ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Before they met, Michelle and Clay Schroff were each told they would never be able to have children.
They now have enough children to form their own baseball team and one extra for the bench.
The couple’s 10 children range in age from 5 to 22, six of them adopted. The American Mothers organization recently named Michelle Schroff as New Mexico’s Mother of the Year for rearing 10 children, fostering 40 others and for the work she and her husband do in the community for young women.
Schroff, 46, said she had a hard life growing up in southern California. Her parents divorced when she was young and her mom mostly raised her and her brother on her own. She said the family bounced from place to place, even becoming homeless when Schroff was in middle school. They moved 15 different times when she was in the eighth grade. Growing up she was exposed to the underbelly of life. She witnessed prostitution, addiction and abuse.
“I saw a lot of things that bothered me,” she said. “I saw children who did not feel wanted and were forgotten.”
Schroff was not only the first person in her family to enroll in college, but she was also the first one to graduate from high school.
Despite her success, what she saw as a child left a strong impression. She knew whatever she decided to do in life, it would involve helping needy children.
She also wanted to raise her own family but when she was 19, Schroff’s doctor told her she would never have biological children because of some medical conditions she had including endometriosis. It was the first time she considered adoption but was still too young at that time to seriously consider starting a family.
She met her husband, Clay, a few years later in 1994. Clay had also been told he would never have biological children and so had started mentoring a young teen in foster care.
“I said ‘This is the guy I’m going to marry,'” she said. “He was already headed in that direction (being a family man.)”
The couple married a year later and a few months after that, to Michelle Schroff’s surprise, she became pregnant with their first daughter. Ten months later Schroff was pregnant again.
“Oh no, no, no, no,” Clay said. “I said ‘No more’ after the second child. But how do you say no to kids? Love is one of the few things that multiplies (the more you use it) not divides.”
Soon after, daughter number three was on the way but then she had some complications and medical professionals told her she had miscarried. Weeks later, Schroff still felt pregnant. She was. The baby was fine but the pregnancy was rough. Doctors also told her it was very unlikely she would ever carry another baby to term.
“We thought, you know, maybe God is trying to tell us something,” Michelle Schroff said. “Maybe we should look at adoption.”
The couple soon flew to Russia and adopted a boy with special needs who is now 18. Another surprise was coming, though. Four months later Schroff found herself once again pregnant. The couple would have no more biological children and did not have plans to adopt more. They focused on their family of five for a few years and decided to become foster parents instead. The call of parenthood came again and the couple eventually adopted five more children – two sets of siblings and one baby.
“People don’t understand,” she said. “They say ‘Why would you want 10 kids?’ No child should feel unloved.”
Raising a family that big is a team effort. The older children, three of whom are now adults living on their own, have always pitched in to help with the younger children. Michelle said husband Clay is also a hands-on father. Clay Schroff said Michelle has found her calling.
“She’s a mom to everyone,” he said. “If there are other kids around, they also call her mom. She’s awesome and compassionate.”
In an effort to help more children, the two started Project Zoë and the Aspen Project. Project Zoë provides make-overs for struggling teens and young women, including those who are involved in the sex trade, homeless and/or battling addiction.
“Once we started adopting, we connected with other people who had adopted,” she said. “Then we met people who wanted to adopt and asked us questions.”
From that was born the Aspen Project. The organization provides information about adoption, fostering and mentoring. It connects people with services and helps them navigate the foster and adoption systems. The project website also features photos and short biographies of children who are available for adoption or foster care.
The two recently decided to stop fostering children when they became grandparents. Although life with 10 children can get hectic at times, Michelle Schroff said she can’t imagine life any other way.
“It’s beyond rewarding,” she said. “I see 10 uniquely amazing people … they are this untapped potential.”