When Lori and Daniel O’Brien got married 26 years ago, they knew they wanted three children. So, when they reached that number, they figured they were done.
Then their daughter brought home a 14-year-old friend whose mother didn’t want to raise her. They took her in. And then they took another child in, and another, and another ... until they had added 11 foster children to their three biological children.
They are kids that nobody wanted, kids who were considered unadoptable, kids who had been physically, sexually and emotionally abused and battered. Black or white, it didn’t matter to Lori and Daniel O’Brien. Though they had neither the room in their dilapidated home nor the money even to buy new clothes for the kids, they took them in and gave them the one thing money can’t buy — unconditional love.
‘We’re just nobody’
On Thursday, Lori O’Brien dabbed at her eyes as she and her husband sat with Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb in the TODAY studio in New York and watched a prerecorded report about their family. They had been chosen as the honorees in the fourth week of the “Everybody Has a Story” series conducted by the TODAY co-hosts.
“We’re just nobody,” Lori protested.
“You are a gift from God to this world to be parents to these children who have gotten lost in the system that is so broken,” Gifford told her.
In their e-mailed entry to “Everybody Has a Story,” the O’Briens wrote: “Everyone has a calling in life, and ours is to take in broken, wounded, and abused children and help provide them with a safe, warm, loving home … some of these children have even been deemed ‘unadoptable’! To us, it doesn't matter. Every child deserves a chance!”
They wrote about other foster parents who find that they can’t take in the children that the O’Briens have embraced. The O’Briens wonder how anyone could say no to them.
“I don't know about you, but when we hear of a 6-year-old child who has been tied to a chair [by] their foster parent for being naughty, and they will forever bear the physical scars of that, how we can we say no?” they wrote.
“Or when a child comes and tells you how they have been raped at the young age of 7 as punishment for telling the truth, how can you not reach out and try to help? When you see a child who can't stand up straight and whose body is so severely scarred from all the beatings they have endured, how can you not stop and try to give that child a chance?”
Room for more?
The O’Briens have adopted seven of the 11 foster children in their family. Seven children — four boys and three girls — are still living with them. The others have grown and moved out (the O’Briens’ foster children range in age from 9 to 25).
But child welfare officials recently called and asked if the O’Briens would be willing to take in either a three-child or four-child sibling group. There really isn’t room for that many more children in the family’s cramped home, which has three bedrooms in the main house and another in the basement.
Still, it was the children — who stand to be the most inconvenienced by an addition to the family — who lobbied the loudest in favor of it. “The kids said, ‘Mom and Dad, you have to do this. You have to do this. Because there’s so many bad homes out there. We would sleep on the floor. We want you to be the parents of other people’s kids,’ ” Lori O’Brien said.
Her husband shared an anecdote that explains their kids’ attitude. After tucking in one of the girls several years ago, he overheard her saying her prayers.
“Dear God,” she prayed, “thank you for bringing me to this family that loves me. Please make it real soon that my younger brother and my older sister get to come and stay with us.”
Within six months, the child’s prayer was answered.
As they visited TODAY, Lori held Daniel’s hand with one hand and kept dabbing at her eyes with the other. It was just last year that their oldest daughter, Naomi, a married schoolteacher with a child of her own, took up a family collection and arranged for her parents to go to Cancun for a four-day vacation for their 25th wedding anniversary.
It was the first time since they had been married that they had gone somewhere without the kids. And now they were at the end of a week in New York, telling the nation about their extraordinary family.
As she has for all the honorees in the series, Gifford partnered with her collaborator, David Friedman, to write a song for the O’Briens. Gifford and Kotb joined their guest in joyful tears as Tony-winning actress Christine Ebersole sang the composition, “Forever Family”:
Sometimes they lose their fathers and mothers
Then they discover they’ve nowhere to go
Who will take these children
Who will give them rest
Who will shield them from the storm
And hold them to their breast…
Who will gently rock them
And sing them lullabies
Who will whisper, I love you
And wipe the tears from their eyes…
Will anyone be
Will anyone be
Their forever family?
“Thank you for being an inspiration,” Ebersole told the couple. “For you to share the story with everyone in America, it’s such a thing to aspire to, and thank you so much for that.”
The O’Briens had told TODAY that their kids all know that they buy clothes only when they are offered for clearance. To outfit 11 kids for school, they had $100 — $9 each.
Gifford and Kotb saw to it that the kids would get some better clothes. They presented the O’Briens with a “very generous” gift certificate donated by The Gap, along with gift vouchers for 11 pairs of new jeans.
“I hope you live a long, long time,” Gifford told the couple. “And I hope you win the lottery.”