Brian Harre never thought he would have 12 children. And as stressful as it can be sometimes, it's also wonderful. Raising children, trying to teach them to be responsible, hard-working citizens and kind, loving Christians, is the best thing he's done. He believes the American family is in crisis. Brian feels like what he is doing makes a small part of the world better.
"Dads need to have a presence," said Brian, 43.
His children are his purpose, his reason for mustering energy after a long day at his air-conditioning business, sometimes after family dinner went on without him, so he can wrestle with the kids and ask them about their day and follow up on the things they said they were going to do.
They are the reason why, years ago, he gave up golf on the weekends and anything else that doesn't involve the family. They are the reason why he and his wife, Tammy, 42, live in a rambling two-story house where spilling is okay, on four acres with a lake, a boat, a jungle gym, a trampoline, a vegetable garden and a menagerie of animals: Bubba the cow, Flower the miniature donkey, QTPie the miniature horse, Tasha the mutt, a pig and piglets, cats and kittens, chickens and chicks, all there because the kids like them and taking care of them teaches the children responsibility, even though Brian secretly isn't an animal person.
They have six bedrooms and five are full of bunk beds. The washing machine constantly hums. They go through a gallon of milk a day and ride around in a 14-person van, outfitted with extra seats bought used online. A drumbeat of feet pound the carpeted stairs. Someone, somewhere, in the house always needs something. There are educational field trips. Dance lessons and recitals. Gymnastics, piano, soccer. Five are homeschooled. All but the eldest, a 23-year-old son, live at home. The youngest is 4.
Seven were adopted. One is a foster child who has been with them nearly all her life.
Brian and Tammy want to adopt her — and more kids, if the opportunity arises.
"This is our role," Brian said.
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They married young and knew they wanted a large family. Brian quit his job as an elementary school teacher in Hillsborough because his $21,900 a year salary wouldn't be enough for Tammy to stay home with the children they planned to have. Brian revived his father's air-conditioning business, Northside AC & Electrical Services, which had slowed in his dad's retirement. Brian taught himself thermodynamics. When they struggled to get pregnant, Tammy left her job at a photo lab and took one as a data clerk, because the insurance covered infertility treatments.
It took four and a half years, but then it worked: Brian Jr. was born in 1998. Then came son William, daughter Brilea, son Walker. Tammy stayed home with the kids. Brian's business soared, giving them a comfortable life they hadn't expected.
Brian and Tammy are both Southern Baptists and strong in their faith. With his newfound affluence and desire to help others, Brian invited two distant cousins to stay at their house for a week or two: Robbie and Amanda, teenaged half-siblings whose mother was dead and fathers were absent.
But then Robbie asked for more. He wrote Brian and Tammy a note. "Can I live here?" it said. "Check yes or no."
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They said yes, and continued to say yes when it came to kids.
"We have never gone out looking for children," Tammy said. "We were just open to what God had for us."
An old friend of Brian's called and asked if they could keep her 9-month-old daughter. Now they had seven children. Brian and Tammy decided to take parenting classes to see if they could learn anything new. Those classes led to taking classes through Eckerd Community Alternatives to become certified foster parents.
As foster parents, they got a call a few years ago: A 2-year-old girl needed a place to stay for a week while her foster mother took a break. Brian and Tammy learned the girl was one of five siblings, all in the system, all sleeping in the same bed because they were terrified of being split up.
They said they could take them. After all, it was just for a week. The eldest of the five siblings, Vanessa, turned 13 and they had a birthday party for her. The group melded easily with the other seven. Brian and Tammy got two letters: One from their son Brian, asking if the siblings could stay, and the other from Vanessa, asking the same thing.
"We need to pray about this," Brian said.
It would mean a dozen kids. But Brian and Tammy felt like they were being called to do this.
"How can we deny it to little ones such as these?" he said.
The siblings were officially adopted in January. Now, Brian and Tammy are looking for a large piece of land, 50 to 100 acres, where they could create a place for teenaged mothers to live and learn how to be parents. They feel this is their path.
• • •
There have been devastating times, when their kids were troubled and cussed them and raged at the world. There likely will be more in the future.
"This is not a fairy tale," Tammy said.
The adopted children had rough lives. Getting them to trust and feel secure is huge. Brian takes the children out for special one-on-one time, sometimes to a park or fishing or out to eat. He tells them he isn't going anywhere. He tells them he loves their mom and she isn't going anywhere. He kisses her and hugs her in front of them, to show them what a healthy marriage is supposed to be like. He believes in structure and taking responsibility for actions. All of the kids do chores. Brian used to believe in tough love. But now he believes in unconditional love.
"You think you are going to change them," Brian said. "But, really, God gives you the children you have to grow and mold you into the person you are supposed to be."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3405.