KRAVITZ: On Father's Day, Chris Ballard talks about adopting two children: 'Better than winning any Super Bowl...'

Chris Ballard (top-center) with his arms around his two daughters Sunnie, 10 (left), Kierstyn, 14 (right) and son Cash, 9 (far right.) Chris' wife Kristin (bottom right) sites with her son Cole, 12 (bottom left) and daughter Rainn, 8 (bottom-center.)
Bob Kravitz

The date was June 22, 2012. The place was Houston. It was a typically oppressive Texas summer day, and Colts general manager Chris Ballard and his wife, Kristin, were sitting in a courtroom, sitting on pins and needles, waiting and wondering what their future might hold.

Across the courtroom sat a member of Ballard's extended family, Jane – we'll call her Jane for the sake of this story – and she was in court this day while a judge was deciding whether she was capable of caring for her four young girls (Skylar, Angel, Sunnie and Rainn). Jane had a long history of regrettably bad choices, leaving the kids in a shocking state of neglect that was eye-opening even to the long-time case worker, Halane Dunn of Houston Achievement Place.

"I can't begin to tell you how neglected those girls were; they needed a home in the worst possible way," Dunn was saying by telephone. "Especially the little one, Rainn, she was very underweight, very fragile and she had an eye that was kind of bulging. You could tell visibly that the girls weren't taken care of."

They were born addicted to drugs. They lived in crack houses. There was foot traffic in and out of the house all day. There was pan-handling. They were malnourished. It was a nightmare.

"Oh, my God," Kristin Ballard was saying by phone from suburban Kansas City. "People were in that house, staying up all night, sleeping all day, the kids not going to school consistently. They looked like Ethiopian kids. Rainn had a lazy eye from malnutrition. She hadn't had solid food the first 18 months of her life. When they showed up at ages 1, 3, 4 and 5, they were all still in bottles and diapers. Sunnie's teeth were just black pits from the bottles. When the state got involved, it was time for us to take care of family."

Now, back at the court proceedings, Kristin and Jane traded knowing glances, and soon, the pair were in a side room, talking, just the two of them.

"I'll give you Sunnie and Rainn," Jane finally told her.

"Well, there are four girls here who need a chance at life," Kristin said. "This is your choice, but you need to make a choice because either they'll stay in the system and then I'm out, or I'll make sure they'll have a good home. You have to decide. This is your chance."

After some time and thought, Jane finally agreed. Sunnie and Rainn would be coming home to live with the Ballards. The other two, Angel and Skylar, were eventually adopted by another loving family. It was difficult to break up the siblings, but the therapists thought it was the best option, that all these kids needed special attention, and the Ballards, who were then living in a moderate-sized, four-bedroom home in Houston, could neither handle nor fully care for seven children – three of their own (Cole, Cash and Kierstyn) and Jane's four children.

When it was over, Chris and Kristin sat in their parked car. And cried.

“It really put my life into perspective and reminded me why we're here and that's to make a difference in other people's lives”

"It was pretty powerful, I mean…" Chris wiped the tears away as he sat in his West 56th Street office. "Probably as powerful a thing as I've ever been through. It really put my life into perspective and reminded me why we're here and that's to make a difference in other people's lives. There's no win that could ever compare to that moment when we got them, no different than when our (biological) children were born…I couldn't imagine my life now without Sunnie and Rainn."

He paused, teared up again. "And for (Jane) to do what she did, that was the greatest act of love she could do because she wasn't in any shape to take care of them. I was so proud of her. All that anger and pain I felt toward her, I understood at that moment that it wasn't her fault."

When the Ballards returned home, Kristin overheard Chris as he talked to Dunn, who had come over to visit.

"I heard him tell her, 'This is better than winning any Super Bowl,' and I was like, 'Wow, I couldn't believe it,' it was an amazing thing he said," Kristin said. "It made me love him all the more."

This isn't just about the adoptive parents, though. This is about the biological children, too. They were about to add two new sisters to their familial lineup, two sisters who would need a lot of love and care – and attention, attention that might otherwise be focused on the biological kids. But they were nonplussed.

"I was tucking (then-7-year-old Cole) into bed and talking to him about the situation," Kristin said. "I said, 'Cole, we have a family that will take all four girls, or there's another family who will take Sunnie and Rainn and then we'll find a good home for Angel and Skylar. Or we can keep Sunnie and Rainn and make sure the others find a good home.' And what he told me, even now, it makes me…"

She took a moment.

