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A place to call home: Central Minn. parents open their arms to children with special needs

Kent Dudley performs on stage with his wife Shantel, center, and Abby Coutlee at Hope Fest in Detroit Lakes in 2017. Submitted photo 1 / 3
Shantel Dudley checks on her adopted child Jeffrey, who has a breathing tube. Jordan Shearer / Forum News Service2 / 3
Kent and Shantel Dudley of Solway have adopted numerous children with medical needs. They are pictured with some of their adopted and foster children, including, from left, Victoria, Mathis, Daniel, Vonte, and Mason. Jordan Shearer / Forum News Service3 / 3

SOLWAY, Minn.—Eleven years ago, Kent and Shantel Dudley adopted a child no one else would. Five-year old Travis had severe neurological issues, rendering him with the mental state of an infant. But they took him home to be a part of their family.

Later, the Dudleys adopted another child no one would—and then another and another. Today, the Dudleys are full-time caretakers of six adopted children who have various medical needs. They're also foster parents for two others who they're in the process of adopting.

"We went to Florida and there was just this little boy lying on a mat," Shantel said about their first adoption. "We decided we couldn't walk away from him. After that, our phone began to ring, and it was one medical child after another."

Today, caring for the children has come to consume much of the family's identity. Their home is designed for their unique situation with medical devices and amenities spread throughout the rooms. They have additional medical assistance around the clock.

In spite of that, Kent Dudley is also a country music performer. He has written and produced three albums, in addition to a Christmas album. While they can't travel far on tour, their songs have been played on radio stations around the country.

And although their performance schedule is mostly limited by the distance they can drive in a day, Kent and Shantel have used that platform to share their story and encourage other parents in similar situations.

Between their biological and adopted children, Kent and Shantel have 15 children, not counting the two who passed away in a single year. One of their older daughters helps as a medical assistant for their adopted children with special needs.

The first adopted child, Travis, is now 16, although still mostly bound to his bed. The family has a track system that snakes along the ceiling, allowing Travis to be suspended in a special chair and pushed from room to room.

More than one of their children have feeding tubes. Kent and Shantel knew they were venturing into a whole new realm when they were asked to take a child with a breathing tube, but they kept saying "yes."

The couple wouldn't have been able to imagine when they first started adopting what their life would look like more than a decade down the road. Admitting they probably wouldn't have been able to handle it, Kent says that's why God only gives you a little piece of the pie at a time.

Looking back, they first got the idea to adopt after listening to a church speaker who had just adopted a medically fragile child. From that moment, Shantel said she knew it was something they needed to do.

"It was clear as day; I just knew we were supposed to adopt," Shantel said. "As we talked about it, we just decided we really want a child that nobody else wants."

Initially, they didn't expect to take in more than the one child, but that soon changed.

Feeling they had reached the end of their capabilities after adopting four, the couple said no when asked to take another. They rethought that position when one of their previously adopted daughters, Victoria—still only a child herself— asked them "What if you had said 'no' to me?"

In various forms, Kent and Shantel have been caretakers for much of their lives, preparing them for their current house full of children. Earlier in life, Kent was a chaplain at multiple long-term care homes. His elderly father also lived with them for several years.

"We had both been caregivers pretty much our whole lives with our family; it was just a part of our DNA," Kent said, clarifying that they try not to get too consumed with the doctors appointments or medications. "Our main focus is that we're able to give kids a home and a mom and dad."

Day by day

Their children's various medical needs take up much of their time. On one day, Shantel had nine calls with the hospital within several hours. They usually take three trips to Minneapolis a month for hospital visits, some of which turn into overnight stays. When they get up in the morning, they'll only look a day ahead in their planner so they don't get overwhelmed by the whole week.

In those moments, Shantel said they always keep in mind why they began working with children in the first place.

"We always remind ourselves, 'the kids are worth it, and we chose this life,'" Shantel said.

In spite of all the activity, they try to give their children as much of a normal life possible. Some of them go to school. They attend camp and go to the zoo.

"The kids get to know what it's like to be a child, and not to be a medical child," Shantel said. "That's important."

In addition to the children who live under their own roof, the Dudleys are advocates for others. They've become a resource for parents and grandparents who've unexpectedly found themselves with special-needs children.

Kent speaks about adoption at his concerts. Some churches will specifically request they bring some of their children with them when they perform. For a number of years, their daughter, Victoria would sing with Kent and his band Kent Dudley and Bended Knee.

Shantel plans to lobby in St. Paul more medical training for foster parents who take care of medically fragile children.

"There's this need out there in our society that's huge," Kent said.

Jordan Shearer

Jordan Shearer covers crime and social issues for the Bemidji Pioneer. A Rochester native and Bemidji State grad, he previously spent several years in western Nebraska writing for the Keith County News. Follow him on Twitter @Jmanassa

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