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Mother of special needs children helps prom

Amy Kendall picks up Noah, 3, who has Down syndrome. Kendall and her husband, Tom, have adopted eight special needs children. They include Sara, 13, (left), who suffered a traumatic brain injury after being shaken as a baby, and Jaden, (second from right), who has spina bifida. (At right) Kendall's daughter Lindsey, 31, has six children of her own, four with special needs, including Jye, 3, (center). (Karen Tolkkinen / Osakis Review) 1 / 3
Lindsey Ebnet, the youngest of Amy Kendall's three biological children, says goodbye to Noah, 3, who has Down syndrome. Noah then kissed her. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)2 / 3
Dancers take the floor at New Life Christian Church in Alexandria at a past Night to Shine prom for people with disabilities. (Osakis Review file photo)3 / 3

Amy Kendall is trying to recall the last time she had a full night's sleep. Twenty-one years ago, when they adopted the first of their eight (soon-to-be-nine) special needs kids? Or 36 years ago, when the first of their three biological children were born?

"I'm tired all the time," confesses the Osakis-area nurse, who gave up diet Coke last year because everyone said it was bad for her. She hasn't found a suitable replacement, as she detests coffee.

"The reality is that God gives us the grace to keep going," she said.

Besides caring for what she jokingly calls her "circus," Kendall also serves another role: She's in charge of shopping days for Night to Shine, a prom for people ages 14 and up who have special needs. A week before the prom, guests get to select dresses, suits, shoes, jewelry, and more — for free. If they received a free dress and a sparkly necklace the previous year, no problem. They can get another.

Kendall takes on this task as she has taken on parenting responsibilities that might scare away others: With a sense of joy.

"The light in their eyes and the smile on their face, for all of them, is priceless," she said. "The guests who come in are so excited and they're so appreciative."

A preacher's daughter, she went through a wild streak before marrying her husband, Tom, when she was 20 and he was 26. He had told her beforehand that he felt God was calling them to do foster care. She agreed. Later, when their biological kids were in school and Tom was running their dairy farm, she worked as a pediatric nurse in the newborn intensive care unit in St. Cloud and felt a strong desire to care for medically fragile children.

First came Jaden, now 21, who was born with spina bifida, a birth defect that causes him to use a wheelchair. They saw him as an infant on KSTP's "Thursday's Child" — now Kid Connection — which seeks homes for children in foster care.

Four years later came Jonathan, now 17, born with Down Syndrome. As the years went on, more children joined their family. Their phone rang with requests for them to take even more.

The need for families is huge. In Minnesota, of 802 foster children hoping for adoption, 66 percent have a documented special need, including physical, mental, emotional or a behavioral disability, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services. The Kendalls have also adopted children from other states.

Separately, the couple would pray for each request, and if each felt it was right, they would take the child. They said no many times.

The Kendalls said yes to another child with spina bifida, Robert, now 9, and another Down's baby, Noah, now 3. Two young siblings, Shayna and Kiana, came to them after Shayna was shaken and badly injured. After adoption, she had surgery and unexpectedly died.

That memory is painful, especially since the Kendalls are in the middle of adopting a 1-year-old with muscular dystrophy and a severe heart abnormality. The girl, who she can't name since she is still in the foster care system, sleeps in a crib in a playroom. Kendall has placed her own bed there to be near her.

"She could go at any time," Kendall said, tears welling in her eyes.

Another daughter, Sara, 13, was also shaken as a baby. Kendall said her brain contains less than half its normal tissue.

"She was born normal," Kendall said. Today Sara's eyes go in different directions and Kendall said her mind works at the level of a 2-year-old. Still, Sara can walk. True, she needs a supporting arm, but walking is something doctors predicted Sara could never do, Kendall said.

Their daughter Merci, 9, born with a facial malformation called Pfeiffer syndrome, endured 80 surgeries before the Kendalls took her. All those surgeries, Kendall said, happened without the comfort of family. Merci was never expected to get potty-trained or talk, but she has now done both. Give them love and care, Kendall said, and "they are doing things no one ever imagined they would do."

Kendall maintains she isn't more patient than anyone else. What she has is determination. Many of her children survived trauma because they were strong-willed, she said, so she needs to be stronger.

The rewards of caring for special needs children are many, Kendall said.

"They've enriched our lives more than we've contributed to theirs," she said.

During the week, nurses and therapists come and go from the house. Nurses accompany three of the children to school in Osakis and serve as their paraprofessionals during the day.

Their home has been added onto and remodeled several times to make it wheelchair-accessible and to ensure that none of the children would ever have to go to a group home. They recently got a wheelchair-accessible van that fits everybody; before that, they drove two vehicles everywhere.

The Kendalls' youngest biological child, Lindsey Ebnet, was 10 when they adopted Jaden.

"It was amazing," Ebnet recalled. "I was the youngest and Jaden was my baby."

Now 31, Ebnet has six children of her own, including four special needs children. She also helps with Night to Shine, and is in charge of recruiting 200 volunteers, called "buddies," who serve as a companion for each prom guest.

As of one recent morning, she said, only 24 people had signed up. She's not afraid. During previous years, too, recruiting went down to the wire.

"God has always taken care of it," she said.

Some of Kendall's other children look forward to prom night. Jonathan, who his mom calls "just a little love," started checking the calendar for this year's Night to Shine the day after last year's prom. Jaden will also go again.

"It's really fun, a place where kids and adults can interact and it's all about you," he said.

And as for their mom, she's just glad she can help make it happen.

During the shopping days, she will hear a litany of delight as guests are allowed to try on gowns and jewelry. "Really? Can we really do that?" they'll say.

To the guests, age seems irrelevant, she said. Even older ladies are happy to wear their tiaras and be princesses for a night.

"It's an honor to be able to help them," Kendall said.

Night to Shine

• WHAT: "Night to Shine" prom, an evening of food and dancing for people with special needs ages 14 and older.

• WHEN: Friday, Feb. 8, at 6 p.m., with guests starting to arrive at 5:15 p.m.

• WHERE: New Life Christian Church, 1910 County Road 82 SE, Alexandria

• VOLUNTEERS: Called "buddies," escorts age 16 and up are needed for each guest. To volunteer, visit and click Night to Shine at the top of the page