Sarah Risley speaks with her daughter Laura Ann at left as her husband Dr. Jon Risley interacts with his adopted sons Nehemiah, Gabriel and Seth, from left, after arriving home from work. The Risley family have felt a religious calling to go to China and adopt three more children this December which will bring the total number of kids they support to 13.


Jonathan, 21 Berry College student

Luke, 19 Covenant College student

Sam, 17, Chattanooga Christian School student

Matthew, 14, Chattanooga Christian School student

Sarah Kate, 13

Elyse, 11, Adopted from Kazakhstan in 2008

Laura Ann, 10, adopted from Kazakhstan in 2008

Seth Ezra, 4, adopted from China in 2012

Gabriel, 4, adopted from China in 2012

Nehemiah, 3, adopted from China in 2013

Newest additions:

Joseph, 10

Timothy, 2

Esther, 2

LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN, Ga. -- Each night, broken children from across the world gather around the old farm table in the Risley home to break bread.

They have club feet, deformed hearts and weakened legs. One has permanent brain damage. Another has crippled arms.

Halfway around the globe, these children were unwanted. Here, they are treasured.

In 2008, with five healthy biological children of their own, Jon and Sarah Risley began adopting children from overseas. Now, with 10 kids, their clan is more than four times larger than the average American family.

And the family is still growing. The couple and three of their older kids are spending this Christmas in China picking up three more children, as grandparents and older siblings stay behind to care for the little ones.

The challenges of managing such a huge family are obvious. The decorative sign over the stove that says "Grand Central Station" is fitting testimony to the commotion that often fills the home.

But the couple views the ordinary chaos of little ones as their reward. They hear a joyful noise in the fussing, the crying, even the occasional fighting that takes over the kitchen and living room. In their family, they see a living example of biblical redemption. They feel called to take in fragile children, even those who may not have long.

One suffers from an overworked heart that may not last long past puberty. And their newest arrivals are some of their most medically delicate yet. Two are missing whole chambers of their hearts and the other suffers from brittle-bone disease.


The Risley family is still accepting donations to help offset adoption costs. To help, visit Mention the Risley Family and account number 4767 when giving.

Learn more about the Risleys on their family blog at

The Risleys know they are opening their family up to great sorrow. But they say they've also filled their home with great joy.

And they're adamant that all children deserve parents. A family. Wrestling matches with older brothers and pillow fights with siblings.

"We want their lives, however many days they have, to be full. And filled with hope and life and joy. Not filled with fear," Sarah says. "We just think it's worth it."

They brought home children with empty eyes and watched them grow into happy, loving kids.

"In the same way we're opening ourselves up to sorrow, we're also opening ourselves up to joy, outlandish joy. It's sweeter because we know that we don't know how long we have."

Jon and Sarah met in Florida. He was a country club kid, an only child. She was the daughter of missionaries, born and raised in West Africa's Niger. They married in 1990 and started having children -- Jonathan, Luke and Sam.

They moved around to Virginia and Georgia and then went on to serve as medical missionaries in central Africa for five years. They moved back to Sarasota, Fla., and had two more children -- Matthew and Sarah Kate. In 2004, the family of seven moved to Lookout Mountain. They were drawn there by Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church, one of three churches in the Chattanooga area that had supported the family's missionary work in Africa.

And it was the same church that led them to international adoption.

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Dr. Jon Risley, left, and his son Luke trim a Christmas tree for a fellow Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church parishioner. The church hosted a distribution of trees this year to raise money for the Risley family who are adopting three children from China this December which will bring the number of children they have up to 13.

One Sunday, the pastor was preaching a series on the Book of Amos, a minor prophet who warned the Israelites that they had grown greedy. In their privilege, they had turned away from God. He warned against their selfishness, their oppression of the poor.

The pastor asked searing questions.

Do you allow God to interrupt your plans?

The couple talked about the sermon over lunch and started looking into adoption the same day.

The first adoption was difficult. Agencies were skeptical. In 2008, Jon and Sarah were 42 and already had five children. They spent weeks in Kazakhstan jumping through the various adoption hoops. They flew there, flew back to the U.S. and back again, finally with two little girls, Elyse and Laura Ann, who had been taken by the state from a birth mother who couldn't take care of them.

