An extraordinary family: The Clarks of McKeesport have adopted six Chinese children with disabilities

The world was amazed at Annie Clark's grit and determination when the first-grader won a national handwriting award despite being born without hands.

After her story appeared in the Post-Gazette in April, the Clark family of McKeesport received dozens of congratulatory messages and newspaper clips featuring Annie's story from around the world. There were also interview requests from network news shows and a family trip to Texas to appear on "The Glenn Beck Program."

The world was interested in knowing how the diminutive sweet-faced girl was able to persevere and succeed without hands. Not only could she produce award-winning penmanship, but she also can swim, ride a bike, paint her toenails, clip coupons with scissors, type on a keyboard and feed and dress herself in the frilly, sparkly outfits she loves.

Annie, who was adopted from China by Tom and Mary Ellen Clark, seemed surprised at the attention and the queries about her abilities. In this family, she's perfectly ordinary.

Over the past 17 years, the Clarks have adopted six Chinese children with disabilities to join their family.

Annie has grown up in a home with two older sisters with Down syndrome, three older brothers who are each missing a hand and a younger sister who has an undiagnosed skin lesion on her leg.

In the Clark household, there are no disabilities, only opportunities. Everybody rides bikes and swings, swims, makes his or her bed and pitches in with chores around the house. They also play video games, fly toy airplanes and participate in sports.

"They do the very best they can with what they are given," Mrs. Clark said.

The Clarks, owners of Tom Clark Chevrolet in McKeesport, also have three biological children: Amanda Barney, 28, who is married and foster mother to twin girls; Amy, 26, a nurse at Children's Hospital, and Abbey, 21, who has Down syndrome.

When Abbey was 3 years old, her parents decided to adopt, so in 1995 they brought home Tyler, who was 17 months old and the first of six adopted children. Tyler, who is missing his right hand, was followed by Alyssa, who came in 1997 at age 4. She also has Down Syndrome.

In 2005, they adopted Travis, then 31/2 years old, followed two years later by Annie, then 21/2. Talbot was adopted in 2008 at age 7, and Amelia joined the family last December at age 4. Like their older brother, Travis and Talbot are each missing a hand.

Tom and Mary Ellen Clark credit their Christian faith as the reason they adopted six children with disabilities. The adoptions were done through Holt International, a Christian international adoption agency.

Each time, family members spent two weeks in China bonding with the child before adoption. None of the children knew English at first, communicating with hand signals and body language. They've learned English through immersion in the family and classes at Wilson Christian Academy in West Mifflin.

Mrs. Clark said the couple believed their family was complete after adopting Alyssa. But then they saw a photo of Travis in an adoption brochure, "and we just knew he was supposed to be part of our family," she said. In fact, Mrs. Clark said each of the children "spoke to our hearts" from photographs in online adoption listings.

Mrs. Clark said she was drawn first by Annie's angelic face. But when she discovered she had no hands, she hesitated.

"I thought that would be so hard," Mrs. Clark said, explaining that she had to consider the effects on her other children.

But when she noticed that the day she spotted Annie on the website was the child's birthday, she believed it was a sign that she was meant to be part of their family. Mrs. Clark was even more certain after seeing the adoption agency's paperwork on Annie. It described her abilities -- she could feed and dress herself -- and her independent, determined personality.

Annie's teachers at Wilson describe her as a hard-working student who strives for perfection and learns from her mistakes.

Jeffrey Ubinger, of Premier Medical Associates, is the Clarks' pediatrician. Mrs. Clark had brought the medical histories of the adopted children to him before the family had made the final decision to adopt.

"She'll ask me to look at it and review, but I don't know why they ask. They always adopt the child," Dr. Ubinger said.

He said doctors in his practice refer to the Clarks as "the nicest family on the planet."

"I don't know anyone else who is this altruistic. There are other families that have adopted, but not like this. No one else intentionally adopts children with handicaps and sometimes multiple ones," Dr. Ubinger said.

Mrs. Clark said her family received criticism for adding a second child with Down syndrome; some questioned if they would be able to care for both girls. But, she said, Abbey and Alyssa "are each other's best friends. Everybody moves past them, but they always have each other."