“Here was a 7-year-old telling me what to do and knowing, in his heart, that this was the right thing to do”

"I start to cry every time I tell this story," she said. "He said, 'The easy thing to do is for them to live with other families. The right thing for us to do is to keep them.' At that moment, I was in such awe of his heart. His maturity. And it's an example of why this whole experience has made them (the biological children) better people. Here was a 7-year-old telling me what to do and knowing, in his heart, that this was the right thing to do. He was totally right: The easy thing to do would have been to walk away. But I think about Sunnie in particular, she's seen a little too much and doesn't completely understand, and for her to be rejected again wouldn't have been good. Not for her, not for any of them."

As Kristin spoke by phone recently from suburban Kansas City, the movers were packing her family's belongings for the trip to Indianapolis. Soon enough, they will be altogether. But first, for Father's Day, Chris will be heading back to KC to spend the day with his wife and five kids. Not his three biological children and two adopted children. His five children. The ones who call Kristin and Chris mommy and daddy. The children who've been given a fair chance at a decent life by a special group of people.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

The first call to the Ballards came in 2010. It was from someone from Texas child welfare services. Kristin knew it was coming. At some point, it was definitely coming.

"We knew it wasn't a good situation (for the children)," she said. "We'd see them at Thanksgiving and it would break my heart. We would buy them clothes, different essentials, throw little Christmas parties just for them. I was so surprised and impressed my three biological children didn't ask for anything. They understood we were helping. As it turned out, once the state had taken away her (Jane's) children, she gave them my phone number."

The Ballards were contemplating their options when they got a shocking call from the state 10 days after the initial call: The state had split the four girls, two with one foster family, two with another foster family. Sunnie and Rainn, though, were not walking into a particularly good situation.

"I'll never forget driving them back to foster care," Chris said. "We had lots of tears. We were heartbroken. We were thinking, 'How can we do this? This is family.'"

The Ballards knew they needed to get them back, so over the course of two months, they got foster-certified. Roughly two months later, Sunnie and Rainn joined the Ballards in their four-bedroom home. They went to an auction and got bedroom furniture for the new daughters. They put the two boys in bunkbeds. Kierstyn, their oldest, got her own room.

It was tight. It was expensive. It was emotionally difficult at times, not only for the Ballards as parents, but for the Ballards as a couple. And it was all worth it.

"I always felt like we had this little family unit that was moving along real smoothly with the three kids," Kristin said. "Then all this began happening, and it was tough at the beginning, but now I've seen how Sunnie and Rainn have grown so much personally and maturity-wise and with their confidence. And the best thing for my (biological) kids was being able to help somebody. They'd say, 'They're our sisters.' You can't teach that unless you're living that. It just made us all stronger as a family, stronger spiritually."

Chris got emotional again, talking about his biological children and their giving hearts.

"They were unselfish, loving and it was from the get-go," he said haltingly. "No resentment. Now, we couldn't imagine life with them (Sunnie and Rainn)."

Still, Kristin was torn. What about Angel and Skylar? "I had people in my ear telling me, 'You've got to take all four, you've got to take all four,'" she said. "Your heart tugs at you, but logic tells you that you can't do it all. You have to give each one of them so much individual care because they've seen too many things at a very young age. And talking to therapists, this was the best option in their opinion."

Here's the thing about foster kids and children up for adoption: Many – really, most – of them have scars, whether physical or emotional or both. Some grew up addicted to drugs, as did Jane's children. Some were brutally neglected. Some have been physically abused. They arrive in their new home carrying baggage.

"When Rainn was 18 months old, she was almost kicked out of pre-K because she was so mean, because she'd seen so much physical abuse in the house," Kristin said.

Chris said the family naturally believed Sunnie and Rainn would immediately love them back the way they loved these two young girls. "We bring them in and expect instant love," he said. "It doesn't happen like that. They still wanted their mom."

Over time, the bonds grew stronger, the love deeper. Trust was established. And so was discipline. These kids had grown up with no direction, no accountability, so when Kristin, the self-styled disciplinarian of the household, treated them the way a mother treats her misbehaving children, they chafed.

"Rainn adapted pretty quickly; she just latched onto my wife, but she was so young," Chris said. "Sunnie has more scars. She still goes to counseling. She's a great kid but she has some abandonment issues. When Kristin came here (to Indianapolis) to look for houses, then when she went back to Kansas City, Sunnie acted out because mom left."

The heavy lifting was left to Kristin, who not only was running her growing household, but was working fulltime in pharmaceutical sales. And beginning the adoption proceedings.

