She's Come This Far By Faith: Mother of 37, Grandmother of over 50 Turns 80 Soon



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You read the title correctly. My mother, Joanne Elizabeth (Tedesco) Sheptock and my Father, Rudolph Peter Sheptock, Sr (who never changed "Sr" to "I" when my nephew was born), raised 37 children. They had seven biological children and adopted 30. My brother Jonathan (whose first name is my middle name) passed away in 2007 as my eldest sister Mary Grace sat beside him in the hospital. In addition to 36 surviving sons ad daughters, my mother has at least 46 grandchildren, 11 grandchildren and many sons- and daughters-in-law (me having asked most recently around Thanksgiving 2015). She spends her days keeping up with over 100 people.

Dad died on September 13th, 2000, with my older brother Robert having taken a leave of absence from his job at Shands Hospital in Gainesville, Florida to help care for Dad in his last days. It also helped that Mom is a retired nurse who also taught nursing school. Dad would have turned 85 on April 29th of this year. He was a navy veteran who often talked about his days serving on a navy destroyer (the USS Kalamazoo, if I'm not mistaken). He was a baker in the navy and fought in the Korean War. He eventually developed a hatred of guns and I've seen him break toy guns and water pistols anytime he found them. We got a treat every Easter though, as Dad made his glazed sweet bread -- a delicious family custom that he took to his grave.

My brother-in-law Dan Robinson rounds out the deaths thus far in the family, having died in 2007 along with Jonathan. My sister Mary Frances married another Dan. Go figure. An interesting aside is that, when the first Dan's grandmother died at 95 a few years ago, his brother had trouble contacting my sister who was close to her grandmother-in-law. Dan's brother found me because of my major on-line presence and I made the connection. Since then, I've connected several other family members who fell out of touch due to something in the way of a Sheptock diaspora. It seems that I've fallen into the familial role of connecting people -- coincidentally, also something I do as a homeless advocate.

In August of 2016 I called to wish Mom a happy 79th, with her having already advised me to forgo my annual 3-4-day trip; because, she wanted to have a family reunion on her 80th birthday in 2017. I obliged; but, now she has cancelled her 80th birthday celebration.

Mary Grace sent me a Facebook message in May of this year, asking me not to buy a plane ticket because Mom might not have the family reunion. She assured me that it was nothing to be alarmed over; so, I wasn't. She didn't explain why; and, I decided to wait until July to see if anything might change. I inquired again on July 12th via text and found out that, due to a contact info mix-up, I'd not received the update. No worries. However, the party is still off. (Mom turns eighty two days from this 8/24 blog update. A plane ticket would cost more now than I care to pay -- apart from a crisis.)

While I had initially pieced together things that my mother told me last year about her fight with Social Security and what my eldest sister (who lives next door to Mom) told me this year so as to conclude that finances were the main reason for the cancellation of a planned family reunion on Mom's 80th birthday in August, I've since been told that this isn't the case. Mom had some non-emergent financial concerns that have now been taken care of. It was the timing of other events that made it unwise to have the reunion on her 80th. Whew!!!

I was looking forward to flying out of Washington, DC to visit Mom so that we could have an even bigger party than we had on her 75th birthday when about 40 people -- some of my siblings, nieces and nephews as well as some family friends -- celebrated her birthday at an Italian restaurant right after Mom preached this sermon at which Robert sang. Mom wanted to try again to get all 100+ clan members to her place in the small town of Interlachen, Florida (30 miles east of Gainesville); but, that won't happen. By the grace of God, she's almost made 80. There's no telling how many more birthdays she'll celebrate. Maybe 20??? Let's hope. (Truth be told, there's no telling where she'll put everyone. I've done large event tent erection in Orlando which is a two-hour drive south from Mom's. Maybe Kirby or United Tent Rentals can help.)

A few days before Mom's birthday last year there was an article in the Washington Post which was about my then-homeless friend and fellow congregant Wanda Witter who had fought Social Security for 16 years while living homeless and who was awarded $100,000 in back pay. I told my mother the story and Mom told me that she too had been fighting Social Security since 2000. I offered to help.

