“You don’t really know us until you know our family,” says Jeff McGarrity, dad of seven children ages two to 14. It was faith—and possibly fate—that brought Jeff and his wife Sonia together 17 years ago in Washington D.C., where Sonia, who was doing campus ministry work at the time, met Jeff while he was working a summer job for the Archdiocese. Two years later, they were married, and a year after saying their vows, the McGarrity’s first son, Thomas, now 14, was born. The following December, the couple welcomed their second son, Seán, now 13. Raising a baby and toddler was serious work—but it felt right. “I’d waited so long and had done all the things I needed to do. I was ready to settle in and be a mom, and I loved it,” Sonia recalls.
When Sonia found out she was pregnant with her third child, Jeffrey, now 12, she had no reason to suspect he would be different than her “typical” children. Even with several 3D sonograms, Jeff says, “We didn’t know Jeffrey was going to have Down syndrome.”
Jeffrey was born at a birthing center, and, about an hour after his delivery, a midwife broke the news to the McGarritys that the newest addition to their family had a chromosomal disorder that would cause developmental and intellectual delays. “For some people, this is devastating news, but it really wasn’t for us,” Jeff says.
Before Jeffrey was born, Sonia didn’t know very much about Down syndrome. “But I had been around children with special needs, and there was something in their parents and their siblings that was soft—something that helped them to have a compassion I didn’t see in other families,” Sonia says. “I wanted that for my family. I didn’t think about how hard it would be. I just saw compassion, and I wanted that.”
After Jeffrey was born, Jeff received a job offer as director of music for Saint Thomas More Catholic Church in Centennial. In 2007, the McGarrity family relocated to Lone Tree with their growing family. Months later, their fourth son, 10-year-old Brendan, was born.
Sonia and Jeff weren’t planning on stopping at four kids—but several consecutive miscarriages left them wondering if God had another plan for their family. After doing a little research, Sonia and Jeff linked up with the National Down Syndrome Adoption Network, a Cincinnati-based organization that helps parents nationwide adopt children with Down syndrome.
Adopting a child with Down syndrome might seem like a very big undertaking, but, “we sort of knew the drill already,” says Jeff. “Jeffrey was a great little boy, and our experience with him was always positive.” Sonia agrees. “I think God just put it on my heart to be open to that,” she says.
The McGarritys were thrilled when they matched with a couple in Colorado Springs. In 2010, after coming to an agreement on an open adoption plan, they drove to Colorado Springs in time to give their daughter Cecilia her first bottle an hour after her birth.
“This is where God’s sense of humor comes into play,” Jeff says. In April, a few months after bringing Cecilia home, Sonia found out she was pregnant again, with the couple’s now six-year-old son Augustine. He was born the following December, just in time for Christmas.
The McGarrity house was already pretty full with six kids, but in 2015, Jeff and Sonia adopted another child through the National Down Syndrome Adoption Network, two-year-old RoseMarie, who was born in Atlanta in 2015.
“We have a beautiful picture—sorry,” Jeff says, taking a moment to collect himself. “I get a little emotional,” he says. “When we brought RoseMarie home, we took the sweetest picture of our boys gathered around our girls. The kids have been great to each other.”
Costs, Challenges, and Blessings
Adoption costs can be expensive, but, Jeff says, “we’ve been blessed to have two folks come forward to help pay our adoption expenses.” And children with Down syndrome often have extensive medical needs—Sonia says she is constantly running to and from doctor’s appointments. Because of their special needs and their adopted status, though, both Cecilia and RoseMarie qualified as eligible for Medicaid, which covers all the girls’ medical expenses not covered by private insurance.
Sonia currently homeschools three of the children (Thomas started attending high school last fall), focusing on their core lessons in the mornings, while her children with special needs are at public school. In the afternoons, therapists come to the McGarrity home to work with the children with Down syndrome. Sonia loves augmenting her children’s education with cooking, travel, theater, and music.
Thomas plays violin with the Denver Young Artists Orchestra, and all of the McGarrity kids benefit from music, including those with special needs, who have excelled in music therapy classes. “Music is not only behaviorally soothing, it focuses them in,” Sonia explains.
Though she loves her large family and staying home with her kids, “I get frustrated,” Sonia admits. “I have five boys, and they all know how to push my buttons.”
Advocating for their children with special needs is tricky, too. Sonia and Jeff often must do this at the schools they attend. For example, RoseMarie is getting ready to start preschool, but is hearing impaired and communicates primarily with sign language. Sonia is having a hard time getting the school to make this accommodation because the school doesn’t currently have anyone on staff who signs. “Yeah, I lose it some days,” Sonia says. “But then I remind myself that this is just one short season of my life.”
Any strain on Sonia and Jeff’s marriage is “due to the physical exhaustion of raising kids,” Sonia says. “I see my friends go away with their spouses for a weekend. That’s not an option for us, but I will say that we’re always trying to one-up the other in service, and that’s kept us from feeling bitter.” Adds Jeff, “Focusing on the other rather than on the self, we’ve been able to weather some difficult situations.”
Sonia and Jeff aren’t the type to shy away from hard work, and in fact, they’re open to adopting another child with Down syndrome. Sure, the busyness can take its toll. “But that’s life,” Jeff says. “Each day is a new challenge—and an adventure. I watch our family, I watch the older kids take care of the younger kids, and I think to myself, ‘What a blessing.’”