The Risleys thought they were done. But their youngest biological son, Matthew, who was 11 at the time, urged them to bring more children home, this time brothers.

In 2011, the family took a short missionary trip to Haiti following the devastating earthquake there. They were drawn to an HIV-positive baby boy in an orphanage, but he died before they could bring him home.

They turned their sights to China and in 2012 they brought home two little boys -- Seth Ezra and Gabriel. Nehemiah came 11 months later.

Now they're bringing home two babies and a 10-year-old -- the oldest child they've ever adopted.

With them will come even more sacrifice.

The family is comfortable. Jon works full-time as a family physician. He's also a reservist in the U.S. Navy and does some consulting work for the Navy. But a big family is expensive. So is adoption.

They go through five gallons of milk a week -- six in the summer. It takes five loaves of bread each week to pack peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for school lunches. The trips to doctors' offices and hospitals never seem to stop. And Sarah does at least three loads of laundry a day.

To bring home Timothy, Esther and Joseph -- the newest additions -- the family will spend some $60,000 in agency fees, travel, immigration costs and orphanage fees. To help cover the cost of their adoptions, the Risleys have sold T-shirts and Christmas trees. The kids have operated lemonade stands. And the family has received grants from foundations and nonprofits.

To help make ends meet, the Risley kids skip trips to the Creative Discovery Museum and the zoo. Instead, they go to parks or ride their bikes. In the summertime, they visit the homes of friends who have pools. The family rarely goes out to eat. Each child is allowed to play only one sport. And they don't take music lessons or attend summer camps.

Time is just as limited a commodity. Jon's parents, who live in an apartment downstairs, help chauffeur kids to and from soccer practices and games. Sarah's world is narrow, focused almost exclusively on the home. There isn't even time for things like Bible study.

But they say they make these sacrifices gladly. They are not onerous.

"When you say yes, you also say no," she said.

The parents have seen their adopted children flourish. They trust more. They love freely. And they've progressed in school.

But the Risleys see changes in their biological kids, too. They're more patient, more mature. The trips to overseas orphanages have opened their eyes to their own privilege. They've seen rooms full of wall-to-wall cribs.

The older kids sometimes grow frustrated with the limitations and burdens of such a large family. They don't get to take big vacations like other families.

The mornings are loud. The little ones can get out of hand.

"My friends don't come over for that reason," joked 17-year-old Sam.

But they mostly embrace their parents' mission.

"It's crazy, but it's fun," said 13-year-old Sarah Kate.

Her friends love coming over to see the chaos and play with the little ones.

Others on the mountain are embracing the chaos, too.

While the Risley family grew over the past six years, others on Lookout Mountain took notice. Some were directly inspired by their example. Others found their own ways to international adoption.

Now the Sunday school classes at Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church are dotted with little boys and girls from Uganda, Haiti, China and Korea.

"There really is a whole group of people, including the Risleys, who are very intentional about sharing their lives and their homes," said Patricia Lindley, a friend of the family. "These are all families who do have biological children but really are taking seriously what the scriptures say about caring for widows and orphans and the distressed."

Lindley said she's struck by the sacrifice in the Risley household. They continue to take on more and more, each time giving away more of themselves.

"It's just amazing and a beautiful picture of sacrifice," she said.

No one is more humbled than Joe Novenson, Lookout Mountain Presbyterian's senior teaching pastor. He says the Risleys were selfless servants long before he preached from the Book of Amos.

"I call them a sermon in shoes," he said. "It's better than anything I could preach."

The pastor puts it in cosmological terms. In the 2nd century, Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy postulated that the Earth was the center of the universe, with the sun revolving around it. In the early 1500s, Copernicus reversed the argument, theorizing that the Earth and other planets revolve around the sun.

Novenson said most Christians, most churches tend to act like God revolves around them. They are Ptolemaic believers. But people like the Risleys are Copernican. They believe their lives revolve around God, that their lives belong to God.

"We sort of think that God turns around us," Novenson said, "and along come people like the Risleys who say nope, that's not true."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at or 423-757-6249.