How this Laity Lodge Family Grew and Grew and Grew

If everyone in Leakey, Texas, knows the Spaniel family, that’s because they’re pretty hard to miss: there is not another family quite like this one. The Spaniels have three natural-born kids, plus five more they adopted as babies with extreme medical needs, plus seven more foster children over the years.

The Spaniel family—and their incredible story—have become something of a fixture the last four summers at Laity Lodge Family Camp.

Their first adopted twins, Nathan and Nigel from Palestine, Texas, were born addicted to crack cocaine. Nathan was also born blind and deaf, a side effect of the cocaine in his system. Nigel has Down Syndrome, a condition unrelated to his birth mother’s drug use.

Caring for the twins would be an around-the-clock job that might turn away many foster parents, especially ones like Mark and Terri, who already had three biological children and two full-time jobs. Mark was (and is) the pastor of Leakey First Baptist Church, and Terri was the director of the only childcare program in Leakey at the time.

They were not deterred.

The entire family fell in love with Nathan and Nigel, and about a year and a half later, Mark and Terri finalized the adoption. That was in 1995. Nathan and Nigel have been Spaniels for 25 years.

On a recent visit to Kerrville, the Spaniels shared their story. “I’ve always felt a need to adopt ever since I was a little girl,” Terri Spaniel said. Her husband squirmed in his seat and added that he has never had that calling, but willingly follows his wife wherever she is led.

The Spaniels’ oldest child, Karah, was 10 years old when Nathan and Nigel arrived, and she developed a special bond with Nathan. “He had some sensory issues as a baby and toddler,” she said, “which meant that he was often overwhelmed and easily upset.”

“For some reason, I could calm him,” Karah explained, “so I would spend hours every day holding him.” To this day, Karah says it has been a joy to be Nathan’s big sister and now his friend.

Today, Nathan lives in North Texas with friends. His hearing and vision have improved—years of therapy helped him tremendously—though he is still on dialysis despite a recent kidney transplant.

Nigel still lives with his mom and dad in Leakey. For a while he worked part time at Mama Chole’s, the town’s local Mexican restaurant. Customers loved interacting with him.

Nathan and Nigel were just the first expansion of the Spaniel clan. Mark and Terri didn’t foster or adopt additional children for nearly 10 years because the twins were such a handful, but in 2003, they reached out to Pathways Youth and Family Services in Kerrville, Texas, hoping to foster another medically needy child.

When Pathways called the Spaniels, they were ready. An 11-month-old girl had been shaken severely in San Antonio by her mother’s boyfriend and was heading into brain surgery. Mark and Terri rushed to the hospital and met Destiny.

“She was the most beautiful red-headed baby girl,” Terri said. The Spaniels adopted Destiny when she was three.

Before she was shaken, Destiny was a normal healthy girl. After the incident—deemed a non-accidental traumatic brain injury—she was in bad shape. “The doctors told us she would face a lot of problems,” Terri said.

The doctors were right. Now 17, Destiny is legally blind and mostly nonverbal. Terri and Mark feed her through a tube three times each day. She will need full-time care for the rest of her life. She is a source of joy for the Spaniels. On Sunday mornings at church, she dances while her dad plays piano and even sings in her own way.

Terri and Mark still weren’t done.

Terri remembers when Destiny was very young. Their youngest biological child was still at home, plus the twins. Pathways would call them regularly to ask if they could take any more children.

“I was feeling kind of guilty about being selfish,” Terri said.

That’s when she learned about Victoria and Hailey. Their mother had been stabbed outside a gentleman’s club in San Antonio where she worked. The girls were in danger and needed to get out of the city for two weeks.

Terri said, “I didn’t even tell Mark. Two weeks? We’ll do it.”

Two weeks turned into more weeks of foster care until the girls were adopted into the family. Because that’s what Mark and Terri do.

Today, Victoria is graduated from high school and moved out of the house. “Victoria has always been very motherly towards Destiny,” Terri said.

Victoria’s younger sister Hailey is 16 years old and recently a homecoming princess at her high school this past fall.

This family of ten has spent some enjoyable summers out at Laity Lodge Family Camp. Mark and Terri share that LLFC has been a source of life for them as a family. It has been a place for them to max out their time with their children in a worry-free setting.

The Spaniels have taken on more than their share of worries. What motivates a family to do that? When so many families struggle to take care of themselves, how can Mark and Terri be so generous?

I asked them outright, “How does this work? Why do you do this?” They said simply, “We don’t know. It’s just always been of interest to us.”

But when I pushed more they talked about their biological kids, Karah, Micah, and Joah.

“There were times when I know they didn’t like our family dynamic,” Terri said, “but I’ve always thought it builds character.”

It certainly seems to have had an impact. Their daughter Karah is now a Special Education teacher, and she and her husband fostered children early in their marriage. Micah is still close with his brother Nigel.

“I always wanted my kids to not be selfish,” Terri said, “my big kids, my biological children. What better way to show them than to bring in kids who had nothing?”

More from this issue

Running Together to Heal Together

A Band of Runners treks across the Canyon during their Foundation Camp retreat in November.

Calling Us to Know Our Neighbors

Recapping a lunchtime conversation on hunger and poverty that we hosted in October.

What Birds Are Telling Us About the Environment

What bird songs teach us about the health of the Frio River Canyon.

What We Learned When We Asked About Your Community

Peek at the results of a survey we sent out and what your answers are telling us about the work ahead.