Family Comes in Many Forms

August 23, 2017

“We’re going off-roading now,” said Chip, 27, to his 16-year-old brother Justin. For many teenage boys, that would be an exciting adventure. But when you’re medically fragile and use a wheelchair, it can be quite frightening. That’s when Deborah Nickerson knew she really needed help. Her home’s wheelchair ramp was broken and scaring her children.

When UMFS Volunteer Specialist Lisa Nicoll got the call, she immediately reached out to Rich Flanagan. Rich first learned about UMFS when The Heights Church did a volunteer project on the UMFS Richmond campus in July. Rich owns Flanagan Construction, and he was happy to use his expertise to fix Deborah’s wheelchair ramp. Now the kids feel safe and secure using the ramp.

Deborah has a very unique family. Deborah’s son Chip was just a toddler when she got divorced. Deborah had always dreamed of having a large family, so she started thinking about adopting another child. While attending an exercise class at Trinity United Methodist Church, she saw a flier for UMFS. Thus began a wonderful twenty-year partnership.

Deborah has a heart for children with severe medical issues. As UMFS Adoption Therapist Denise Purgold shared, “Deborah’s mission in life is to provide a family for kids who might not otherwise have one.” Deborah’s first adopted daughter, Ashley, is deaf and blind, with a seizure disorder and a gastrostomy tube. 84 people passed on adopting Ashley once they learned about all of her medical issues, but Deborah was happy to welcome her into the family.

Two years later Ashley was settled and doing well, so Deborah let UMFS know that she was open to adopting again. Over the years, she gradually expanded her family and she is now the proud mother of six children ranging in age from 16 to 27. Her adoption of 16-year-old Justin was just completed last year.

Deborah has become a strong disability advocate. “She’s a mama bear, and she’s one of a kind,” said Denise. “Deborah goes the extra mile to get what the kids need.” That includes securing year-round school support for Ashley and a special handicapped-accessible bathroom for son Ronnie.

Deborah once considered herself a quiet person, but her children inspired her to become an advocate. “They gave me a reason to speak up. I have learned more than I ever imagined there was to learn,” she shared. Deborah hopes to retire next year. She’s looking forward to spending more time with her family, but she also plans to help others follow in her footsteps. She’s currently mentoring a friend who has adopted a disabled child, and she hopes to help others as well.

To learn more about fostering or adopting a child in need, click here.