Life can be pretty unpredictable. Just when you think you've got everything figured out or things seem to be going according to plan, everything can change in an instant. That's what happened to Gary and Pam Willis when they unexpectedly decided to adopt several children to add to their (already big) family. The two's story ended up spreading like wildfire on social media and drew attention from around the world - here's why.
Pam and Gary's Early Life Together
Pam married Gary Willis when she was 16 and he was 18. "My husband and I have been married since we were babies ourselves," she has said. While the two were married relatively young, that didn't stop them from having big plans. "When we were teenagers dating, we said we wanted 10 children," according to Pam. And while that dream would eventually come true, it didn't happen in the way anybody expected.
The happy couple also could've never predicted that in some 30 years' time, they would become social media famous for an act of kindness that would inspire others.
Starting a Family
Pam and Gary didn't wait long to start their family and careers. "The babies came immediately. I never wanted anything more than I wanted to be a mother," Pam said. Meanwhile, Gary joined the Navy while Pam was busy starting nursing school. "It took me six years and the birth of our third child to finally reach my goal of earning my Bachelor's degree," Pam added. Some six years in, the family had grown to five.
And with Gary being in the Navy, that left Pam to take care of the kids while he was away at work. Something that she said she enjoyed immensely.
Pam Starts Her Nursing Career in Hawaii
As Pam finished nursing school, it came time for her to set off on her own career, which she didn't waste any time doing. "In 1997, I was a brand new labor and delivery nurse at Kapi'olani Medical Center in Hawaii, where my husband was stationed," Pam said, adding that although it was hectic, she enjoyed every second of working as a nurse when she was just starting out.
During this time, the Willis family also added two more members. This brought the total to two adults and five children, which meant that Pam and Gary had their hands full.
Lots of Moving About in the United States
Because of Gary's job in the Navy, the family moved around a lot after Hawaii. "As the years progressed and my husband's military career moved us around a bit, I had the opportunity to work in California, Texas, Oklahoma, Utah, and back in California," Pam said. And everywhere they moved, their five children, Matthew, Andrew, Sam, Alexa, and Sophia, were in tow. At this point, Pam had been working as a nurse for almost a decade and a half.
All of this time as a nurse had sparked an interest in a different aspect of the medical field, which would set off a series of events that would change the Willis family forever.
Pam Switches Careers and Goes Back to School
All of the time she'd spent working as a nurse had sparked an interest in the legal side of the medical field, according to Pam. "I realized that through my experience as a labor and delivery nurse, I had become extremely interested in the legal aspects of the medical field... I waited until my youngest started kindergarten... and I began a new adventure of my own — school!" she said.
So, Pam started working part-time as a nurse while also attending classes to become a lawyer. Oh, and all the while, she was also caring for their five children.
The Children (Mostly) Leave the Nest
Pam did eventually receive her degree and became a lawyer, and Gary also started a new job with the U.S. Postal Service. "My five children and amazing husband graciously supported me through that 3 1/2 years of grueling education, still working part-time as a labor nurse to help make ends meet," Pam said. The family had decided to settle in California during this time, and one by one, the children became old enough to leave the nest.
Finally, there was only one child left. Sam was the youngest and wasn't yet old enough to move out on his own. However, this gave Pam and Gary an opportunity to extend their home to others in need.
Pam And Gary Decide to Become Foster Parents
For most parents, children leaving the home marks an entirely new era in their lives. However, Pam and Gary decided that they weren't happy or content with not having children in the house. So, they started hosting children as foster parents until those children were reunited with their actual parents. The couple hosted children for six years but always emphasized that reunification with their parents was the ultimate goal for the foster kids.
This fostering was never long-term, and despite growing close to many of the children, the Willis family never had any plans to adopt, at least not until one child came into their lives.
Fostering a Newborn
Pam said that she had always tried not to get too attached to the children the couple hosted. After all, they would all be reunited with their biological parents sooner or later anyway. However, something changed when a newborn landed on their doorstep. "No one came to visit him much in the first few months, but they kept saying they were looking for a family to take him. I told myself not to get too attached, but I failed at that rather quickly," she said.
The baby was only three days old when the family first took him in, and this photo was taken right after he'd arrived at the Willis home.
