, but Mom and Dad. The seven foster children faced hard issues, too. They would give up seeing their birth parents, whose supervised visitation would come to a close. “The first desire of a child’s heart is to be with their own family,” Cheri says. “Anything else, though great, is still second-best.” The Bollmanns did not want an open adoption because they felt it would be confusing for the children, and too difficult to go between lifestyles. Cheri remembers the solemn looks on the children’s faces. “Let’s get this adoption going,” said Country, the oldest child in the family. “I want to be adopted before I’m 18. I’m over moving from place
to place. I want to be settled.” “Will Sarah not be my best friend anymore?” Cinnamon asked. Cheri told her Sarah could still be her best friend, but she’d also be her sister.

The adoption became final in August. The children have not forgotten their birth parents. Country – who’s now 16 – says she’ll probably visit them when she’s older. “I keep them in my prayers,” she says. “I think they had a choice of whether to work to keep us, but they didn’t have the skills to do it. They never had those things taught to them, management skills, work skills, like what we’re learning.” Those are lessons born of necessity in a household of 13. Chore charts hang on the hallway door. Family meetings convene in the living room at least once a day. Seats on the van are assigned – with monthly rotations. Children can nominate a sibling to get the best seat, 
the front passenger one, but can’t suggest themselves. Three-minute limits keep showers rolling along. Plastic containers for socks – one for clean ones, another for dirty – 
each bear a child’s name. “Socks,” says Cheri, pointing to a pair that has appeared out of nowhere on the grass across the street, “are a major issue for us.” But if there are sacrifices to be made in a household this big, there are also advantages. “You don’t have to go through the neighborhood looking for kids to play with,” Nancy says. On a typical afternoon, they jump rope, jog around the block, play volleyball, ride bikes. “Seniors, let Chris in,” Cheri says, watching 6-year-old Chris stand to the side. The call for supper goes out, and the older ones help serve the younger. Stacie sings in the kitchen; Sarah tap-dances in the hallway waiting her turn in the bathroom. Dave Bollmann – who wears a cross-shaped earring – wrestles with the older boys as they get in line for supper. Before they eat, they sing a song of grace: “God our Father, once again, thank you for our food, A-a-a-men, a-a-a-men, amen.” Three loaves of bread and four pounds of ham evaporate in 20 minutes. Then the juniors, Stacie and Nancy and Drew, step in to help the smaller
ones with showers, while the seniors clean up. At a bedtime family meeting, they discuss grade cards – 10 of them are on the honor roll at Open Door Academy – and what they’re doing the next day. They give a round of applause for Dad, who was able to replace the brakes on the van himself to save money. Then they sing a song blessing each member of the family – “God bless our Mommies and our Daddies, and our Davids and our Kellys . . . ” –  right down to the family dog, now deceased. And close with, “A-a-a-men, a-a-a-men, amen.” The garage ministry, in the meantime, has fallen by the wayside. “Outreach turned into inreach,” Cheri says. But another form of ministry took its place. Two years ago the children started singing and dancing together as a way to say thank you to Chesapeake Vineyard church members who had helped them. They now attend
New Life Church. The troupe – called Blended – takes twice-a-week dance lessons from Lyndabeth Bureau and voice lessons from Ryan Bomberger. One recent Saturday they performed at Hope Lutheran Church in Virginia Beach. They began with a dance to the song “Lean on Me,” then followed with a lively hip-hop dance to the tune of a contemporary Christian song. They changed into tap shoes – Sarah’s child size 12 up to E.J.’s size 15 – for a rousing tap-dance number. Then Stacie sang “When You Believe,” 
from the movie, “Prince of Egypt.” The act concluded with Country, Steven, David, Kelly Scott and E.J. banging out a rafter-ringing percussion piece on pots and pans and
bongos and water jugs and drums. The Bollmanns perform for churches and youth groups and other organizations. In October, they danced at the Virginia Foster Care
Assocation State Conference – a surprise for their parents, who were named the state’s foster care parents of the year at the same meeting. The performances by the troupe – different colors but still family – help break down barriers of race, says David. “It’s like the Jackson Five meets the Partridge Family,” Bomberger says with a laugh. When the Bollmann kids think back to how it all began, they do so with good-natured ribbing and laughing around the warmly-lit kitchen table. “I came outside, and I saw all these kids, and it was like, `Where in the world did they come from?’ ” Stacie says. “It was funky the first night they all spent the night,” remembers Kelly Scott. “Loud.” “We thought it’d be for a couple of months and then there was the court hearing . . . and here we are,” says E.J. with a shrug and a grin. “Hey, I used to be taller than them,” David says pointing to E.J. and
Steven. “I never, never in a million years expected this,” says Country, shaking her head. “Never in a million years.”

Reprinted with permission from The Virginian-Pilot.