When Lake Highlands residents Bill and Akemi Rhea were married in September 1998, they were starting a second chapter in their lives. Both had older children from previous marriages, so their parenting days were pretty much winding down.

Or were they? While on their honeymoon, Bill asked Akemi if she wanted to adopt a child. She said no.

“I didn’t want to ever adopt in my life. I was a single mom for eight years!” she says.

But something changed during their first year of marriage.

“God put the desire to adopt in our hearts simultaneously,” Akemi says.

And now the couple has – count’em – eight more children in their household, bringing the family total to 14 children.

The list goes like this:

  • From Bill’s first marriage there’s Josh, 30, and Adrienne, 26;
  • Akemi has Robert, 25, Adrain, 23, Shaun, 21, Kevin, 17 (still living at home), from her first marriage.
  • Then there’s the rest of the bunch, adopted from different regions of the world – John, 13; Elizabeth, 10; Maly, 9; Maggie, 8; Serah, 7; Catherine, 6; Monichea, 6; and Frances, 5.

Although the Rheas will tell you how much they love each and every one of their adopted children, having eight new kids was not the plan.

“I wasn’t supposed to get all these kids. I was only going to get one, maybe two little girls,” Akemi says.

Initially, the couple applied to an adoption agency in China. That was because Akemi, who is Japanese-American, is familiar with the culture.

But the Rheas found adopting from China to be a long process. All their paperwork had to make it through the Chinese Embassy and state agencies. So while they waited on that, they decided to apply to Cambodia as well.

Cambodian officials approved them right away. But instead of coming home with the one little girl they had chosen, Monichea, the Rheas ended up with three.

“We had been approved for two kids, and the agent asked if we would take Serah, because she had just been rejected,” Akemi says.

But when Rhea and two of her sons were in Cambodia, the agent asked her to take another child, Maly. Rhea was hesitant, but decided to go ahead with the adoption when one of her sons said: “Mom, that’s my sister.”

The Rheas had to go to court in Cambodia in order to take Maly home.

“They asked if we were going to sell her,” Akemi says. “About a month later, 20/20 did an investigation on the Cambodian sex trade. Maly would have been traded into that, to Thailand, I have no doubt.”

After Akemi brought the three girls home in March 2001, she and Bill attempted to put their China paperwork on hold.

“They told us we had nothing to worry about, that it would take months,” says Bill, a former district judge who is now a mediator.

So the couple didn’t really think about it too much; after all, they had a lot of work on their hands getting Maly, Serah and Monichea acclimated to their new home.

“The girls were filthy. Monichea had worms. They all had Hepatitis A. Serah was crying a lot because she had an ear infection and was having a hard time sleeping,” Akemi recalls. “But it didn’t take long for them to get used to everything and to start speaking English.”

It was then, of course, that the Chinese agency sent the Rheas a referral. Though Akemi was initially hesitant to adopt Maggie, Bill talked her into it, and she went to China in January 2002 to get her.

Although Akemi says it took a little longer for her to bond with Maggie, the other girls took right to her. Maly even offered to help teach her English.

As for the boys still at home, well, that took a little time, too.

“Shaun was like, ‘You have to get another one?’ There was a little jealousy phase,” she says.

At this point, the Rheas felt they had done their share. After all, they’d given a home and family to four little girls.

“I didn’t think we’d get any more,” Akemi says. “But then – simultaneously – we felt another tug in our heart.”

With five kids at home now (the four adopted girls and Kevin), the Chinese agency wouldn’t allow the Rheas to adopt any more children. But the couple wanted to adopt two more. Akemi was hesitant about adopting from CPS, but a friend encouraged her to look online at the children waiting for homes. That was when she first saw Elizabeth and John.

Elizabeth and John – and their little sister Catherine and Frances (all have the same mother but a different father) – had been waiting for two years for a family.

The Rheas decided to apply for all four children. “Twenty-five other families had applied for the four kids. So they told us to think about others.”

But soon after, the Rheas received a phone call saying the other families hadn’t worked out. So in September 2003, John, Elizabeth, Catherine and Frances joined the family.

Nowadays, the whole bunch seems to operate like a well-oiled machine. The girls are all dressed alike (at least most days) to keep things simple.

“I have their clothes in order, and I’ll say, ‘OK, you’re wearing your green dress today,’” Akemi says, adding that she has the girls line up when it’s time to brush their hair.

Each child even has his or her own nametag when visitors come by.

“With having this many, you’re forced to be structured,” Bill says. “Usually, before we get out of the van, we’ll tell them to behave. Sometimes we make them line up behind us.”

One thing the Rheas like to stress is that they are very open about their adoptions, both with the children and other people. They say it’s mainly to get the word out and encourage other families to adopt as well.

“Three people we know are adopting because of us telling them about it,” Rhea says.

The children don’t seem to mind the openness either. The Rheas say it’s because they are grateful.

Case in point: When asked what’s better about living here, Maly gives a humble but telling response: “That you get more food.”

While the couple says they probably won’t adopt any more children, they say they remain open to it.

And, they say, it has all been worth it.

“All of the children we adopted were deprived of so much that we take for granted. They didn’t have food on a regular basis or clothing of their own. They didn’t have access to medical care and suffered as a result, Akemi says.

“Some had no name, no birth dates, no memories of family members or gatherings. Some were not allowed to attend schools. They were lost, frightened souls.

“We had been blessed to watch them bloom, knowing that we have been an integral part of their growth process. You can see an obvious physical change just by looking at pictures of them when we got them and what they look like now.

“But the greatest change is their demeanors. Their countenances are totally different,” she says. “They are not fearful anymore. They have real identities. They have purpose and direction. They have aspirations.”