Over the course nearly two decades, an of astounding 250-plus foster children have received temporary refuge in the home of Ann and Ralph Fullmer. Eight of them stayed and were adopted, joining the Fullmers’ biological sons Ralph Jr. and Darrell.
Yet Ann, 62, insists, “We’re nothing special. We’re just us. They’re my kids.”
This is a great understatement.
She is the epitome of what Mother’s Day celebrates: dedication, constancy and unfailing love. Her need to reach out to children when they needed her most is what sets her apart.
Her philosophy, she says, is simple. “If I were falling off a cliff, I’d want someone to take my hand. That’s what we did. We didn’t care what was attached to the other end.”
Ann and Ralph, 68, have a beautiful blended family reflecting Cape Verdean, African-American, Hispanic and mixed-race roots. Besides the biological sons, John is the only white child. “He calls himself ‘the cracker’,” says Ann, to much laughter from the others.
When she held each of them in her arms, she explains, she knew these were children who were meant to be hers. And they have made their parents proud.
Ralph Junior was a Navy captain and is a computer analyst; Darrell was an Army MP now serving as a police officer in Savannah, Ga.; Morgan is in restaurant service and has an adorable 20-month-old toddler named Mark; Dwayne, who struggled for years with epilepsy is training to become an EMT and his twin, Derrick has just retired from the Army as the result of combat injuries.
Allen served in the Marines for four years and was deployed to Iraq. He then joined the Army and was sent back to Iraq. John’s service includes Iraq, Afghanistan and Germany; Kevin, a member of the Army Reserves, describes himself as a master chief and no one denies it; his twin, Joy, is an artist who lives in Fort Bragg, N.C. where her husband is stationed with the Army. .
Paul just graduated from Exeter-West Greenwich High School where he played basketball.
On a recent morning, those who live locally join their folks in the welcoming red house on Nooseneck Hill Road in Exeter to reflect on the formation of this extraordinary family.
Married at 17 with sons born in 1967 and 1969, Ann recalls, “We knew we wanted to have more children and so many needed homes so we fostered for 17 years. After we bought the house in 1982, [the foster program] opened the possibility of adopting kids.”
When each one of these particular eight arrived, “It just felt right, like they weren’t supposed to leave. The social worker would bring one and say, ‘Here’s your child’.”
When they contemplated adopting the first pair, John and Allen, they sat down with their biological sons, who were in high school, and explained that, if they proceeded, the budget would have to be stretched. They were totally supportive.
“They said ‘That’s great! Do it!’ Darrell bagged groceries to make money for a car and Ralph joined ROTC so he could get his Army commission.”
Some of the arrivals kept their original names while others were named by their new parents; one named himself.
Ann explains, “When Allen was five he asked, ‘Could I be named Allen?’ He wanted to have the same name as his kindergarten teacher, a man he loved.”
Morgan instantly became Daddy’s Girl. “She still tries to be the little princess,” Kevin jokes.
The first twins, Derrick and Dwayne, arrived at the age of three months.
“I called Ralph at work,” says Ann, “and said ‘Congratulations! You’ve got twin boys!’”
“I almost passed out,” Ralph recalls.
Shortly thereafter, another set of infant twins – Kevin and Joy – arrived although the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) had told the Fullmers they’d maxed out on adoptions.
DCYF had been running increasingly frantic newspaper ads seeking a home for the babies who had been hospitalized with serious health issues. It was more than Ann could bear.
“I thought ‘This is driving me nuts. I need to call about these twins’.”
When she did, the social worker’s response was: Thank God.
Ann rushed around putting up cribs and called Ralph to come home early. The three-month-old babies were delivered the same afternoon. She remembers the social worker walking in, handing them over and saying, “Here are your new mom and dad.”
Paul, the last adopted, works construction and is still living at home.
“We were always together, all the time,” Morgan recalls. “We went to Disneyworld three times; we had a trampoline and played sports out back; we went camping all the time. It was never boring. We didn’t need other kids because we had each other.”
