After raising five children together, Pam and Gary Willis decided to forgo the whole "empty nest" thing by becoming foster parents. Then, during the pandemic, the Willis family learned of seven orphaned siblings who were placed in foster care and needed a home.
Back in 2019, Pam Willis says she was scrolling through Facebook and saw a heartbreaking news story titled "Seven Siblings in Need of Forever Home." She and her husband, Gary, had already been foster parents for awhile, and they both felt the need to reach out about those particular children.
But something was different this time.
"I thought about them all day," she wrote in an Instagram post about their experience. "That evening I asked my husband if he'd seen the post. 'Yes,' he said. 'We should adopt them.' My heart stopped. 'We should,' I said."
At the time, the kids ranged in age from one to 12. Their parents had both died in a terrible car accident. Each of the children miraculously survived.
“I can’t explain it — I just knew I was supposed to be their mom,” Pam, 50, tells TODAY Parents in a new interview about her family.
The couple called the number featured in the news story, and they were told that thousands of others had already reached out about the children. Luckily, just a couple of months later, the Willis family had seven new members: Adelino, now 15, Ruby, 13, Aleecia, 9, Anthony, 8, Aubriella, 7, Leo, 5, and Xander, 4.
Pam and Gary learned that their upbringing had been tumultuous and unstable at times, and that the children had experienced homelessness and starvation. Their deceased parents had apparently struggled with addiction as well.
Getting the kids to feel safe, secure, and to open up wasn't exactly easy, Pam tells TODAY.
“It was easy to connect with the little ones. They were just desperately craving permanency,” she says. The older ones took awhile to trust that their new parents weren't going to abandon them.
“I think they didn’t quite trust that we were real. Like maybe we were going to go away,” Pam said. “I think it’s so hard to trust when so much has been taken from your life. Ruby didn't know how to be a kid. She had to be a mother figure at a very young age."
For the first six months, the kids struggled with sleep. There were frequent nightmares.
“One night, my then-7-year-old came into our room,” Pam shares. “I asked her, ‘Did you have a bad dream?’ And she replied, ‘No, I just wanted to make sure that you were still here.’”
Last summer, Gary and Pam officially adopted the kids, who join older siblings Matthew, 32, Andrew, 30, Alexa, 27, Sophia, 23, and Sam, 20 in the family.
“It was awesome,” Pam said. “We brought a big TV screen out to the park so everybody could watch and cheer and be safe during COVID. There was so much love.”
Recently, the Willis family's story went viral after one of their Instagram Reels was shared by Kristen Bell. It tells the story of Pam and Gary and how the Willis family came to be in a video titled, "Our Life in 15 Seconds."
“They’ve given us a second chance at parenting, we’ve given them a second Mom and Dad,” Pam wrote in the video caption. “They are our Second Chance 7.”