"I'm the one who has to discipline them most of the time — 'I'm your mom, not your friend,'" Kristin said. "Do wrong and there will be consequences. But then daddy comes home and they're sweet as pie to him. They're working the system. That's hard emotionally for someone who's done everything for them and then they're like that with their dad, and he doesn't always understand that, so sometimes we have to come back together as a couple."

In January of 2011, Dunn from the Houston Achievement Place got involved and guided them through the labyrinthine process of becoming foster parents and then adoptive parents. The first time she met Kristin, she knew she had found someone who, along with Chris, could make life better for two little girls.

"I was really impressed by her empathy for the children and the children's mother and the entire situation, because she had a family of her own, but yet she was very attuned to what (Chris') desires were in terms of making sure his relatives would have a home where the girls would be safe," Dunn said. "We need to see that people are emotionally stable, financially stable and motivated by the right things in terms of taking care of the children and meeting their needs. Often, kids come along with quite a few deficits, so that's why we do so much training. We have to make sure it's not too much for them because there's a lot that goes into caring for children who've been neglected or abused."

Dunn knew she had found the right family during a visit to the Ballard home. Rainn was quite young, but sidled over to Kristin.

"She kept calling her 'Mommy,'" Dunn said. "That's when I knew."

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Chris Ballard was going through his cell phone, looking at photos and videos of his kids. He wore a broad smile. He pointed toward a framed picture of his family, all wearing University of Wisconsin gear.

"I love to watch my kids with each other," he said. "I love watching Kierstyn in gymnastics, being a great teammate. Cole and how competitive he is. Sunnie playing soccer and softball; I love those moments. Cash, playing basketball or playing the piano. Rainn is our gymnast. I love to watch Rainn dance. She just starts in the middle of the house, dancing. We put on a video and she just goes to town."

Said Kristin: "The kids are doing amazing. Our family policy is if you don't get straight A's, no sports. Sunnie is getting straight A's and Rainn is starting to get letter grades next year. One day, Rainn asked me, 'When did I come out of your belly?' I said, 'You were 18 months old.' She said, 'Wow, I was big.' Another time, she visited her (biological) sisters and she said, 'I don't have the same mom as you do.' They told her 'Yes, you do.' And Rainn was upside down."

"We tell the girls about their mom. We're honest. We tell them, 'Your mom loved you and still loves you and will always love you, but she put some bad things in her body that made her make some bad decisions, and she wasn't able to take care of you.' And I told (Jane), she's not doing real well right now, but I told her, 'You did the right thing, but now it's your turn, there's nothing holding you back. It's time to fix you.' Because when they turn 18, they're going to want to see you. And they're either going to see you and say, 'Wow, she's really turned her life around' or 'Oh, now I know why I was taken away.' This is your chance to change things."

Think about Sunnie. When she came to the Ballards, she didn't know how to catch a ball. They would throw it to her, she would step aside and it would roll away. "She'd spent so little time outside playing, she had no idea," Kristin said. Now, Sunnie is playing all kinds of sports.

There are still some bumps in the road, still some therapy, because childhood scars don't heal with the snap of the fingers. But the biological kids, the adopted kids – their kids – all are thriving, and all are moving this next week to Indianapolis, where they hope they will have a home for years and years to come.

The Ballards do not think they're special or that they did something special. This is simply what they had to do. A family member was suffering, and, by extension, her four children were suffering. They couldn't sit idly by and watch that happen.

“You've got to be willing to give of yourself”

"There are a lot of kids who need love and guidance in this world," Chris said. "And if we're capable, we need to do all we can to help them. I was one of those people, hey, I lived in a bubble, this is our family. But I'm telling you, you get back tenfold from giving of yourself and your time. Some people say, 'Hey, I'm going to write a check and help' and that's fine, but it's got to be more than that. You've got to be willing to give of yourself, and that's hard, that takes time and that takes commitment, It takes sacrifice and it's not for everybody."

He smiled.

"But it's worth it. It's worth it."

Said Kristin: "When I say we have adopted children, people always say, 'Well, we thought about doing that.' Everybody does. And you have to think long and hard about it, especially if your children are younger…You have to be all in and have to be all-in as a married couple, so it's tough at times. Those children aren't there because they've got a parent with an illness who passed away. They're coming from situations that were really, really bad in most cases. They're there for a reason."

By this time next week, the entire Ballard family will be set up and living together in suburban Indianapolis. They've spent all these months apart, letting the Ballard kids finish school, letting Chris get things rolling over at the Colts offices. But soon, they will be re-united, a family – a unique and special family – together once again.

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