Viterbo University Strides Magazine Online

Enough love to go around

As Mike and Margaret Shimshak took a rare moment together on the couch in their farm home in rural Tigerton, twins Margaret and Michelle went about their business as normal two-year-olds, each happily scribbling on paper, with pencils grasped in their tiny hands. Margaret imitating adult handwriting that falls neatly between the lines and Michelle making more bold marks on her paper. 

“Look at mine! Look at mine!” they shouted when finished, both vying for attention.

“‘Look at mine.’ Look at that English!” said proud Dad Mike, a 1979 graduate of Viterbo University.
Having been in America since only February, Margaret and Michelle aren’t your typical American two-year-olds. In fact, they were adopted from Ethiopia and are the youngest of the Shimshak brood of 15, a number well beyond that of a “typical” American household.

How it All Began
When the Shimshaks married in February 1990, they had a ready-made family of six—with Margaret’s boys Eric, Brian, Danny, and Davin and Mike’s girls, Aurora and Zenda, from previous marriages. That December, they had their first child together, Ben, followed two years later by twins Shannon and Shawn.

“By that time, I was almost 40,” recalled Margaret. “The twins were a hard pregnancy, because of my age and because they were twins.”

It was then the Shimshaks made the difficult decision to not have any more biological children. Yet, despite the size of their family, then numbering nine, they still wanted more children. So, they turned to adoption.

Meet Sarah, from India
Since the Shimshaks were already a large family, the adoption agency they contacted told them they had to be open to a special-needs child in order to adopt.

“We figured we could do that because I’m a nurse and Mike’s a teacher,” said Margaret. 

So when the agency called and asked if the Shimshaks would take a baby that was “short in stature,” Mike and Margaret agreed. Sarah, from India, became their 10th child in 1997. As it turned out, “short in stature” meant Sarah had achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism. 

Sarah is lucky. She doesn’t have many of the problems children with achondroplasia normally have, like severe joint problems and an enlarged skull and facial features. “She has some joint problems but the doctor is amazed at how well she’s functioning. He said a lot of it is due to her muscle strength, which is so strong her joints are actually getting more solid,” said Margaret.

Brothers from Ethiopia
Within a year of adopting Sarah, the Shimshaks put their name in for another child. But, month after month, their application was overlooked. After repeated calls, they were told the social workers thought their family was too big. They began contacting other agencies and finally reached Americans for African Adoptions, an organization that accepted larger families. So within two years of adopting Sarah, the Shimshaks had added two brothers from Ethiopia, six-year-old Getasew and four-year-old Bezuayehu (“Bezzy”). 

“The boys had been in a hospital. Not because they were sick but because they went there when their father had surgery. He died and the hospital just kept the boys until they were adopted,” explained Margaret. 

Twins ... and a Big Sister
By this time, Margaret’s boys had all become adults and left the nest. The Shimshak team of 12 was down to just eight living at home. But eight was not enough. Soon, Mike and Margaret contacted Americans for African Adoptions to request another child. They were presented with twins, Feven and Rosa, whom they renamed Margaret Feven and Michelle Rosa. The girls had been abandoned outside a clinic in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.

But the additional two quickly became three. Getasew and Bezzy had an older sister, Tadela. She too was at the hospital the day their father died but the Shimshaks were told she’d “disappeared.”

A degree of mystery surrounds her adoption status. While the Shimshaks were in the process of adopting Margaret and Michelle, a government official contacted the adoption agency and told their agent that Tadela was in Gondar and available for adoption. While this was good news, it was also a problem since the agent wasn’t told where to find her.

As it turns out, the agent inquired about Tadela’s whereabouts at the hospital and was told to come back the next day. And there was Tadela. The hospital had known where she was the entire time.

 “We don’t know the whole story yet. She’s telling us she lived with a doctor and nurse. Our agent was told she was a servant. Why she all of a sudden became available for adoption, we don’t know,” said Margaret.

Forming Bonds
Adopting children turned out to be more of a blessing than the Shimshaks had anticipated. “It was much better for Aurora and Zenda,” said Mike. “They joined the family more when the others came.”

But bringing new children into their home, especially those from a foreign culture, wasn’t easy. “Everybody loved Sarah,” recalled Margaret. “But she hadn’t been socialized much in the orphanage. They had a social hour where they were taken from their playpens and put together in a room. From that experience, she developed a lot of hitting and biting habits because she had to fend off kids that were bigger than her. So it took a while for her to get over that. But not too long; she’s a real sweetheart.”