I looked into the matter and found that what Mom said was accurate (not that I ever doubted her) and that it wasn't likely that my advocacy or personality would break down the barriers. Social Security regulations state that, if an elder has sons or daughters with special needs, the elder's money (or a large portion of it anyway) goes to the sons or daughters upon the elder's death. I've been smarting over this matter ever since I learned this. As it turns out, Mom's been getting $1,000 less per month than she ought to be getting. That amounts to a loss of over $200,000 thus far.

This comes off to me as a matter of principle -- bad principle. If a woman gives birth to a special-needs child, then neither she nor the father can have good last years; as, the lion's share of their social security money is set aside to care for the child upon the death of both parents. I understand that social security was conceived in response to the needs of the families of disabled and deceased veterans; but, it's time for an update.

The matter gets even deeper when you consider that none of the six special needs sons and daughters of my mother are biological. She, in essence, is being punished by Social Security for having adopted 30 children -- six now being special-needs adults. Had she not adopted anyone (or at least not these six), she would be getting her full benefits. No good deed goes unpunished. Even so, I'm certain that neither she nor anyone else in the family regrets the choice that she and my father made. However, it must be noted that, had my parents not adopted 29 others and myself, then those who grew into special-needs adults would have become wards of the state. I would hope that a financial compromise can be reached between Mom and Social Security -- that they might give her at least half of her back pay in lieu of this truth.

I have more than enough finances to make the trip, though my income is not enough to pay DC rents. I'd go to visit as an individual; but, prefer to go when dozens of us will be there. (I'd also prefer that Mom not cook for 25 or more people like she did on Thanksgiving 2015.)

That said, my family and I have an interesting history together, as you might imagine. Some of that history is recorded in the book "Our Growing Family" (published in 1980 when they only had 21 children, not all 37). I often tell parts of that history as I speak through the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) to groups from various high schools, colleges, universities, churches and non-profits:

In 1969 my parents had four of their eventual seven natural children. A girl who needed loving parents was born on December 21st, 1969 and given to my parents three days later. Mary Margaret came very close to being named Mary Christmas. She was the first of their adopted children.

Two months earlier my biological mother, Malvenia Gooden, who died in 2006 fractured my skull when I was eight months old and I was taken from my birth family. The police weren't able to prove that it was on purpose, though I met my biological sister in 2015 (as a result of writing an on-line profile of myself as part of a project I did with two French women) and my sister, being two years older than me, said that our mother DID fracture my skull on purpose.

Mom and Dad (Sheptock) used to be professing Catholics -- the reason they started naming all 10 girls "Mary" (deciding to continue the pattern after converting): Mary Ann, Mary Frances. Mary Jean, Mary Sue, Mary Claire, Mary Christine, Mary Margaret, Mary Grace, Mary Elizabeth and Mary Ellen. They decided that their good work for earning their way into Heaven would be adopting children. (They floated the idea of becoming missionaries in the Philippines at one time.)

In August 1974 they picked me up from Atlantic City, New Jersey and on the same day got a girl who would eventually be named Mary Elizabeth from Morristown. We were numbers nine and 10, with the Sheptocks having had six natural children at that time.

That same month I saw Mom's friend Marilyn Bevers witnessing to her about a different Christian faith whereby one's entry into Heaven is based on God's love -- not how many good works one does. Mom claims to have been saved that month, though Dad didn't convert until the following Easter.

In August 1975 we moved from Chester, NJ to Peapack, NJ -- 45 miles west of New York City in Somerset County. The mansion we moved into was over 100 years old at the time and had been the library of the Kate Macy Ladd Convalescent Hospital. It had three above-ground floors and a basement and sat on five acres with a barn and a corral. It had a large foyer, two fireplaces, a grand staircase overlooked by a chandelier, 13 bedrooms, seven bathrooms, a library, a parlor, two dining rooms and a three-car garage. over the years we had ponies, goats, sheep, dogs, hamsters and gerbils. My parents had as many as 28 kids with them at one time, due to the age range. As many as 13 were teenagers at once.

