Pam and Gary Willis already had five biological children when they decided to become foster parents. The couple didn't plan on adopting anyone, but all of that changed when seven siblings needed a forever home...
Pam & Gary
Meet Pam and Gary Willis, the loving couple who shared an incredible journey together. "My husband and I have been married since we were babies ourselves," Pam shared. The lovebugs met shortly before she turned 16, and he was 18.
"When we were teenagers dating, we said we wanted 10 children," Mrs. Willis said. But the future had much more in store for the couple. Pam and Gary tied the knot in 1988. The newlyweds never suspected that over three decades later, they would become internet famous.
A Dream Come True
Not long after the wedding, Gary enlisted in the Navy, and Pam started nursing school. But they also got to work on something else: starting a family. "The babies came immediately. I never wanted anything more than I wanted to be a mother," Pam explained.
"I had started college when we were pregnant with our second child in 1990," she said. "It took me 6 years and the birth of our third child to finally reach my goal of earning my Bachelor's degree." With Gary in the Navy and three children at home, the young parents had their work cut out for them.
After officially becoming a registered nurse, Pam got to work at a hospital in Hawaii, where the Navy sent the family. "In 1997 I was a brand new labor and delivery nurse at Kapi'olani Medical Center in Hawaii where my husband was stationed," she said.
During this time, the Willis family continued growing. The happy parents welcomed two more little ones to the clan, all while Pam and Gary worked plenty. "I loved every second of the blood sweat and tears that I shed as a nurse in those first years," the mom-of-five shared.
So the Willises were officially a family of seven. They had three sons and two daughters: Matthew, Andrew, Alexa, Sophia, and Sam (in order from eldest to youngest). Because of Gary's job in the Navy, the big group moved around the United States often.
"As the years progressed and my husband's military career moved us around a bit, I had the opportunity to work in California, Texas, Oklahoma, Utah and back in California," Pam shared. "I was a nurse for 14 years." And then things took a surprising turn.
A Big Change
Back in Cali, Pam wanted a change in career. "I realized that through my experience as a labor and delivery nurse, I had become extremely interested in the legal aspects of the medical field," she explained. "I waited until my youngest started kindergarten... and I began a new adventure of my own -- school!"
"Although my physical body was tired of the work after 14 years, my passion will always be in Obstetrics," Pam clarified. The mom-of-five wanted to mix her two interests. So she worked part-time as a nurse, went to law school, and raised the children with Gary.
Almost Empty Nesters
It wasn't easy, but Pam's dedication paid off, and the mom-of-five graduated (again) as a lawyer. "My five children and amazing husband graciously supported me through that 3 1/2 years of grueling education, still working part-time as a labor nurse to help make ends meet," she said.
Gary also had a career change: the busy father retired from the Navy and started working as a postal clerk. The Willis family was happy with these new transitions and were happily settled in California. But slowly, the four eldest children each moved out until only Sam, the youngest, was left at home.
They Became Foster Parents
As the Willis children moved out, the once lively home became quieter and quieter. Pam and Gary missed being caretakers and realized they had the resources to help their community in a very big way: the couple became foster parents. For six years, the lovebirds opened their home to kids who needed it.
As foster parents, the Willis pair grew close to the children they hosted, but Pam never let them call her "mama." Even when the couple had one kid stay for 14 months and another for 12 months, the thoughtful foster mom had them say "Auntie" instead because "reunification [with their bio family] was always the goal." And then all of that changed...
A Special Little Guy
A few years into fostering children, Pam and Gary were as passionate as ever about providing a safe home for kids in need. But neither of them expected to fall so hard when an adorable little newborn ended up on their doorstep. The shot below captured the baby a few days after he arrived at the Willis's home.
"When they first brought him to me he was 3 days old," Pam shared about their latest foster child. "No one came to visit him much in the first few months, but they kept saying they were looking for family to take him. I told myself not to get too attached, but I failed at that rather quickly."
Pam Fell in Love
The dedicated parents loved each child that passed through their door, but the Willis's connection with this baby felt different. "Maybe it's because he was our only foster at the time & we've never had just one to shower individual attention on," Pam reflected.
The foster mama added, "Or maybe because I knew he didn't have a Mama visiting him, or because he was the sweetest little needy soul & he was all alone.... but I fell head over heels for him." Whatever the reason was for the extraordinary bond, Pam did something she never did before.
She Let Him Call Her Mama
Soon, the newborn wasn't so tiny anymore. He grew with the quickness that only babies and toddlers seem to grow. And still, his biological family seemed nowhere to be found. "Weeks turned into months, [and] no one came to see him," Pam sadly recalled.
"No family was found to take him, he knew only us," she continued. "He was the only foster I've ever let call me Mama. All of my other kiddos had always called me Auntie so that we wouldn't cause contention with bio mom. But to him, I was Mama." Naturally, there was one question hanging in the air.