Adapting to a new culture isn’t easy, especially for those coming from a Third World country to the wealthiest country in the world. “When we go into stores, they often can’t understand why we don’t just buy everything we want. They think because we have a lot of stuff, we can buy everything they want, too. We just have to tell them no,” said Margaret.

Luckily, there have been few problems with racism in the community. For the most part, the Shimshaks’ large, multicultural family has been well received by the Tigerton community, population 815. “It’s been positive,” said Mike. “They’ve been very accepting and it’s expanded their vision of what a family can be. Because I’m in a position of leadership, I think I was able to provide an example that was multiracial and not be called into question about it. We didn’t make an issue of choosing multiracial children. It really was never a question. We see beyond that.”

Perhaps the person who experienced the most difficulty transitioning to life in America was Tadela. Tadela was the oldest child the Shimshaks adopted. “Overall, she’s doing very well,” said Mike. “They all go through stages.” Margaret agreed. “It’s a grieving process. Tadela’s is just more apparent. She misses her friends. She misses her culture. The food.”

The Shimshaks understand that leaving one’s culture isn’t easy. That’s why items from the children’s homelands can be found throughout their home. From the Ethiopian tapestry in the living room and the cookbooks in the kitchen, to the history and language books and tapes from India and Africa, Mike and Margaret want to ensure their adopted children don’t lose touch with their roots. 

“We encourage them to continue talking in their own language. Getasew and Bezuayehu have really forgotten most of their language but their sister knows it and writes it really well. She speaks it to the kids all of the time. She’s even teaching Ben how to write in her language,” said Margaret. “When the kids get bigger, we plan to travel with them and take them back to their own countries to visit.”

How Do They Do It?
The Shimshaks estimated the cost for their six adopted children totals $75,000. That doesn’t include the cost of food, clothing, health care, and other costs associated with raising children. “We had the resources to do it,” added Mike. “When we thought about material wealth vs. the wealth of relationships, relationships won out.”

Had they chosen not to adopt the children, quipped Mike, “we could be rich.” But there’s never been a doubt in the mind of either Shimshak that they made the right decision. “I actually asked myself what I could do to make the world a better place. I thought about what I do best. Well, I’m a good nurse, good counselor, and all of that, but I’m a good parent, too, and that was something we could do,” said Margaret.

Still, it isn’t easy raising a family of 12. In addition to Mike’s job as school superintendent, Margaret is a registered nurse at nursing homes in Wittenburg and Clintonville. She works evenings and every other weekend while pursuing a degree in social work so she can make a difference for parents of large families looking to adopt children.

The Shimshaks also farm their own land, raise horses, and practice economy by raising their own animals for meat and by gardening. What they don’t grow, they buy in bulk. Plus, Margaret has a detailed system for hand-me-downs.

The Tigerton community has pitched in, too. “They’ve been good to us as far as dropping off bags of clothes and, if they have something going on at church and there’s leftover food, they’ll bring the leftovers here. We’re not proud. We feel it’s for the kids,” said Mike.

But the Shimshaks, who will be moving soon to Lodi where Mike has been named school superintendent, make sure they’re not the only target of the community’s goodwill. “There are others in the community who need food,” said Margaret. “And we make sure they’ve been given some, too.”

Clearly, the Shimshaks’ primary concern is for their children’s welfare. But with the amount of work involved in raising that many children, it doesn’t leave much time for Mike and Margaret. “We don’t go out on many dates,” said Mike. “Instead, we look to the future.”

Will the Shimshak Family Continue to Grow?
“We’ll see. We have to settle down a little first,” said Mike.
“Our agent has offered us another, a little boy,” replied Margaret.
“Oh yeah?”
“She said it’s hard for her to find homes for little boys.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“She’s willing if we are.”
“We’ll have to build a bigger house,” said Mike. “Might happen.”
“We always say this is the last one and then we get them here and it feels like, ‘Oh, there must be room for at least one more,’” said Margaret.

The Shimshaks' Adoption Advice

  • Start the process early. Adoptions often take 1-2 years.
  • Find a good agency, with a good reputation, that is willing to work with your family.
  • Understand your options and be clear about your choices. Are you interested in domestic or foreign adoption? Are you open to children of other ethnic backgrounds? Would you accept a child with special needs?
  • Be prepared for a long wait and government bureaucracy.
  • Anticipate heartache. At times, children become “unavailable” at the last minute or the time of their arrival is postponed.
  • Be persistent and follow up when you don’t hear back from the agency.

Adoption Web Sites
Americans for African Adoptions

Adoptive Families of America

Catholic Charities

The National Adoption Information Clearinghouse

The National Resource Center for Special Needs Adoptions NRC-adoption.html

Beth Erickson ’93