Also in August 1975, Mary Elizabeth and I got adopted in Elizabeth, NJ. one day that month, as my siblings and I got up from eating lunch and began to run outside to play, Mom called me over while she wiped down the table. I stood in front of the wall that she and Mary Ann painted with the words of Matthew 5:16 as she explained to me that I would have to decide, at the ripe old age of six, if I wanted to be adopted. I said, "Yes" so that I could run and play. She stopped me again and explained that I could change my name or add a middle name. She stated the family rule that I had to have a name from the Bible (Robert Gerard having been the only exception in the family). She explained, much to my dismay, that Eric is not in the Bible. I decided, at six, to keep Eric. She listed different names from the Bible and I stopped her at "Jonathan". Thus, I went from being Eric Gooden to being Eric Jonathan Sheptock.

Other family rules included one that said any addition to the family had to choose to be adopted after a year or go back to the adoption/foster care agency -- me having come to them through Spaulding for Children. Upon being adopted, we had to take on the family name of "Sheptock". My parents cared for much more than the 30 adopted children; but, others didn't get adopted for a range of reasons and went back to where they came from. In at least one instance, Mom and Dad cared for a set of twins -- Peter and Paul -- who were babies at the time, but with the agreement that they'd be returned to their parents when those parents got off of drugs and got themselves together.

In late 2015 I ran across a DC-based cable talk show that I've only seen that one time and the topic had to do with the fact that one-third of foster children end up in prison as adults. In our family, only three of my siblings have done prison stints. Maybe it's because of the aforementioned family rules and the resulting sense of family and belonging. By contrast, many foster parents care for their foster children for five years or more and then cut them off completely once they age out of foster care and the money for taking care of them stops coming in -- a phenomenon that has always baffled me. My parents stopped getting money for subsidized adoptions when we moved from New Jersey to Florida in early 1985. (I saw my mother most recently at the end of 2015. She and Dad didn't cast me aside when the money stopped.)

Between 1975 and 1985 we grew up under TV cameras. My parents were always being interviewed by TV stations and newspapers because of their chosen good work. They were called to be guest speakers at different churches, Salvation Army gatherings, pro-life meetings and the like. At these speaking engagements they'd put my siblings and I on stage singing "Jesus Loves Me" and other such songs. A New York Times article about us was read in Japan and a Japanese TV crew spent a week in New Jersey making a 30-minute documentary of our family. (I personally was in a commercial for Pro Player sneakers when I was 10.)

My brother Paul "Jon" Sheptock (not "John") who was born with no arms and a short right leg was the March of Dimes poster child in the late 1970's. He's done well for himself. He sang the national anthem at an Astros game a few years ago and does an annual benefit concert for the disabled in McClean, VA, not far from where I live in Washington, DC.

In the early 1980's, then-Governor of New Jersey Thomas Kean saw us on the news. On his way to a meeting, he had his helicopter land in our yard so he could visit for a few minutes. He had so much fun in the first five minutes that he called the meeting and cancelled. He stayed for about five hours. My dad made his bodyguards put their guns in the helicopter. Our neighbor, Mr. Parker worked for a newspaper. He called the office. We got more media coverage.

Beginning in 1983, some of us were sent to a Christian school in Randolph, NJ. But we moved, beginning on December 26th, 1984 and going through March 1985. We packed out two 45-foot long tractor trailers, used a Ryder rental and threw a lot of stuff out. I would graduate from Hollister Christian Academy in 1987. (In DC I asked the first two people I saw wearing Hollister shirts if that's where they were from, before realizing that it was a new line of clothing.)

We had a few media stints in the late 1980's after moving to Florida; but, eventually, the cameras went away -- for most of us. We settled into a more laid-back life in Florida with the exception of when football great John L. Williams thought about buying my parents two houses and eight acres in Florida. The larger of the two houses was, at one time, the warehouse of general contractor Bill Casperson. He converted the warehouse into a house with 12 bedrooms, two large bathrooms and a master bath. It had a 63' x 15' dining room. (Mom and Mary Grace now live about a mile from that two-house property.)

Things are much quieter now. Dad is 17-years gone. Mom is turning 80. Her faith in Jesus has gotten her this far. She doesn't know that I planned to write this. As a homeless advocate, I see many older people whose last days are not good days. I want want my mother's last days to be good days -- however many they maybe henceforth. She deserves at least that much.

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