Shirley Mitchell of Lutheran Services has been the permanency caseworker for all six Clark adoptions. She said she knows of no other family who has taken on such a challenge and had such success.

"The children are well-adjusted, and their special needs are almost nonexistent. When you adopt special-needs children, you can really add to the complexity of the family. But the children have very little difficulty integrating into the [Clark] family.

"Tom and Mary Ellen are very involved and loving. They know their kids. They don't lump them all together," Ms. Mitchell said.

While others are amazed, the Clark family moves on with its busy, yet extraordinarily ordinary, lives.

Tyler and Alyssa, both 18, recently graduated from Wilson Christian Academy, and Tyler works at the car dealership, picking up customers and moving or cleaning cars. He plans to study biology at Pitt-Greensburg in hopes of one day becoming a doctor.

Alyssa will attend special-education courses at Norwin High School, which the Clark children are able to attend through a court settlement over a land border dispute between Allegheny and Westmoreland counties. Alyssa hopes someday to work at a hospital; her parents want to enroll her in a program that trains special-needs individuals to perform hospital jobs.

Abbey also works at the dealership dusting cars, shredding documents and doing light paperwork. The younger children will attend Wilson Christian Academy this fall, where Annie will be in second grade, Talbot and Travis, both 10, will be in fourth grade and Amelia, 5, will start kindergarten.

Much of the family's time is spent together. There are ballgames and board games and family trips to Sam's Club, where the younger children take turns using the scanner in the self-checkout line. On Sundays, the entire family attends services at McKeesport Gospel Assembly and then share a large Sunday dinner at home.

"I feel our house is peaceful and calm," Mrs. Clark said.

She cooks dinner most days and her husband clears the kitchen. Restaurant meals are rare occasions because it's tough to get seating for a group so large.

The children appear to get along with minimal sibling rivalry. The boys group together for video games and sports, and the girls play school and dress up their dolls.

"They all love each other so much," said neighbor and family friend Pam Marflak. "I can honestly say that I have never seen any sibling rivalry between them. I've never seen the kids fight. They are each other's best friends. They are a happy family."

Tyler is so attached to his family that he bypassed the opportunity to attend Grove City College and live in a dorm to commute to Pitt-Greensburg.

"Family is a big part of my life. I want to be there for my little brothers, whether it's their talent shows or basketball games. I still want to be with them," he said.

Tyler said when his parents made the decision to adopt again in 2005, he begged for brothers. At the time, he had three sisters. He has enjoyed paving the way for his younger brothers.

"I think that Travis saw that we were both missing our right hands and he could shadow me and learn how I did things," he said.

Tyler said he's spent a lot of time and imagination devising ways to accomplish with one hand the same tasks others use two hands for. He played basketball and soccer during his years at Wilson Christian and he encourages his brothers in their sports activities.

Mrs. Marflak said the joy she witnessed in the Clark family inspired her and her husband, Rick, to adopt two children from China to join their family, which also includes two biological children.

"They were an example for us. We saw their family and how it just seemed to work out great for them," Mrs. Marflak said.

She admires how Mrs. Clark deals with the special needs of her children. "Day in and day out she always handles it. She believes in the Lord, and she takes it one day at a time."

Mary Ellen Clark's mother-in-law, Peggy Clark, also has great admiration for her. "They would come to us and say, 'Mom and Dad, we are thinking about adopting another.' My first concern is always Mary Ellen's stamina, but she has just done a wonderful job. We can only thank God for that. It is something that she really felt called to do."

Mary Ellen Clark said she tries to encourage the children to focus on what they can do, not what they can't do. Her daughters with Down syndrome know they will never be able to drive a car and have expressed sadness over it. "I tell them you may never do that, but there are lots of other things that you can do."

Sometimes, Annie will lament that she doesn't have hands, her mother said. "She does feel sad. ... But I say, focus on what you can do. There's a balance between acknowledging these feelings and not wallowing in them," Mrs. Clark said.

Mr. and Mrs. Clark said they feel no apprehension about the future of their family.

"I don't think we can stress enough our dependence on and faith in God and how we ask God to show us the way," Mr. Clark said.

"The door is open, and you just go through."