Writer: JACQUELINE HILBURN-SIMMONS / Photographer: SARAH MILLER / Small Town Kids / Summer 2016
A small sign stationed at the front door of Robert and Jessica Ogden’s home seems to sum up their happy-go-lucky attitudes.
The plaque reads, “Ogden Nuthouse,” but it could just as easily say “Ogden Funhouse.”
Inside, the living room floor features a scattering of educational toys and colorful walls bright enough to put a rainbow to shame.
It is a whimsical, happy place, filled with love and laughter and lots of “oops” moments, which seems reasonable for a family traveling at two speeds: busy and extremely busy.
“It gets a little crazy around here sometimes,” said Mrs. Ogden, 36, a former special education instructor with flaming red hair, tattoos and a wide, pearly grin. “I love my kids. Even when they drive me nuts, I love them.”
The couple, married nine years, is raising a blended family, and Mrs. Ogden is a stay-at-home mom, caring full time for three adopted young people with special needs.
Her husband is a bear of a man in a bow tie, who works as an assistant principal at James S. Hogg Middle School.
Add five rescue dogs to their busy household, and the result is controlled chaos punctuated with plenty of laughter.
From the outside looking in, one might wonder if the door sign is there for a reason, but spend a little time with the Ogdens and it is apparent the suggested chaos is anything but.
“You’ve got to stay calm,” Mrs. Ogden said. “I learned if I act like everything is OK, everything is OK.”
Consequently, their Tyler home seems to run like a well-oiled machine, and for that, Ogden is grateful.
“My wife is, in my opinion, the epitome of selflessness,” he said. “She constantly puts others before herself. She will do everything she can to make sure our children and other people’s children have everything they need … without spoiling the kids. She manages to be strict and warm and fuzzy all at the same time. I do not know how she does it.”
They each credit their moms with instilling the importance of compassion, patience and giving back.
Their shared passion for helping children appears part of the thread that ties them together.
Both were once coworkers at the Wayne D. Boshears Center for Exceptional Programs before embarking on their life together.
The educators eventually married and, before their first anniversary, decided to follow their hearts and adopt children with special needs.
Their first and oldest child, Belinda, nicknamed “Lulu,” is one of Mrs. Ogden’s former students, who at 21 and visually impaired, was poised to age out of the public education system.
“She was in a group home with no family involvement,” Mrs. Ogden said.
The Ogdens began worrying about Lulu’s future and spent hours talking about how bleak life can be when it is devoid of a family’s love.
“One day he looked at me and said, ‘Well, why can’t we have her?’” Mrs. Ogden said.
Within a matter of weeks, Lulu was home for good and life around the Ogden home changed forever, in ways they could never expect.
Lulu is 27 now, nonverbal and fully dependent on the Ogdens for every comfort.
She rarely sleeps and often gets up to wander about the house, occasionally banging her head into the walls hard enough to leave small dings or holes, Mrs. Ogden said.
But she is safe and loved and responds in kind with clumsy hugs, wet kisses and bursts of laughter.
“Yes, there were times at first when I thought, ‘What have I done?’” Mrs. Ogden said, pausing to give her daughter a tight hug. “Sometimes she physically hurts me, but she’s mine, and I’m her mom and I love her … it’s the same as if I’d given birth to her.”
GROWING A FAMILY
Within a matter of months, the family grew again.
Middle child Krystal, 25, is bubbly and talkative with dimply cheeks.
She’s a former foster child, who enjoys pretty clothes and being a girl.
“Krystal is full of drama and life and wants to be the center of attention,” Mrs. Ogden said. “She’s a bundle of joyful energy.”
The young woman is one of Ogden’s former students, who, like his wife, worried that she faced a bleak future without drastic outside intervention.
With no loved ones to claim as her own or act on her behalf, the girl’s options were limited – she was developmentally delayed, approaching 18 and on the brink of aging out of state foster care.
“There are so many kids out there who need help,” Mrs. Ogden said.
The Ogdens stepped up to offer Krystal a home and never looked back.
“She just blended right in the family,” Mrs. Ogden said. “We just ran by the group home and picked her up with her little suitcase. She had very few things of her own.”
Today, Krystal, a devoted fan of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, seems perpetually happy.
She enjoys helping out in the kitchen, making family favorites for dinner, such as taco cupcakes.
Years passed before the Ogdens would adopt again.
The couple’s third child, Alfie, 8, another former foster child, joined the family in February 2015.
The high-energy boy had been in foster care for several years and was in desperate need of a stable forever home.
Mrs. Ogden learned of his plight through ARK of Smith County, where she volunteers.
It seemed there was little discussion in the Ogden household about whether to help the handsome young man, described by state authorities as autistic.
The Ogdens completed the necessary requirements to become foster parents and started participating in supervised visits with the boy in hopes of connecting with him.
“We played and hugged, and I just knew, that’s my son,” she said, recalling their early interactions. “I cried all the way home after we had to leave him.”
When the boy was finally able to move into the Ogden home, there was no denying the emotional bond.
“That’s when it clicked, when he realized, ‘That’s Mom,’” she said. “Anything I did, he was attached to me and it’s still mostly that way.”
A STRICT SCHEDULE
It seems the key to keeping things simple is routine and Mrs. Ogden, as the stay-at-home parent, is a stickler for staying on task.
The Ogdens rely on video monitors and gut instincts to stay apprised of activities unfolding within the home.
There is a specific time for most every task in the day, from eating and bathing to napping and running errands.
The family routinely travels in a secondhand bus scored on Auto Trader, giving everyone, especially Lulu, who uses a special wheelchair for mobility, plenty of room. The bus is large enough to hold the three kids, plus Robert’s two children, Vanessa, 11, and Dalton, 14.
And there is no such thing as traveling light, as the family always maintains a hefty stockpile of snacks, wipes, diapers and drinks at the ready.
There are occasional stares when they are all out together, but the Ogdens seem to take it in stride.
“I knew that we were venturing into territory that few people can understand when we decided to add children to our household,” Ogden said. “Too many people said that they could not do it and did not know how we could. At this point, I cannot imagine my life without all my kiddos. … Jess is a huge part of who I am. While my mother opened the door, my compassion for others stays strong and true because of Jess.”
Mrs. Ogden said life, likewise, feels full and complete.
“I am never going to have a baby,” she said. “I don’t have a desire for having a human who looks like me. These are my kids and I love them. I really love my family.”