Self-described as “just an ordinary country girl,” Morene “Mo” Thompson grew up with a small, loving and hard-working family in rural Streator. But now, with learning the Portuguese language, traveling to Brazil, being honored by the U.S. Congress and narrowly avoiding 9-11 during the adoption process, the mother of 18 children no longer has what most people would call an “ordinary” life. Early on in their marriage, Mo and her husband, Steve Thompson, realized adoption was calling them and the Tremont couple have dedicated themselves to their loving, hard-working family. In honor of Parents’ Day on July 22, we share the family’s story.
After graduating from Streator High School in 1976—her husband still likes to boast of track records she earned there—Mo Thompson earned an associate’s degree of science from Illinois Valley Community College and then transferred to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It was in college that she found Steven Thompson—“the man of her dreams” and her “knight in shining armor.” “I was an undergraduate and he a graduate student—actually an instructor in one of my classes—in the field of therapeutic recreation. I graduated in 1981 with a Bachelor of Science in therapeutic recreation, and we were married one week later,” Mo said. “We lived in East Peoria for over a year and then bought a house in Tremont—a wonderful little community where God has planted us to live, raise our family and serve Him.”
Mo and Steve have put their collaborative skills to use at their Tremont church, Northfield Christian Fellowship, where she teaches and Steve is a minister in addition to his duties as the CEO and president of Easter Seal Rehabilitation Center. Their children—Tiffany, Luke, Ashley, Joshua, Tyler, Faith, Joy, Hosanna, Parker, Hope, Selah, Isaiah, Gloria, Gabriel, Liberty, Grace, Violet and Titus— range in age from 4 to 24 and are also involved at the church leading worship, special programs, music ministry and youth group.
The large family began its first growth spurt in 1992. As Steve and Mo’s four biological children began outgrowing their clothes at a rapid rate, the couple began praying for an answer on what to do with the items. The quite unexpected answer they got was “build an ark.” About three months later, after receiving a prayer request to find a home for two young boys, the family welcomed the boys into their home. A year later, a call came in from a friend about two girls who needed a home and Steve and Mo answered by adopting the girls. By 1997, the ark was getting a bit cramped, so they added almost 2,000 square feet in three tiers—lower, middle and upper floors.
The expansion was definitely a good move because in 2000, friends alerted Steve and Mo to a sibling group of five children who were up for adoption at an orphanage in Brazil. On September 1, 2001, after a year of paperwork, Portuguese lessons and six weeks of living in Brazil with the four girls and boy, they arrived at their new home in Tremont. If the Brazilian judge had not waived the additional 10 days of required waiting, the family would have been traveling home on September 11, 2001.
"We have been blessed far beyond our wildest imaginations, and we could not imagine life without even one of our precious children,” Mo said. In total, four of the Thompson children were adopted from central Illinois and the other 10 were adopted from Brazil. Since most of their Brazilian children did not know any English, the couple began teaching English within the first day of meeting them and read to them in English as well. “By the time we got home they could communicate more amazingly than we would have ever dreamed,” Mo said. “We began school right away once we were home and focused mostly on English and math. We began at a pre-school level, and before long, they were breaking up into different grade levels and doing amazing things.” The entire family continues to work on their bilingual skills. The six-week cohabitation period also greatly helped reduce the children’s struggles, which varied with each child. “By the time we got home, we had become family. The children know us and trust us and already have some sense of what it means to be a Thompson,” Mo said. “It takes an incredible amount of courage and trust for an older child to move to a new country, with a new language, culture and almost all new people in your life.”
While the Thompsons say they are blessed to have each other, the family wasn’t easily assembled. International adoption requires much paperwork, more agencies are involved in both countries and it is expensive. But the family has been helped through it all by an outpouring of gifts, money and support from their church and the Peoria area community.
“We will never forget sitting on our bed late at night in our room at the orphanage (in Brazil) or in a hotel in an obscure village in southern Brazil. So far from so many of our loved ones, including some of our beloved children and grandchildren, with tears streaming down our faces as we read the reports…which listed the financial gifts received for our adoption process,” Mo said. “We felt so cared for, even though things around us were seemingly difficult and stressful. People do the most incredible things for us—food, clothing, furniture and labor—all kinds of gifts of love just show up at our door. Our hearts are continually blessed!” Mo compares the adoption process to pregnancy, as there is an unbelievable excitement in “finding out that you are expecting,” then anticipation, preparing and waiting to hold the children in your arms. But the family’s good sense of humor and faith has propelled them through the obstacles and could possibly again. As Mo says, “The Thompson Ark door is open until the Lord closes it.”
The family was honored by the U.S. Congress as Angels in Adoption after Illinois Congressman Ray LaHood nominated them for the award. “It was an honor for us,” Mo said of the award. “We have so much appreciation for (LaHood) and his supportive staff. However, we do not consider what we do unusual or worthy of recognition. It’s just our life. It’s what we’re called to do. We love our life and often feel like we’re the richest people in the world, for we are the ones who receive the blessings.” The family is Mo’s full-time ministry and full-time work. “I am involved in many activities simply by virtue of my support role in my husband’s and children’s involvements, activities and responsibilities,” Mo said. As the president and CEO of the Easter Seal Rehabilitation Center, Steve is at work for much of the day; and Mo has work of her own to do at home.
Now well established in an organized but flexible routine, Mo starts her day at 4 a.m. with Bible study and preparation for teaching. At 7 a.m., Mo has breakfast ready and then it’s on to clean up and seeing some of the children off to public school. For the other nine children, home school starts after 45 minutes of morning fitness. At 8:15 a.m., journal and creative writing begin and then other subjects follow until around 3:30 p.m. In between learning sessions, Mo and the children attack the 50 loads of laundry that would otherwise pile up each week. Others help with grading papers, computer homework and flashcards.
After school, everyone is responsible for folding and putting away his or her clothes and completing any other household chores. Supper preparations begin at 4 p.m. as well as a jump start on baths. Fortunately, the Thompsons are blessed with wonderful friends like Bob and Judy Gallagher, who help with the twice-monthly grocery shopping duty. Hauling in 16 gallons of milk, 10 dozen eggs, five bunches of bananas, four bags of apples, eight bags of carrots, four bags of broccoli, four bags of cauliflower, 40 pounds of flour, 20 pounds of sugar, six boxes of chicken patties and more, isn’t easy. Between 6 and 7 p.m., a huge dinner is on the table and family time begins. “Steve makes it interesting, unexpected, hilarious and challenging. He catches us up on the day, tells us about world or community events, makes someone stand up and say or do something unexpected—and you’d better be ready to perform—he doesn’t allow shyness!” Mo said. “We try to keep the conversations to one at a time, but often, we just can’t help ourselves. Thompsons tend to like to talk—all at once!”
Growing up, Mo loved helping her parents and two sisters work on their beautiful 16-acre ranch. And now her children also thrive in their rural setting just outside of Tremont. “Living in a big farmhouse provides a lot of opportunity for children…for there is always work to be done—mowing and yard work, gardening, cutting, splitting and hauling wood for the woodstove, animal chores, shoveling snow, cooking and doing laundry,” Mo said. “Country living is also a blessing in terms of family relationships. We are each others’ best friends. The children have each other to play with and spend more time at home with their family.” When asked what Mo does to reward herself at the end of each day, she laughed. “I go to bed,” Mo said. “I do not need a reward; I have been rewarded all day.” TPW