Falling 'Head Over Heels' for the New Baby
It didn't take long for Pam's fears to come true. The immediate attachment to the newborn may have been because the couple had never had just one foster child in the home, "or maybe because I knew he didn't have a Mama visiting him, or because he was the sweetest little needy soul & he was all alone.... but I fell head over heels for him," Pam said of the new baby.
Either way, one thing was clear, and that was that this new baby was having a profound effect on the couple. They had fallen in love with the new member of the household.
Pam Breaks One of Her Own Rules: No Calling Her Mom
The baby started growing up before Gary and Pam's eyes, and during this time, nobody had come to visit. Pam remembered recalling that "weeks turned to months," and still nobody had come to see the baby. This led to her breaking one of her cardinal rules. "He was the only foster I've ever let call me Mama. All of my other kiddos had always called me Auntie so that we wouldn't cause contention with bio mom. But to him, I was Mama," she said.
On top of all of this, the adoption agency had failed to find anyone to take the small baby in. As more time passed, Pam and Gary grew more and more attached to the toddler.
Would He Officially Join the Family?
After all that had taken place, it was really only a matter of time before Gary and Pam made it official and decided to adopt the toddler. Eventually, social services asked them directly if they would like to make the whole situation permanent. Pam posted on social media: "We said yes immediately. If you know our story, you know that this was God's way of opening our hearts to adoption, which we had never really thought of ourselves doing until that moment."
And just like that, it was official, the Willis family had a new member, bringing their number up to eight. But nobody could've guessed what would happen next.
A Viral Story Catches Pam's Eye
Pam and Gary didn't have any plans to adopt any more children after taking in the toddler. They hadn't even really had plans to adopt their latest member. However, a chance news story caught Pam's attention. A story about seven children needing a home was making the rounds on social media. Pam said that she knew deep down nobody out there would have room enough for seven foster kids.
That's when it dawned on her that she and Gary had the spare room to take the seven children in and give them a place to call home.
Pam Gets a Gut Feeling About the Seven Siblings
The story behind how the seven children ended up in foster care was a heart-wrenching one. Their parents had died in a car crash, leaving them to float around in foster care for a year until their story appeared in a news article. Their story just cemented what Pam already knew. "I can't explain it — I just knew I was supposed to be their mom," Pam said during an interview with Today.
Despite the two preparing for retirement, Pam tagged Gary in the comment section of the article and waited to ask him about it later that same night.
Begging Gary on Social Media
For anyone else, it would absolutely not make sense to adopt seven children when you have five out of the house, you've just adopted a toddler, and you're preparing to retire. That's why Pam said she was nervous to ask Gary about it later that night. The photo here is the actual screenshot from where Pam tagged Gary, informally asking him if the couple could adopt the seven children.
"I thought Gary was going to tell me I was wacko," Pam said. However, that isn't exactly how the conversation would go later that night when the two talked about the whole thing.
What Did He Think?
Despite coming to the talk thinking that she'd have to convince Gary they should adopt the kids, it turned out that he didn't really need much convincing. "He said, 'Yeah...' He paused and said, 'We should adopt them,'" Pam said, adding that "I was shocked." She remembered that "We both felt it. Everything had aligned in our lives at that time to be able to do that, and it was just so perfect."
From that moment on, it was settled. The two called the number that was included in the article in order to get the adoption process rolling and on its way.
How the Siblings Ended up in Foster Care
We mentioned that the siblings ended up in foster care after their parents were killed in a car crash, but there is a little more to their story than just that. The oldest sibling was 12, and the youngest was only 1 when they moved to California from Las Vegas with their parents. "Seven months after they moved here, they lost their parents in that terrible car accident," Pam said.
She continued, "And [they] ended up in San Diego County foster care where we were blessed to find them." But things got complicated long before the tragic accident.
Their Troubled Home Life
It turned out that the siblings' troubles started long before they entered the foster system. Adelino, the oldest child, said, "We were homeless a few times. Basically, 'hell' is how I would describe it... Hardly any food, arguing with my parents, or they were holed up in their room." He added that he never thought they'd find a family to take all of them in, considering how many of them there were.
"You gotta be really crazy to take seven kids, especially how all of us are and all of the problems that we have," he said. Luckily, he would turn out to be wrong.
A Sign That It Was Destiny
A couple of months would pass before Gary and Pam met with the social workers responsible for the children's case, but when they did, they received what they took as a sign it was meant to be. The social workers asked Pam and Gary if they would be okay with the kids attending the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. "The older kids have had a short period of time in a church that they really enjoyed," one of the workers said.
It just so happened that this was also Pam and Gary's church, and they were heavily involved in church activities. "I'm the girl's youth group leader, and my husband is the executive secretary," Pam said.
Pam and Gary Become Heartbroken When His Biological Family Is Located
While the couple was preparing to adopt the seven siblings, something else occurred that they were not expecting. Social services called them and informed them that they'd finally been able to locate their beloved toddler's family - the one who arrived at their door when he was just a newborn. "Our hearts were opened to adoption, and for a few weeks, he was ours. But suddenly a family member was found," Pam remembered, later adding, "The heartbreak that everyone talks about in foster care is so real. I would die for this little guy, just as I would for any of my other children."
Next, the couple would begin the process of introducing the toddler to his relatives and trying to ensure that the transition was a smooth one, despite being heartbroken about the whole situation.
The Toddler's Transition Period
Rules vary by state, but in California, blood relatives have a lot of rights that can help them assume custodianship over a child. "I have seen situations where a child is taken from the only home he or she has ever known, and placed with family the next week, just because they were 'family,'" Pam said. She feared that the toddler's family wouldn't be the best fit for him.
Luckily, her fears would prove unfounded. The family visited with the toddler while their paperwork was being sorted, a process that took six months. Pam recalled that the whole transition was very smooth.
A Really Hard Time Adjusting
While the toddler was in the middle of getting familiar with his blood relatives, an entirely different transition was occurring with the seven siblings, one that was a little more difficult. "I think they didn't quite trust that we were real. Like maybe we were going to go away," Pam said, adding that one night the 7-year-old child came into the couple's room. Pam asked her if she'd had a bad dream.
The seven-year-old responded, "No, I just wanted to make sure that you were still here." It was obvious that their year spent in the foster system would make adjusting hard.
The Family Got a Whole Lot Bigger Real Quick
This was a pretty chaotic time in Gary and Pam's lives. Not only were they welcoming seven new children into their home all at one time, but they were also trying to help the toddler get used to being with his blood relatives. For most parents, having a household full of kids only accounts for one point in their lives, but for Gary and Pam, it'd accounted for just about all of their lives.
And while they probably seemed superhuman on the outside, having so many things to deal with at once eventually ended up stressing out not only them but their relationship too.
Taking a Toll on the Marriage
Pam and Gary's relationship was as strong as any, but suddenly having a household full of kids is bound to take a toll on any marriage. Pam admitted that the two had stopped sleeping in the same bed in an effort to help some of the children who weren't old enough to sleep on their own yet. It was an incredibly difficult time, but luckily they'd been through it all before.
This is where their experience as parents came in handy because they knew that this was the hardest stage and that it would eventually get better if they just waited.
There Was a Lot of Trauma Involved
Any parent will tell you that having children means sacrificing a lot, the most important of which is time. Just when Gary and Pam needed some time to themselves the most, they found themselves unable to carve any out. Because the children had a rough go of it in foster care, Pam and Gary knew that leaving them with someone else for any amount of time might induce some anxiety.
"A couple of them... get a bit anxious when we leave. Their trauma will always be with them," Pam said. The siblings would also have to deal with the toddler leaving soon.
Visiting Where They Came From
It was during this time of transition that Pam and Gary came up with an idea to help the siblings find some grounding. They decided that it would be a good idea to take a family vacation to visit Las Vegas, where the children were born. Not only that, but they would end up visiting with their biological mother's best friend while they were there. It was their first time back since they moved to California.
"It was emotional on so many levels, but so good for them to stay connected to their family history," Pam said. It was also a great opportunity to do something together as a family.
A Heartbreaking Goodbye
For a while, the toddler's family members had been coming to visit, slowly getting to know their long-lost relative and building a bond. Finally, the time came for them to take the toddler home. "He has two awesome daddies now, and they adore him. They bring him to me to visit every few weeks, and he still calls me Mama," Pam said, adding that foster care can sometimes be messy.
"It's full of lots of messy emotions, but it can be beautiful, and children can know that many people love and adore them through it all," she said.
The Adoption Got Postponed Indefinitely
Leave it to the COVID pandemic to ruin a nice story. That's almost what happened when the pandemic hit in 2020. Everyone was set to make the siblings' adoption official and legal when suddenly, the courts announced that they were shutting down until further notice. "We still celebrated that weekend because it was the one-year anniversary of the day we'd met, but inside, we all just wanted it to be official," Pam said.
Luckily, the courts wouldn't stay closed forever, and while it was a struggle to wait, all of that patience would eventually pay off when the courts reopened.
The Adoption Finally Becomes Official
Gary, Pam, and all of the siblings would end up having to wait another five months before the courts reopened. However, when they did, everyone was ready. "It was awesome. We brought a big TV screen out to the park so everybody could watch and cheer and be safe during COVID. There was so much love," Pam said. The couple's biological children had come out to provide their support, as well.
The whole family was together and ready to celebrate the magical event. It was the start of something special, but nobody could've known just how special it would all be.
Posting Their Adventures on Social Media
Like any other parent, Pam opened a special account to show off her children and their adventures on social media. "There are so many children in need of homes... and I feel this huge responsibility to make people aware of that," Pam said when asked about why she opened the account. "I think it's a whole world people don't understand or know, but if they did — would have a heart for it."
She turned out to be right. The account soon caught on, and people started following the family as they took vacations, ate out at restaurants, and marked other major milestones.
Finding Their Audience
While the account was popular, it would take a viral video Pam made to shoot the Willis story into the spotlight. She made a short video that included her and Gary's lives together from the moment they tied the knot to the moment that they adopted the siblings. It went viral, and soon celebrities, such as Kristen Bell and Michael Buble, were sharing it on their own Instagram accounts.
"We were jumping up and down through the years: 'First we did this, and then we raised five kids, and then we did this, and then we adopted seven kids.' And it just went completely viral all over the internet," Pam said.
Not Everyone Was A Fan
Despite the whole situation feeling amazingly wholesome, there were inevitably some detractors out there. It wasn't long after the account became popular that Pam started receiving some awful comments. "It begins to wear on a person... being told that I am putting my children 'on display like animals in a zoo' hurt me so deeply," she said, adding that she simply wanted to show her children off like any other parent.
Luckily, the people that matter quickly rallied to their parents' defense. "You took us out of a really difficult, difficult time, and honestly, I probably wouldn't have been here now if it weren't for you guys. Thank you," one of the siblings said.
Documenting the Kids' Lives on Instagram
Pam makes sure to document all of the siblings' life events. This particular photo was taken before a birthday. In the caption, Pam shared how she and Gary try their best to make sure birthdays are as memorable as possible. Some of the siblings can't remember having birthday parties when they were younger, which Pam attributes to trauma. She added that making memories is all the more important because children grow up fast.
And she would know; she and Gary have already raised one set of kids. In her post, Pam said that it seems like it was yesterday that her biological kids were the same age as her adopted children.
A Very Happy Father's Day to Gary
While the account is mainly devoted to chronicling the siblings' accomplishments and life stages, Pam makes sure to give Gary a shoutout every now and then. This particular photo was taken on Father's Day. "Homeschooling 5 kids on his own, driving the shuttle van here, there, and everywhere daily... he's rocking the stay home Dad gig," she said. Gary certainly does deserve every shoutout he gets and more.
He and Pam also look incredibly happy in this photo, as they do in every photo. Seeing this makes it hard to imagine them living out their lives as empty nesters.
The Siblings' First Boating Trip
The Willis family used to go boating regularly, according to Pam. However, that was when their first set of kids were younger. They haven't been boating nearly as often since their biological children left the house. So, they decided to take their adopted children boating and ended up capturing this adorable image during the fun family outing. "Yesterday, we took the kids on our first boating trip together," Pam said.
Pam also went on to say that she had always wanted to be able to take entire summers off and just spend every day with her children.
An Exciting Summer Schedule
It looks like Pam is getting her wish to spend as much time as possible with the kids while they're out on summer vacation. In this photo, she details how Ruby saved enough money for a plane ticket to Vegas to catch up with her cousins. The rest of the siblings are going with Pam and Gary to see the redwoods, while a couple also plan on attending summer camp.
It looks like a loaded schedule, but as Pam and Gary know all too well, you have to take advantage of what time you have and make the most of life.