Chris and Emily Norton became foster parents to a 17-year-old when they were just 23 and 24. The couple since fostered and adopted five kids (ages 3, 6, 8, 10, and 20), and are expanding their house to make room for even more kids in need.

By Libby Ryan
July 30, 2019
Rachel Boland Moments Milestones Photography

The day after Chris Norton proposed to his girlfriend Emily, he stood up from his wheelchair and walked across the stage at his college graduation. The video went viral. But that's just the start of the couple's inspiring journey. Before they got married, they became foster parents and later adopted five kids, now ages 3, 6, 8, 10, and 20.

“You know, it started out with, okay we're only going to foster one,” Chris said. “Then it went to two, then three, four, five, and even seven—we got to seven this winter, which I thought was insane.”

Emily calls fostering the best thing the couple has ever done, saying, “We're able to be a part of something so special that we see these kids' lives transform and it takes a lot of time and patience and effort but we have just seen big changes where we know this is going to affect them for the rest of their life.”

It All Started With a Phone Call

Chris, 26, and Emily, 27, both said they were initially drawn to each other’s tendency toward deep conversations. “I was in love right away and she was completely out of my league,” Chris said. “She saw me for who I was and not for the chair I was in, which was really special about her.”

Emily said she loved Chris’ attitude. “He went through something so difficult and it could have ruined him; it could have destroyed his life,” she said. “But instead he was able to step up and not only make himself better but to help other people.”

Together, the couple inspired countless people with a viral video of Chris walking across the stage to collect his college diploma, with Emily helping him. And they both kept helping people: Chris started a foundation for kids in wheelchairs and Emily began working in children’s group homes.

Not long after, they got a call that changed their lives. Seventeen-year-old Whittley, who Emily met through volunteering in high school, had been kicked out of her foster home with just one year left before she turned 18 and aged out of the foster system. No other family would take her in because she’d gotten in too much trouble, so the authorities were suggesting the only option left would be a juvenile detention center.

“We were scared what was going to happen to her, what would happen to her if we said no,” said Emily. Chris and Emily were only a few years older than Whittley at the time, engaged, and living in an apartment. “I was like, ‘Wow. I'm only 24 years old, she's 17,’” Chris said. “'I don't know how to be a parent. I'm just barely an adult as it is.’”

But Chris and Emily agreed to take Whittley in. Although the trio hit some challenges that come along with parenting a teenager dealing with traumatic family history and abuse, she graduated high school.

Chris and Emily adopted Whittley last year, making her an official, legal part of the family. “I had never loved anybody like that before but as I got older, I realized this is how a mom loves her child,” Emily explained. “I had that love inside my heart and that connection with her more than anybody else I had ever met.”

Becoming Foster Parents

After Whittley graduated, Emily and Chris decided to open up their home to more foster kids—all while planning their wedding and buying a house.

“We knew the need that there were kids in our community that didn't have a family and were struggling," said Emily. "They just felt alone and we knew that we could step up and offer support and be there for the kids through that time.”

They intended to start by fostering just one child but ended up with two kids as their first placement. And not that long after, they got a call saying there were four sisters (ages 1, 4, 6, and 8) who needed a place to go, two of whom Emily had bonded with at a local group home. “I was like, we need to take all four,” she said. “We don't even have a choice, we just have to do it! And that was that.”

Emily and Chris got married while the girls were living with them and Chris walked down the aisle with Emily (creating another tear-jerking viral video). But that wasn’t the only surprise in the works.

“Something that kept these girls up at night was like, ‘Who am I going to call mom and dad? Who is going to be our family?’” Chris shared. “That anxiety and that fear, it just breaks your heart that these little kids, the stuff that they have to deal with, it's not normal little kid stuff, it's really big world stuff.”

So Emily and Chris adopted the four girls. “Our five-year-old wouldn't call us mom and dad until officially she was adopted because she was afraid that it wasn't going to happen,” Emily said. But as soon as the papers were signed, they were the legal parents of five kids. “We couldn't think of them being anywhere else. We knew that they were ours and we wanted to be there forever with them.”

Raising Awareness For the Foster System

There are more than 440,000 kids in foster care in the United States., according to a 2017 report from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System. There’s a huge need for stable homes to welcome kids in need, whether it’s for a few weeks or forever. Becoming a foster parent is not a decision to take lightly. Both Chris and Emily stress that it takes a lot of physical, mental, and emotional energy to be a foster parent; the couple credits their strong Christian faith for keeping them going through the hard times.

Rachel Boland Moments Milestones Photography

“For me, especially with me in the wheelchair, I was really limiting what we're capable of doing,” Chris said. “I think you can handle a lot more than you realize. Until you actually take that kind of leap of faith, then you stretch yourself and you can start to realize your potential.”

And the couple agrees that although they didn’t foresee becoming parents of five kids in their early twenties, there’s no perfect time to become a parent.

“There are a million reasons why maybe it's not the right time and anything like that: the fear of what it's going to be like, the unknown, there's so many of those reasons. There are also just as many reasons why you should step up and do it,” Emily said. “Even though it's never going to be the right time, you kind of just have to push through it and do it anyway when it's there.”

And they said they’re still learning. “You're never going to be qualified enough or equipped enough,” Chris said, “But if you just take that step and trust, you can make it happen.”

Right now, the young couple has their five kids living with them and they’re expanding their house to add a new bedroom to fit even more foster children. “There's constantly kids that just need a place to go and need a family and that love,” Emily said. “So we can't stop, we gotta keep going.”

Read more about Emily and Chris Norton's journey and family in their book, The Seven Longest Yards.

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