“The God to?whom little boys?say their prayers?has a face?very like their?mothers.” ? James Matthew Barrie, Scottish author
Up until just a few months ago, if you asked Melissa Blackington how many children she had, she would have said two. But, ever since New Year’s Day, the answer has been seven.
That’s because Blackington and her husband, Rusty, have stepped in to raise the five children of a deceased and beloved friend alongside their own two.
It was last Halloween when the Blackingtons made the final decision to take in all five adopted children of their friend, Gloria Zunser, 59, who was dying of liver cancer. Their action meant that the five could stay together, instead of being split up into separate homes.
“I now refer to them all as my son or daughter, whether they’re a Blackington or a Zunser, and I try very hard not to differentiate between any of my kids,” Melissa Blackington said.
“It’s very easy to love them all. Each one is special in their own way and adds something special to my life. It’s a true joy for me,” she added.
Blackington admitted there are days she wishes she could clone herself, but said she always tries hard to give each child her undivided attention when they need it the most.
“I never stumble. I always say I have seven kids. In fact, I love saying I have seven kids,” Blackington said.
When it gets too overwhelming, Blackington said all she has to do is remember that Gloria Zunser was a single mother of five.
“I just stop and think that if Gloria could mother all five children by herself, there’s no reason I can’t mother seven when I have my husband’s help,” she said.
According to Blackington, Zunser, who was an orthodontist, and her husband, Gene, divorced almost five years ago.
Gene Zunser is in his 60s and although he’s still heavily involved in the children’s lives, she said, he didn’t feel up to raising five kids, ranging in age from 7 to 14, on his own. In addition, Blackington said, Gloria Zunser’s siblings all live out of state and have families of their own to support.
The original plan was for the Blackingtons to move into Zunser’s spacious six-bedroom home in Lyman while she was still alive, in order to give everyone a chance to adjust and for Melissa and Rusty to learn the ins and outs of operating the Zunser home, as well as the kids’ disparate schedules.
But Zunser failed faster than even her doctors anticipated. She was moved to a local hospice on New Year’s Eve and died just hours later. So, the Blackingtons moved, lock, stock and barrel, into the Zunser home and lived out of suitcases for several weeks.
They are now a family of nine, which also includes three dogs, four cats, 20 chickens, a parrot and two guinea pigs. And, wherever the Blackington-Zunser family goes they have to take two cars because they don’t have a single vehicle large enough to accommodate them all.
The seven children in the Blackington-Zunser family are Aman Zunser, 7, and his brother Surafel, 13, who are from Ethiopia; Neal Zunser, 12, from Cambodia; Leah Zunser, 9, and Chad Zunser, 14, who are both from Vietnam; Julia Blackington, 10, and Dylan Blackington, 14.
The plan is for the Blackingtons to formally adopt Aman and Surafel, since Gloria Zunser adopted the brothers after her divorce. But, they will only be the guardians for the other three, Chad, Neal and Leah, since their adoptive father is still in the picture.
In addition to trying to respond to each child’s needs on the spot, Blackington said she is attempting to spend one-on-one time with each child, where they do something special just for the two of them.
With the addition of five more children to her family, Blackington realizes it’s even more important that she also make time for herself.
She tries to have lunch with a friend regularly and find time during almost every day to just sit and read or do nothing. Every two weeks she gets her nails done.
“I know it’s very important to have time to myself and to keep a sense of self, otherwise I wouldn’t be a very good parent,” Blackington added.
Along with the help of her husband, the Blackington-Zunser family has also benefited greatly from the support of the wider Lyman community, as well as the community at Lyman Elementary School, which stepped up enormously and helped the Blackington-Zunsers get through the first couple weeks by providing dinner for the whole family every night.
In fact, Blackington said, people she didn’t even know were dropping off food and asking if there was anything they could do to help.
“Words can never express how much this community has done for us or how thankful we are that they’ve rallied around us and helped us through. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Blackington said.
Melissa and Rusty Blackington both said they thought they were prepared for becoming a large family, but things they didn’t count on include the many loads of laundry that need to be done every day, the enormous amount of food they consume and the amount of trash they produce.
Another issue is that there’s not currently enough bedrooms to go around – there are six – so the Blackington children don’t really have any privacy. Rusty said one of the first things to be accomplished once the snow melts is building his children proper bedrooms.
Even with the many challenges they’ve faced since taking on the Zunser children, Melissa Blackington said she and Rusty wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We actually believe it was fate for us to do this,” she said.
Melissa and Rusty Blackington have added the five children of a beloved friend to their family after the friend’s death from cancer on New Year’s Eve. The combined family now numbers nine. From left are Melissa Blackington; Julia Blackington, 10; Neal Zunser, 12; Surafel Zunser, 13; Dylan Blackington, 14; Chad Zunser, 14; Rusty Blackington; and Aman Zunser, 7. On the back of the couch is Leah Zunser, 9.