In a trade-off for the Mickey Mouse encounters, Ann says, “I made them go to Graceland. They were little and had no idea about Elvis. Here we were in the South and people came up and asked to hold them. Pretty soon Ralph and I looked around and everybody was holding our kids.
“They kept touching Morgan’s hair and saying ‘She’s just like us.’ They’d never seen a white couple with black children. We showed people you can have a family, have a bond. In a way, we were ambassadors.”
As the family grew, transportation became an issue.
“How are we going to do this?”, Ann recalls wondering. “I just gave it to God; I knew there was a way.” Sure enough, they learned that the University of Rhode Island had a 15-passenger van available and acquired it at a very good price.
“It was wonderful. I didn’t want them to say ‘Because there are so many of us we can’t do” things they wanted.
The Fullmers are far more interesting than the bland Brady Bunch.
Morgan is gorgeous, sunny and outgoing; Dwayne is devoted to his folks, doing all their yard work and vowing to care for them when they’re elderly; Derrick, is described by his siblings as “the pretty boy who had to have the flashy car”; Kyle is the clown who keeps everybody laughing even when he’s coping with asthma.
As kids they were immensely popular.
“They were the first children of color in kindergarten and Boy Scouts,” says Ann. “They were invited to birthday parties and sleepovers.”
Dwayne, who always enjoyed camping, hiking and riding, announces, “I hated Boy Scouts” before his dad reminds him that he earned an award at age 11 for saving his brother’s life.
“They were swimming and Paul, who was about three, took off his life jacket and went underwater,” says Ralph. Dwayne jumped in and held him up.”
Ann admits that things were sometimes chaotic – and costly.
“We had five kids under the age of two,” she says. “We went through hundreds of diapers a week. UPS started delivering cases of Pampers from the factory in New Hampshire because we were depleting the stock of the A&P in Hope Valley. We also had a separate [local] delivery service and I was washing cloth diapers.
“Everybody got potty trained real fast.”
Formula was another issue and Ann credits the Wood River Health Services with helping her get into the WIC program to assist with purchasing the 90 cans required to feed three kids for a month.
Then there was the chicken pox outbreak: They all had it at the same time.
“We took it in stride,” says Ann.
Derrick, whom his siblings says was “the drama guy, always faking being sick to get out of school,” was once the star of a real drama.
“He went out back to play with John and Allen,” says his mom. “John was convinced he was going to play for the Red Sox so he was throwing the ball as hard as possible.”
It was, his father interjects, “supposed to be a tennis ball but he sneaked in a real baseball.”
Although Ann advised him not to play with the bigger boys, Derrick insisted. “I looked out the window and they were all down crawling around on the ground. When I asked what they were doing they said ‘We’re trying to find Derrick’s teeth.’ Two of them got knocked out.”
Another time, Joy lost her hearing aid in the yard and, once again, it was all hands on deck. Ann offered a dollar reward to find it. “Dwayne was the bloodhound. He found everything. He would look all afternoon until he found something.”
Before Dwayne’s epilepsy was controlled with medication, he was hospitalized twice in the intensive care unit, in a coma. According to Ann, the doctor felt having his brothers, especially his twin, Derrick, at his bedside could turn things around. Derrick was fighting on the front lines in Iraq when he was pulled off and sent home.
Derrick and John, also given temporary leave from the military, arrived at the hospital where they pinned an infantryman’s crossed rifles insignia pin on Dwayne’s gown. Ann remembers all the nurses weeping.
The second time he was gravely ill, Derrick got what his mother calls a “twin’s intuition” and called home demanding to know why nobody had notified him that his brother was in the ICU again.
Turning to Kyle, Ann says her son, “sees the good in everybody” and, after living in a homeless shelter to experience what it was like, he gave the facility all his clothes.
“They’re all successful,” she says of her kids. “They’re happy with who they are and willing to help the next person. If you believe in God or [another power] you know this group was meant to be.
“We’re a family.”
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for Southern Rhode Island Newspapers and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .