A Colorado K of C family bears witness to the joy of raising children with special needs
By Carl Bunderson and Columbia staff
A rollicking cacophony of children’s voices and scampering feet, sometimes accompanied by a drumroll of falling objects, greets the ears of Jeff and Sonia McGarrity each morning at their home near Lone Tree, a suburb of Denver.
Jeff and Sonia typically wake up at the crack of dawn to corral their six children, ages 5 through 17, who still live at home; their two eldest sons, Thomas, 20, and Seán, 19, are now at college.
“Some days the sound of my alarm clock is a squealing ‘Mommy, Mommy!’ as a doll hits me in the face,” laughed Sonia.
“Yeah, the place is a little bit nutty,” added Jeff, who works as the director of music ministry at St. Thomas More Parish in Centennial. “That’s a part of life in our family.”
The three McGarrity girls — Charlotte, 5; RoseMarie, 8; and Cecilia (“Ceci”), 13 — were all adopted and have a medical diagnosis of trisomy 21, a genetic condition commonly known as Down syndrome. The boys still living at home are Augustine (“Gus”), 12; Brendan, 16; and Jeffrey, 17, who also has T21.
Raising such a large and diverse brood is no easy feat; it takes a strong marriage and parenting skills — and a lively sense of humor — to maintain a harmonious household.
“Jeff is our ‘conductor,’ in more ways than one,” Sonia said. “We would all be clanging gongs if he wasn’t the stable one, keeping us all in tune.”
For his part, Jeff compared his wife to a concert master, confessing that “the place would fall apart without Sonia; we’d all be looking at each other wondering, ‘What are we supposed to do next?’”
Yet what ultimately grounds and unifies the McGarritys, including the “nutty” decision to adopt three children with T21, is their deep Catholic faith and profound conviction of the sanctity of every human life — which is why they have long been drawn to and strengthened by the Order’s unabashed promotion of a culture of life. Jeff is a member St. Thomas More Council 10205 in Centennial, and Sonia’s father is a Knight in her home state of Louisiana.
“Had I not been brought up in a Knights of Columbus home that made the pro-life movement so important,” Sonia said, “I don’t know whether we would have adopted the three girls that we did.”
THE ADVENTURE OF ADOPTION
Jeff and Sonia met while working in Washington, D.C., in 2001. They were dating when the idea of special needs adoption first occurred to Sonia.
“One of my relatives had special needs children — in wheelchairs, not kids with T21 — and I saw how their typical children were interacting with these siblings,” Sonia recounted. “I saw the charity that these young boys had for their special needs siblings, and I wanted that.’”
Jeff and Sonia were married in 2002, and they had Thomas the next year; four months later, at age 35, Sonia had a miscarriage.
“I told my sister that if I can’t have any more children, I want to adopt a child with Down syndrome,’” Sonia recalled. “I had never met anyone with T21; I just knew they existed and that the Knights raised funds for them.”
Seán was born in 2004, followed two years later by Jeffrey; the midwife informed the McGarritys that the baby had Down syndrome.
“Well, God put that desire in my heart,” Sonia said, “and now he gave me Jeffrey.”
Brendan was born in 2007, followed by two more miscarriages.
Around that time, Sonia and Jeff began to think about adoption, in particular adopting children with T21. After going through the “hard learning curve” of Jeffrey’s early years, they said to themselves, “Now that we have that figured out, let’s just open ourselves up and see what the Lord wants.”
The National Down Syndrome Adoption Network eventually put the McGarritys in touch with the birth parents of a baby girl with T21. Supported by friends and parishioners, they adopted Cecilia, or “Ceci,” in 2010.
The next year, Sonia gave birth to Augustine, their sixth child under 9 years old.
“I was in the hospital giving birth to Gus,” Sonia recalled, “when we got a call, ‘Are you interested in adopting again?’ And I’m like, ‘No, right now is not the best time.’”
But a few years later, in 2015, they adopted RoseMarie, followed by Charlotte in 2018.
For Jeff, promoting adoption over abortion is key. In the United States, the annual ratio of abortions to infant adoptions is nearly 50:1.
“We look at the parents who have chosen to place their children for adoption as heroes,” Jeff said. “The birth families are making the difficult decision in favor of life, often in the face of regular phone calls asking, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to terminate?’”
The rate of abortion after a prenatal diagnosis of trisomy 21 in the United States is not well tracked, according to the Charlotte Lozier Institute, but its impact has been estimated: A 2015 study in the American Journal of Medical Genetics concluded that abortion after prenatal diagnosis has reduced the population of individuals living with trisomy 21 in the U.S. by approximately 30%.
“It’s one of our soap boxes,” Jeff said. “If only people who received prenatal diagnoses of T21 knew that there are families out there willing and interested in adopting.”
Every year, the McGarritys participate in the Celebrate Life Rally and March in Denver; twice they have been featured speakers. They have also participated in the national March for Life in Washington, D.C.
Deacon Steve Stemper, who serves St. Thomas More Parish and is a member of Council 10205, has known the McGarritys since they moved to Colorado in 2007.
“Jeff and Sonia do whatever it takes to promote life, walking the walk by giving up their own comfort,” said Deacon Stemper, who is also Augustine’s godfather. “They are living the faith to a radical degree of selflessness.”
‘THE HAPPIEST PEOPLE’
Rather than emphasizing the differences between their children with T21 and their other children, the McGarritys focus on the commonalities — and the unique aspects that are attributable to personality.
Jeffrey, for example, likes to play football, and is in a public speaking class in his homeschool enrichment program.
“He’s standing up and giving a speech,” Jeff said, “and there are obvious academic challenges, right? But any student at any school will have difficulties in expressing himself or reading and comprehending. Every kid has a personality; every kid has things they do and don’t like to do. So Jeffrey’s on the same continuum that everybody else is on.”
Music plays a central role in the McGarrity household, and every child plays an instrument or sings, or both. Sonia compared her children’s joyful but distinct ways of making music to their different ways of showing love.
“We are all called to love indiscriminately, to love and receive love. And my kids are going to play their instruments no matter what — whether they’re sharp or flat, they’re just going to play,” she said. “They also don’t let their intellect or concern about what other people think about them stop them from expressing love in their own unique way. Rosie is very physically affectionate; Charlotte is a smiler — she just smiles and your heart melts. Jeffrey is unbelievably affirming: He’ll walk up to people and say, ‘You’re beautiful.’”
Over time, persons with T21 tend to bring out particular virtues in their family members, Sonia added.
“Everything is just a little bit slower … so I think that our children have learned a lot more about patience than I did,” she said.
Seán, who is in his freshman year of college, agreed that, as one of the oldest children, he has a particular “responsibility to be patient with the younger siblings, especially those with trisomy 21, and then model that for Brendan and for Augustine, too.”
“I wouldn’t ask for any other life,” Seán added. “The joy that kids with trisomy 21 have, the authentic joy and love, is incomparable. They really are the happiest people.”
The ethos of the Knights of Columbus fits seamlessly into their family life, and the Order’s pro-life mission, especially the Ultrasound Initiative, is an effort close to the McGarritys’ hearts.
“There’s obviously a logical connection — a marriage almost — between the ultrasound donations that Knights have made and helping people who have children with a prenatal diagnosis of T21 to realize that this is not the end of the world,” Jeff said.
But “pro-life” is not just something the Knights do, Sonia said — it’s who they are.
“When I go shopping with the kids, I need to have my antennae up, ready to answer whatever question might come at me,” she explained. “Whereas at our parish, the Knights are family; I don’t have to discern or worry about if we can handle it. I know I can take my kids there and they will be loved, accepted and assisted.”
Jeff carved out time to take his second and third degrees as a Knight last November. But running a bustling household, homeschooling several children, and attending to their many needs leaves very little time to participate in council events. While Jeff and Sonia sometimes feel internal pressure to do more — to volunteer more and practice different works of mercy as a family — they try to keep their eyes fixed on their most important work.
“Last night, I was trying to make the bed and Charlotte was crawling all over me,” Sonia said. “And I’m praying, ‘Jesus, I just have to imagine that this is you. And I’m just doing this for you.’
“And it gave me a different perspective on things, to say that maybe it’s OK that I didn’t raise my children volunteering at a food bank or doing service projects. Maybe we’re not all called to do that. Rather, we’re simply called to love and raise these children, all eight of them, and launch them to go out and become saints.”
CARL BUNDERSON writes from Colorado, where he is a member of Longmont Council 1313.