If everyone in Leakey, Texas, knows the Spaniel family, that’s because they’re pretty hard to miss: there is not another family quite like this one. The Spaniels have three natural-born kids, plus five more they adopted as babies with extreme medical needs, plus seven more foster children over the years.
The Spaniel family—and their incredible story—have become something of a fixture the last four summers at Laity Lodge Family Camp.
Their first adopted twins, Nathan and Nigel from Palestine, Texas, were born addicted to crack cocaine. Nathan was also born blind and deaf, a side effect of the cocaine in his system. Nigel has Down Syndrome, a condition unrelated to his birth mother’s drug use.
Caring for the twins would be an around-the-clock job that might turn away many foster parents, especially ones like Mark and Terri, who already had three biological children and two full-time jobs. Mark was (and is) the pastor of Leakey First Baptist Church, and Terri was the director of the only childcare program in Leakey at the time.
They were not deterred.
The entire family fell in love with Nathan and Nigel, and about a year and a half later, Mark and Terri finalized the adoption. That was in 1995. Nathan and Nigel have been Spaniels for 25 years.
On a recent visit to Kerrville, the Spaniels shared their story. “I’ve always felt a need to adopt ever since I was a little girl,” Terri Spaniel said. Her husband squirmed in his seat and added that he has never had that calling, but willingly follows his wife wherever she is led.
The Spaniels’ oldest child, Karah, was 10 years old when Nathan and Nigel arrived, and she developed a special bond with Nathan. “He had some sensory issues as a baby and toddler,” she said, “which meant that he was often overwhelmed and easily upset.”
“For some reason, I could calm him,” Karah explained, “so I would spend hours every day holding him.” To this day, Karah says it has been a joy to be Nathan’s big sister and now his friend.
Today, Nathan lives in North Texas with friends. His hearing and vision have improved—years of therapy helped him tremendously—though he is still on dialysis despite a recent kidney transplant.
Nigel still lives with his mom and dad in Leakey. For a while he worked part time at Mama Chole’s, the town’s local Mexican restaurant. Customers loved interacting with him.
Nathan and Nigel were just the first expansion of the Spaniel clan. Mark and Terri didn’t foster or adopt additional children for nearly 10 years because the twins were such a handful, but in 2003, they reached out to Pathways Youth and Family Services in Kerrville, Texas, hoping to foster another medically needy child.
When Pathways called the Spaniels, they were ready. An 11-month-old girl had been shaken severely in San Antonio by her mother’s boyfriend and was heading into brain surgery. Mark and Terri rushed to the hospital and met Destiny.
“She was the most beautiful red-headed baby girl,” Terri said. The Spaniels adopted Destiny when she was three.
Before she was shaken, Destiny was a normal healthy girl. After the incident—deemed a non-accidental traumatic brain injury—she was in bad shape. “The doctors told us she would face a lot of problems,” Terri said.
The doctors were right. Now 17, Destiny is legally blind and mostly nonverbal. Terri and Mark feed her through a tube three times each day. She will need full-time care for the rest of her life. She is a source of joy for the Spaniels. On Sunday mornings at church, she dances while her dad plays piano and even sings in her own way.