Frank Elliott anticipated Father’s Day cards from his family, but breakfast in bed was another matter.
He didn’t rule out eating propped up on pillows, a treat his wife, Diane, receives every Mother’s Day. If it didn’t happen, though, he would understand.
“I haven’t gotten that yet,” he said. “But I get up before everybody. I’m always the first one up. It’s hard to catch Daddy in bed.”
There’s no lazing around when you have eight children to raise. Lately, Elliott has been busy converting the office of his Studio 808 salon in Boalsburg into a bedroom. He’s also shifting rooms in his adjacent home, all in preparation of the best gift.
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At 65, he’s going to become a dad again.
The Elliotts are on the verge of their ninth adoption, a 12-year-old girl from Haiti named Widelande. She already has their last name, and red tape is the only thing holding up her joining a unique household.
The Elliott clan ranges from 7 to 20, and originally hails from a potpourri of places: Clearfield, Philadelphia, Alabama, New Jersey, Serbia, Bulgaria and Haiti. Several have special needs, but all share the deep bond of siblings pulled from bleak futures and given a loving home by two devoted souls.
Frank is a longtime hair designer and a former workforce education professional development team leader at Penn State. Diane is a registered nurse and pediatric health educator at Mount Nittany Medical Center.
They turned to adoption after marrying in 1992 and having trouble conceiving. Frank plunged into his second go-around with fatherhood. A previous marriage produced two grown sons, Luke and Zach, and three grandchildren ages 9, 14 and 17.
This time around raising children, Frank looks back on a sometimes intense, sometimes tumultuous, but always joyful journey. Expensive, too. His family goes through eight bread loaves per week as fast as he can bake them, and 16 to 18 half-gallons of milk disappear weekly.
Every moment, good or bad, has been worth every bill.
“On a day to day basis, we’re blessed,” Frank said. “There’s incredible amounts of work. It never ends. Some of it is really hard — emotionally, physically, all that good stuff — but the rewards are daily, literally.”
Maybe to someone else, as the old TV show went, eight would be enough. Not Frank: Like his wife, he believes “every child deserves a chance,” and that’s why he’s willing to embrace another daughter.
“Because we can, and she needs it,” he said. “She either grows up in Haiti or the United States, and we have the chance to make that change.”
As fathers everywhere hope, he has watched many changes under his roof as his children, given their chances, have matured and blossomed. Manny, Nadine, Vlad, Niko, Nyron, Alex, Mary and Niki have amazed and inspired him with their talents and personalities, with their intelligence, ingenuity and courage.
He also has been fortunate to see his children grow to love each other, to celebrate each other’s triumphs, big and small.
They clap for Vlad, who’s blind from a rare genetic disorder and learning to walk and communicate, after he finishes his turn saying grace before dinner. When Nyron, a natural athlete, returned home last December after receiving new prosthetic legs, two of his siblings joined him for exuberant laps around their block.
Those moments have been gifts in themselves, as has the insight gained about parenting. Raising children from deprived, traumatic origins has brought many challenges to an already tough job, but Frank discovered a valuable truth long ago. Find each child’s “currency,” the passion or trait that drives them, and you’ll unlock their growth.
It wasn’t the only lesson. To nurture his children through rocky times, he had to grow himself, to come to grips with emotional baggage from his own turbulent childhood and relationship with his father.
Someday, he hopes, he can help other adoptive dads do the same.
His sights are set on a 10-week home course offered by the Texas Christian University Institute of Child Development, which studies the effects of early abuse, trauma and neglect to assist families with at-risk children. Under the program, he would spend the last week in the institute’s clinic.
Based on his experiences more than his doctorate in workforce education, he feels he has perspective to offer — specifically for fathers coping with emotionally fragile adopted children.
“It’s so hard,” he said. “You have to deal with these kids on an emotional level, and guys don’t typically know how to do that.”
The problem, he said, is that men often have buried their own emotional issues.
“Guys don’t deal with things as outwardly as women do,” he said. “Then, all of a sudden, we have to deal with them because the kids are so needy. It’s kind of like being a dad on steroids.”
Until he can share his hard-won wisdom with other fathers, he’ll work on improving his own game. Each morning brings another opportunity, another test or two, more rewards.
Like the memory of a moment years ago next to a Serbian orphanage.
Frank had flown over to pick up Vlad. His new son was 4 but developmentally about 2 months. All he had known was the inside of a crib.
He weighed nothing, around 20 pounds, so his father scooped him up easily for a short walk. Vlad curled against him, and like that, they descended to the front door in an antiquated elevator.
On the sidewalk, Frank suddenly felt an alertness spread through the slender body in his arms. Then it dawned on him. Nothing was wrong.
His boy had never been outside.
“He was feeling a breeze for the first time in his life,” Frank said.
A father couldn’t ask for a more precious gift.