When Diana Johnson was a little girl, her mother would tell a story about a man who lived on the hill above their family farm. According to the local tale, this man was the richest in the entire world because he had 18 children. At the time, this puzzled Johnson, as his house seemed rather ordinary. But now, she knows exactly what her mother meant.
With open and loving arms, Johnson, an adoption counselor at New Hope Family Services, and her husband of 39 years, Dave, a retired deputy fire chief, have welcomed 29 children into their Tully home. Yes, 29. Or what Dave fondly refers to as their “League of Nations.” Together they have reared 17 (three “homemade” and 14 adopted) and fostered 12 newborns, along with young birth mothers in crisis, while waiting for their latest international adoption to process.
“I feel like the richest lady in the world. The most treasured thing you will ever have is your children,” Johnson said. “We’ve lived in the same house for 28 years. It’s not a fancy house but it’s served us well.”
But come April 16, the family must pack up their three bedroom, two bath ranch-style home and move out. Just for three weeks, that is.
After two nominations and one close call to be on ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” the Syracuse Fire Department with Scott McClurg, a retired fireman and president of McClurg Remodeling and Construction Services, and Engine 8 Captain Bob Whitehead have rallied the community to take on the project locally. (At the time of print, 200 volunteers have already pledged to help.)
“Having worked with Dave for more than 35 years, I learned that he is a very unassuming individual. He has never asked for help once,” McClurg said, noting that his former SFD comrade suffers from a disease that could soon take his ability to speak and understand speech. “I knew that he had a lot of kids, but I never realized how many until my family and I saw them at Song Mountain skiing one weekend. Seeing them you really saw that they give it their all. They are a beautiful family.”
The Johnson’s first daughter, Rebecca Rogers, 36, of LaFayette, said that while it’s been hard to witness her father’s health decline, it’s also been sad to see her childhood home falling apart. “They’ve never had a new couch. Everything was either donated or bought used. We grew up with hand-me-downs. We would get bags of clothes from the church and it felt like Christmas. It’s never been about them,” Rogers said. “My father would go to work in ratty jeans because he gave every last dime to make sure that we had what we needed. As an adult, it blows my mind to realize how much my parents sacrificed.”
With eight children currently residing at home and no inch to spare, the house will undergo a total gut renovation — new bathrooms (including the couple’s first master bathroom), five bedrooms, flooring, roofing, siding, electrical wiring, generator system, landscaping (with a patio and grill area), an entry foyer, new appliances and furniture and handicap accessibility for Dave and their son, Andrew, who has Crohn’s disease. To alleviate concerns about future maintenance for the busy family, McClurg has arranged to keep the landscaping cleaned for the next four years.
When asked what he’s most excited about, 15-year-old David Johnson immediately responded, getting a new room that doesn’t have so many holes in the walls. “The whole experience has been really awesome,” he added. “My parents are great and take us everywhere when we need it. It’s nice that they’re getting something back for everything they’ve given to everyone else.”
Diana said they are extremely thankful for the makeover (especially a bigger kitchen since she loves to cook and with spouses and eight grandchildren holiday gatherings can bring 34 people into their house) and amazed by the support, although they find the attention rather hard to accept. “We don’t feel that we’ve done anything special. Other people have done it. We’ve got our kids. That’s all we care about,” she said. “The kids are the ones who should be celebrated; they are what make our story so wonderful.”
Both from large families — Diana one of four and Dave one of nine — raising children was always the plan once the two knew they would wed. “Dave would say, ‘maybe we can have six’ and I’d say, ‘maybe we can have four,’” she said with a laugh. “We never dreamed that this was going to happen. We never pursued the adoptions; children with hard to place situations came to us, God willing.” When asked how she’s run such a tight ship over the years, Johnson humbly points out that not all 17 were living at home at once; the most was 12.
It was three years after getting married, that Diana and Dave adopted their first child, Tim, from Korea. During the process, Johnson discovered that she was pregnant with their first homemade child. When it came time to adopt again, they considered bringing home a second child from Korea, but learned that little girls in India were in drastic need. Enter Rani. “When we got her, she was two-and-a-half years old and weighed 17 pounds,” Johnson said. “Rani was so weak that she couldn’t even lift her leg up on the couch.” The youngest adopted children are a young girl and sibling group from war-torn Sierra Leone.
“We first took a little girl, our Hannah, who’d never worn shoes, brushed her teeth or colored with crayons. She was afraid to ride in cars. She would run through the house turning the light switches on and off, open and shut the refrigerator door and hide food in her closet on instinct,” Johnson said. “It was wonderful to be able to give her things and tuck her in at night. It was like a flower that just opened up once we got her.” Johnson recalled her favorite memory: watching Hannah tie a doll that they had given her to her back, while pounding graham crackers like it was cornmeal.
“My mom and dad have been a blessing to me. They have given me a life and provided me with shelter,” Hannah Johnson, 18, said. “The most important values that they have taught me is to love and that everyone has family.”
From the very beginning, Diana and Dave set out to “spoil” their children with care and compassion, and to teach them that there are more important things in life than material needs or wants. “When I grew up, my mother set a beautiful table with china; we’ve gone from china to nice paper plates. I don’t think my girls even know how to set a pretty table. Instead, we’ve tried to teach them to have a strong faith in God and that people of all ethnic backgrounds can live together and love each other. None of us see the color, and if that can spill over into the next generation, then we’ve done something,” Johnson said.
Being the first “homegrown” child, Rogers was there to witness the adoptions of her siblings. She admits that while growing up Johnson could be hectic, it was never awkward and she never felt resentful. “My parents have the exceptional quality to show one on one love to all of the children,” she said. “We always blended in a very unique way. I wouldn’t trade any one of them for a million dollars.”
So, is the Johnson family complete? For now, Diana said, but admitted with a laugh, “I have trouble not calling Scott and saying make the house bigger so I can adopt some more!” Rogers, whose middle son is adopted, joked that they had to tie Johnson down after the Haiti earthquake to keep her from rushing there to adopt.
But as she further pondered the thought of never taking in another child, a warm smile spread across her face and her kind eyes filled with tears. “I just can’t imagine being done,” Johnson said. This is a woman who has truly found wealth in what matters most.
The Johnson Family Home Project
WHO: Dave and Diana Johnson and their 17 children
WHY: The Johnsons are a beloved and respected family in the Syracuse community, who are in dire need of a home renovation. The house requires substantial repairs and modifications to make it handicap accessible, which they do not have the resources or time to complete on their own.
WHAT: An architectural plan has been designed by local architect Guy Donahue and Scott McClurg to help transform the Johnson’s three bedroom, two bath ranch-style home into a much larger space. Syracuse firefighters, who are leading the effort, and other community volunteers, will work 24 hours a day (in three shifts) for three weeks to complete the whole-house renovation.
WHEN: The project is set to begin April 16 and completed May 7, when those involved will be able to tell the team to “move that fire truck” as the new home is revealed to the Johnson family.
HOW: To volunteer, make a material or monetary donation or just to simply follow the progress, go to www.facebook.com/JohnsonFamilyHomeProject. Interested participants can contact McClurg at 315-673-4305 or Bob Whitehead at 315-436-1001. Project organizers are still seeking volunteers who are electricians or skilled in carpentry, drywall installation, framing, floor sanding, trim work and painting. Electrical supplies, appliances, furniture and monetary contributions are also greatly needed.