When William and Juanita Anderson married 13 years ago, many of their family and friends were not optimistic about their living happily ever after. The odds seemed too great.
William Andersen, now 48 was born with cerebral palsy. The woman he married, now 51, had polio as a little girl and only in recent years was able to walk without leg and arm braces.
Their individual lives were chronicled by struggle; together, they began building a future on shared burdens and small successes. Then, five years into a marriage that already challenged them, they took on the biggest challenge of all.
The Andersens adopted one child that perhaps nobody else wanted," Juanita Andersen recalled recently at the couple's small green and white trailer home near downtown Richmond. "I felt we could understand a child like that more."
But it wasn't easy, even for two people accustomed to overcoming handicaps. Today, the family remains financially strapped and physically burdened, bypassed by some of the state and federal welfare programs created to help people like them.
Bill Andersen, his thin body stooped forward on unsteady legs, earns $181 every two weeks from his job as an elevator operator at the Medical College of Virginia. He supplements his small wages by working odd jobs, such as selling programs at night baseball games whenever the Richmond Braves are in town.
Juanita Andersen, her arms and legs stiff and scarred, has supported herself as a seamstress since the age of 18. She, too, worked at the Medical College of Virginia for years but was forced to go on disability in 1970 after arthritis in her hands and legs worsened. She receives $157 a month.
They have to stretch a combined income of about $519 a month to cover normal living expense and the additional costs of medical attention for their physical disabilities and those of Theresa.
"She's been an expense, a terrible expense," Mrs. Andersen said. "She's had pneumonia and strep throat and chronic bronchitis, and the poor little child lives on penicillin. But she's lovable and responsive, and I wouldn't trade her for anything."
When Theresa, now 11, came to live with the Andersens she had been in two foster homes and had been shunned most of her life. She couldn't talk or feed herself and she had no control of her bowels.
During seven years with her adoptive parents, however, she "came out like a flower," as her mother puts it. Considered a "borderline mongoloid," she attends a school for the handicapped, understands instructions, talks haltingly to her parents, plays with the family cat and dog and even helps with chores and mergencies.
'She's a big help, and there's nothing this child won't do for me," said Mrs. Andersen, nothing that Theresa helps her bring in the groceries that her crippled mother cannot carry except in her teeth. And when Mrs. Andersen occasionally stumbles and falls at home, it is Theresa who is there to help her up.
"She doesn't know what bad is," said her mother. "She's lovable and responsive and she understands everything."
Theresa wears a back brace and needs medication for constant respiratory problems. Her mother takes pill daily for a heart condition and has been in and out of hospitals for surgery on her arms and legs.
The family gets occasional finanical help from a friend in California, a Richmond agency provides once-a-week housekeeping aid and the Crippled Children's Hospital in Richmond is treating Theresa's back and teeth problems for a small annual fee.
But the Andersens don't make enough money to pay for what they need. Their hospitalization plan doesn't cover certain essential medical costs, and they have been turned away by server public assistance agencies.
'Our prescription bill for drugs this year was more than $600, and the doctor bills came to $800 plus bills for specialists," Mrs. Andersen said. "We can't get any help from Medicaid because they say Billy makes too much money."
Frequently, they resort to charging their medicine and even their food, a practice and pattern they'd like to break.
"We've got to drop charging." Mrs. Andersen said, almost lecturing herself. "But just today I had to charge my heart pills and her anitblotics because we didn't have the cash. What can we do?"
At the monent, the family cannot even scrape together a $20 deposit to save Theresa a place in a two-week $80 summer camp for the handicapped. She went last year, on a scholarship, but one is not available this year.
"It was so good for her to be with the other kids like herself, and I really want her to go again." said Mrs. Andersen. "And frankly, it was also a good break for me, because I really can't leave her alone for a minute when she's here. She doesn't known enough not to run in front of a car."
The Andersen have pushed and encouraged Theresa to be all she can. They say they know form personal experience that improvement is always possible - if you keep trying.
"I was in a hospital for three years straight with my polio, and I grew up with braces on both arms and one leg," Juanita Andersen said, describing her early days in Seattle."I left home when I was 18 because my mother kept telling me I couldn't do anything because I was handicapped."
William Andersen was born in Richmond "and until I was 10 years old, I never walked. My family lived on the second floor of a house, and the only way I got around was either to crawl or slide."
Andersen said his mother was told he would never walk, but two months after being sent to a Catholic home for crippled children in Philadelphia the sister had me on crutches, walking. She told me either I walked or I didn' eat."
Returning to Richmond at age 16, he shined shoes for a barber and later sold newspapers on the street. He lived at home until his parents became too ill to care for him and he was sent to a facility for the handicapped.
That was Andersen's home for serveral years until he met his wife at church one Sunday. They married three months after their first meeting, but the match shocked some of those closest to them.
"My mother couldn't understand it, and people at work said if I married Billy they wouldn't have anything to do with me," recalled Mrs. Andersen. But what are handicapped people supposed to do, just be hid away?
Before moving to a trailer to save money, the Andersens lived in an apartment that became a second home to neighnorhood children from broken families. She had always loved children, and when she contacted the Children's Home Society about adoption she specifically asked for a handicapped child.
But I was really thinking in terms of a physical handicap, not mental retardation," she said. I think they kind of pushed her on us, and I felt it was unfair at first because we hardly had anything and she was going to need a lot medical attention as well as love."
The family does have a car, which Mrs. Andersen drives with great difficulty. The vehicle is no luxury, however, since she had to quit taking the bus after her last operation made it imposibble to climb steps.
He couldn't get anywhere to work if I didn't drive him, and Theresa couldn't get to school." Mrs. Andersen said. Having the car was cheaper in the long run than taking cabs, and she also uses it for grocery shopping and essential medical errands.
But despite debts and the dreary prospect of facing new ones, the family remains surprisingly cheerful and optimistic.
I'm happy. I don't let things get me down," said Juanita Andersen. She worries about the problems "and I know we've had such bad luck, but I'd rather go through the troubles with people I love than be by myself."
Watching Theresa cuddle the cat, Bill Andersen almost counts himself lucky. He says his work at the hospital makes him appreciate what little they have.
"I see all the patients on the elevator every day, and you wouldn't believe how some of them are living," he said. "There are a whole lot of people worse off than we are."