Alumna Opens Heart and Home to Special Needs Children
A conversation with Manhattan College's dean of education set Tammy Wood Miller ’91 on a path of helping those with special needs, including her six adopted children.
Tammy Wood Miller ’91 took her education degrees and made them a way of life. As the mother of 11, six of whom are adopted special needs children, she spends her days putting her skills to the test with those she loves the most.
“It all kind of began with Manhattan,” Miller, a second-generation Jasper, says. “I met Dr. Merriman, and he mentioned adaptive physical education, which modifies the physical education program to fit the physical or educational challenges of the student. I got so interested in that.”
Miller completed her student teaching at Long Island’s Henry Viscarti School, a school dedicated to empowering those with physical disabilities and health impairments. “I absolutely fell in love with doing that,” she says.
Crediting Merriman with helping her land her first job at Lavelle School for the Blind in the Bronx, Miller also taught swimming classes at Henry Viscarti while earning her master’s at Manhattan in special education with a concentration in adaptive physical education. She said that schedule totally immersed her in special education for three years.
A Growing Family
Coming from a large family, which included adopted siblings, Miller was always open to the idea of adoption. When she and her high school sweetheart Stephen married in 1993, they had already thought of adopting some day.
“I would not recommend this to anyone without having a sidekick,” says Miller. Stephen, also an educator, serves as principal at the middle school in Forsyth County in Georgia. “He is in this with me 110 percent. He does the medicine, diaper changing, showering,” she says. “We are definitely a team.”
Along with a committed partner, there’s another key factor to raising 11 children, Miller explains. “You really need a sense of humor.”
The Millers had their first two daughters, Emma and Ryann, biologically. In 1997, they adopted a five-year-old son, Patrick, who has spina bifida. “We just fell in love with him and that started our journey,” she says.
Miller says the family now ranges in age from Kellan, 4, to Patrick, 20. Throughout the years, the Millers would decide their family still had room to care for one more. Miller says they would do their best to introduce new family members over a break or summer to make transitions easier.
Pointing to faith as a key factor, Miller says as they began expanding their family she thought to herself, “I have these degrees for a reason, and it was able to get me to this place. We have been blessed with so many adventures.”
They take many of those adventures in their activity bus, which can accommodate their family of 13 and the four wheelchairs. She says the ramp has made travel much easier than with the 15-passenger van they used to have.
Although she hates the word, she explains that many of her children were considered "unadoptable" by the adoption agency. Miller encourages those thinking of bringing a special needs child into their family to go through an agency like United States Foster Care, which allows for full adoptions.
She says that when it comes to special needs adoptions there are sometimes very minimal costs or even subsidies. “In fact, a lot of states waive lawyer fees. Financially, it has not been a problem for us because of that,” Miller says.
Although many ask with concern about their biological children getting lost in the mix, she says “I feel our family is so close. I feel like they have just benefited so much from being a part of this.”
She explains how older siblings have helped with the younger children, and many have taken on service projects of their own. Take for instance, 10-year-old Teagan, who gives up her recess time to help out in the special needs pre-K class.
“She comes home so excited about all the accomplishments that the kids have,” Miller says.
Miller does not look at being a mom of 11 as a sacrifice but calls it a “true blessing to the people that are serving.”
“I take pride in helping the next generation get to see what service is.”