Would They Adopt Him?
After months of bonding and becoming a family, Pam was no longer "Auntie" to the growing toddler. She was Mama. So as time passed and no family was found, it was hardly surprising when social services asked the Willis parents if they wanted to adopt the child.
"Last fall we were asked if we'd adopt him," Pam shared in 2019. "We said yes immediately. If you know our story, you know that this was God's way of opening our hearts to adoption, which we had never really thought of ourselves doing until that moment."
A News Story Changed Everything
So it seemed that Pam and Gary would not be empty nesters after all. After the couple's youngest biological child left the house, they'd have their adopted son. But then a news story about seven siblings in need of a home popped up on Pam's Facebook feed.
"I just looked at them, I looked at them, I looked at their faces, watched video two to three times, and I just kept staring, thinking, 'These could be my kids,'" Pam remembered. "I saw seven and thought, 'Oh my goodness.' The first thing I thought of was, 'No one's going to have room for them.' And the second thing I thought was 'I have room for them.'"
"I Just Knew I Was Supposed To Be Their Mom"
Reading about the siblings rocked Pam's world. The seven brothers and sisters had already been in the foster care system for over a year since the death of both of their parents. "I can't explain it - I just knew I was supposed to be their mom," Mrs. Willis told TODAY Parents.
"I thought Gary was going to tell me I was wacko - we were getting ready to retire," the nurse-turned-lawyer added. But Pam took a chance and tagged her hubby on the post. "I tagged him and went to him later that night, 'Did you see the post? We have the space. We have the room,'" she said.
Did Gary Feel the Same Way?
Pam didn't think Gary would be on board after seeing the story about the seven kids. But she was (very pleasantly) surprised. "He said, 'Yeah...' He paused and said, 'We should adopt them,'" Mrs. Willis recalled of the fateful night. "I was shocked. I was ready to convince him."
"We both felt it. Everything had aligned in our lives at that time to be able to do that and it was just so perfect," she continued. "It was what God wanted us to do." Not wanting to waste any time, the couple called the phone number listed on the new story.
The Seven Siblings
So who exactly were the seven children in need of a forever home? The siblings ranged in age from 1 to 12 and were born in Las Vegas. "They lived there until 2 years ago when their parents brought them to California for a fresh start," Pam said. And then tragedy struck.
"Seven months after they moved here, they lost their parents in that terrible car accident and ended up in San Diego County foster care where we were blessed to find them," Pam explained. But the Willis's soon learned there was much more to the story; these kids had not lived an easy life.
More to Their Story
The siblings' late parents struggled with substance use, and the family often faced financial struggles. "We were homeless a few times," said Adelino, the eldest brother. "Basically, 'hell' is how I would describe it... Hardly any food, arguing with my parents, or they were holed up in their room."
"I didn't think we'd find a family that would take all of us, that's for sure because it's insane," said Ruby, another one of the seven siblings. "You gotta be really crazy to take seven kids, especially how all of us are and all of the problems that we have." Fortunately, there were two people desperate to take care of them.
It Was Meant To Be
Two months after seeing the post, the Willis family met with the siblings' social workers. "The older kids have had a short period of time in a church that they really enjoyed," Pam and Gary were told. "Would you have a problem if the kids wanted to go to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints?"
The couple was in shock. "Ummm.... that's our church," Pam answered. "I'm the girl's youth group leader, and my husband is the executive secretary. So no. No, we wouldn't have a problem at all with that." It felt meant to be. And then things took a turn.
They Found the First Baby's Bio Family
Around the time the Willis family prepared to adopt the seven siblings, social services found their current foster child's biological family. "Our hearts were opened to adoption and for a few weeks, he was ours. But suddenly a family member was found," Pam said.
"The heartbreak that everyone talks about in foster care is so real. I would die for this little guy, just as I would for any of my other children," she continued. "I believe in reunification, but when that isn't possible, I still have a hard time with courts in California choosing family members just because of blood."
It Was a Long Process
The parents felt devastated and worried. "I have seen situations where a child is taken from the only home he or she has ever known, and placed with family the next week, just because they were 'family,'" said Pam. "A child doesn't know if you're blood related or not. A stranger is a stranger to them."
But luckily, the toddler's transition to his relatives took a while and gave him time to adjust. "Thankfully in this situation, it has taken the family members 6 months to certify and throughout that entire time baby has been able to get to know them and to love them," Pam shared. In the meantime, the Willis parents met seven new faces.
A Rough Transition
After getting to know the seven siblings during weekly visits and weekends together, the children finally moved into the Willis's home. But the transition wasn't easy. "I think they didn't quite trust that we were real. Like maybe we were going to go away," Pam said.
"One night, my then 7-year-old came into our room," she sadly recalled. "I asked her, 'Did you have a bad dream?' And she replied, 'No, I just wanted to make sure that you were still here.'" Would they be able to adjust and live happily in their new home?
So Many Changes, so Little Time
A lot had changed in Pam and Gary's life in a relatively small amount of time. The couple went from being parents of five to almost empty nesters. Then they joined the foster system and almost became parents to a toddler before welcoming seven siblings.
The Willis household was as chaotic as ever. As the dedicated parents worked hard to help the seven kids transition into their new home, they also helped the foster baby transition out of the house he grew used to. All of the changes took a toll on Pam and Gary's relationship.
Their Relationship Changed
"My husband & I haven't slept in the same bed in about five months," Pam confessed. "The problem is our 15-month-old foster still doesn't sleep through the night. And our barely 3-year-old is just now getting to where HE can sleep all night... so I get one, hubby gets the other each night."
And daytime didn't bring opportunity for quality time, either. Pam and Gary were overwhelmed with suddenly having eight children in their once nearly empty home. But the couple was already together for over three decades and knew this period would pass. And all of the struggles would soon be worthwhile.
"Their Trauma Will Always Be With Them"
Gary and Pam were like walking zombies as they survived off of sleepless nights. The couple tried to find balance and take some time to themselves, but leaving the children proved difficult. "A couple of them... get a bit anxious when we leave. Their trauma will always be with them," Mrs. Willis explained.
And to top it all off, the seven siblings would soon have to part ways with one of their new family members. "My littlest and last foster baby, whom the new kiddos accepted as their 'baby brother' so readily a few months ago, will soon be moving on," Pam said.
Staying Connected to Their Roots
With so many changes and transitions happening, the Willis parents felt it was important to honor where the seven siblings came from. So they took a family trip to Nevada. "Our visit to Vegas was the first time some of them had been back since they'd moved away," Pam shared.
"This was the first time they'd been able to go, all seven together," she continued. "It was also the first time they'd seen their mother's best friend again. It was emotional on so many levels, but SO good for them to stay connected to their family history." And then it was once more time for a painful goodbye.
They Said Bye to Their "Baby Brother"
Months after the youngest foster baby's biological family was found, he moved out of the Willis household and in with his relatives. "He has 2 awesome daddies now and they adore him. They bring him to me to visit every few weeks and he still calls me Mama," Pam said.
"That's foster care," she continued. "It's full of lots of messy emotions, but it can be beautiful and children can know that many people love and adore them through it all." As one child was adopted out of the family, seven others were about to become official members.
The Adoption Was Cancelled
A year after Gary and Pam first met their future children, it was finally time for the seven siblings to become part of the Willis fam legally. They were set to make things official in the San Diego court in March 2020. But the pandemic ruined their plans.
"We got a call just 3 days before court that they were closing down and postponing all hearings until further notice," Pam said. "We still celebrated that weekend because it was the one year anniversary of the day we'd met but inside, we all just wanted it to be official." The family (impatiently) waited for a rescheduling.
The Big Day
Finally, five months after the intended date, the Willis family officially grew by seven. All five of Pam and Gary's biological children, who now ranged in age from 20 to 32, came back into town for the emotional event. The group cried tears of happiness as they celebrated.
The adoption day took place in August 2020 as the seven siblings made their place in the Willis family permanent. "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." Little did they know, their story would soon go viral.
Recording All of Their Adventures
About a year before the adoption went through, Pam opened an Instagram page dedicated to the seven siblings. From trips to Disney World to their first time in a restaurant, the proud mama recorded the family's adventures for the internet world to see.
"There are so many children in need of homes... and I feel this huge responsibility to make people aware of that," Pam told CBS8 about why she showed their lives. "I think it's a whole world people don't understand or know, but if they did - would have a heart for it." They soon caught the attention of some Hollywood icons.
They Had Celebrity Fans
A year after opening the Instagram account, Pam posted a short video of her and Gary captioned "Our life in 15 seconds!" The upload began with the couple's first time meeting in 1988 and covered all of their milestones up to when they adopted the seven brothers and sisters. The internet loved it.
"We were jumping up and down through the years: 'First we did this, and then we raised five kids, and then we did this, and then we adopted seven kids.' And it just went completely viral all over the internet," Pam said. "Kristen Bell, Michael Buble shared it. We were like, 'What is happening?'" But soon, the haters came around, too.
As the video went viral and followers grew, haters slipped into Pam's DMs. "It begins to wear on a person.... being told that I am putting my children 'on display like animals in a zoo' hurt me so deeply," she said. "Because they are adopted I can't show them off like others do with bio children? I can't share medical challenges and trials like others do?"
Pam might've felt devastated by some people's comments, but the mom-of-twelve knew she'd done the right thing. And so did her kids. "You took us out of a really difficult, difficult time, and honestly, I probably wouldn't have been here now if it weren't for you guys. Thank you," said Adelino, one of the siblings. You can follow the family's adventures on Instagram @second.chance.7.