Emily and Jacques Rancourt adopted five of their seven children, undeterred by doctors’ diagnoses of terminal or severe illnesses. They thought the children deserved better than to die in orphanages.
“The Rancourts are unique in that they’ve taken in these complex kids that no one wanted and would not have survived without them,” said Charles Berul, chief of cardiology at Children’s National, who has overseen care for three of the children and offered spare bedrooms in his Maryland home. They declined because of the distance to the kids’ schools.
Emily and Jacques Rancourt have spent much of the past eight years at orphanages, hospitals and doctor’s appointments. One of their daughters, Lily, was adopted from an orphanage in China when she was 2 after the Rancourts were told she was dying. But Lily, now 10, made such a miraculous recovery after a complicated heart transplant at Children’s National that she became the face of a marketing campaign for the hospital.
“Their story is so incredible,” said Leann Hendrix, a family friend and neighbor in Bristow, Va., who has taken in their two dogs, including a slobbery Great Dane named Moose. “They do all these incredible things. They seek out these sick kids.”
Hendrix, who is coordinating some of the donations to the family, said most people don’t want to, or can’t, take in sick orphans themselves, but want to support those who do. Round-the-clock offers of assistance have poured in since the Rancourts’ four-bedroom house burned to the studs Dec. 4.
Nobody was injured, but the family lost their material possessions, including their van. The fire started in the garage and spread across the attic — without tripping the smoke alarm — before Jacques Rancourt, 44, realized what was happening and got everyone out of the house.
At the time, Emily Rancourt, 41, and their youngest, Luna Mei, 3, were in a hospital in California, where Luna had been in recovery after a 17-hour open heart surgery in September.
Jacques Rancourt, lead pastor at Gateway Bible Church in Gainesville, Va., is living in a two-bedroom hotel room with their other six children, ages 3 to 14, while waiting for their insurance company to find a temporary home near the kids’ schools. He’s trying to keep things orderly and maintain their busy schedules.
“Jacques is an absolute saint,” said Emily Rancourt, who is the associate director of the forensic science program at George Mason University. “He always makes things work.”
In the meantime, she is living at Children’s National with Luna, who was transferred to the District after the fire to be closer to home.
Emily and Jacques Rancourt didn’t set out to adopt sick children.
On their first date in 2003, they discussed having a big family and a desire to adopt. He told her his mother was adopted. The couple married in 2004 and had two biological daughters: Dryden, 14, and Soleil, 12.
In 2009, they moved into their Prince William County home, and two years later they decided they were ready to adopt. They learned the wait list for an adoption in China was 11 years — but if they adopted a special-needs child, they could have the child within a year. It seemed like a good idea, Emily Rancourt said, and something they could handle.
The adoption agency suggested Mackenzie, who was 3 and had a diagnosed heart problem. Emily Rancourt fell in love with her after seeing photos and brought the idea to her husband, who agreed.
Before traveling to China to pick up Mackenzie, Emily Rancourt spent time on adoption websites. She came across photos of then-2-year-old Lily, born with half a heart that was backward, upside down and on the wrong side of her chest.
“When I saw Lily’s face with her pigtails, regardless of how scary her diagnosis, I knew we needed to bring her home and give her a chance,” she said.
Rancourt went to her husband with the idea of bringing home both girls.
“He said, ‘You’re crazy,’ ” she recalled. “I told him, ‘God is telling me she’s our daughter.’ ”
They didn’t discuss it for weeks, then on Emily Rancourt’s birthday, her husband gave her a card that said “Let’s bring them both home.”
They returned to Virginia with the girls in 2012, and soon learned Mackenzie had been “abused and traumatized,” but didn’t have a heart problem. She did, however, have bacteria in her brain, likely from being dunked in contaminated water in the orphanage, a common punishment, Rancourt said.
Mackenzie had emergency brain and ear surgery at Georgetown University Hospital several months after arriving in the United States. “It’s miraculous she’s alive,” her mother said.
The following year, the Rancourts got a call from China. This time it was a 2-year-old boy with half a heart who needed a home. Emily Rancourt wanted to say “yes” immediately. “I thought, ‘How am I going to bring this up with my husband?’ ” she said.
She did, and he was on board. They brought home Thaddaeus, their third adopted child, and took him to a cardiologist. The news was not good. “At first, they thought he was terminal and they couldn’t do anything for him,” Emily Rancourt said.
Doctors took a risk when he was 3 and performed an open heart surgery usually performed on newborns. It worked.
Their lives were chaotic and full. When they thought they were at their limit, a New York adoption agency contacted them in 2016 about a premature baby with cerebral palsy, a brain bleed and a hole in her heart. Nobody wanted her, the Rancourts were told.
They brought home infant Annabella, their fourth adopted child, and started her on physical therapy and other support. Then, two years later, they adopted their newest child, Luna Mei, from China.
Emily Rancourt said the idea of bringing home a special-needs child was daunting, until she saw how the kids thrived.
“You look at Lily — doctors said she was terminal and there was no hope,” she said, adding that she’s now an energetic girl who takes ballet classes.
Lily and Mackenzie, both 10, and Thaddaeus, 7, attend their local elementary school. They are on various medications and therapies but are active, happy children, their mother said. Annabella, 3, is hitting every milestone and her physical therapist told her there’s no need to come back.
“When you have kids like these mixed into a large family, they thrive,” Emily Rancourt said.
She said her motivation to bring the kids from China stems, in part, from the fact that children in the United States can get expensive heart surgeries regardless of their ability to pay, which is not always the case in China.
Her job at George Mason and her husband’s job at the church allow them to pay their bills, but when they adopted, they relied on grants and personal fundraising campaigns. Each adoption costs about $40,000, she said, far beyond their savings, so they accepted financial help. They also have received donations and gifts from friends on Facebook.
“This is not for personal gain,” Emily Rancourt said. “That’s not the pulse of our family.”
Berul, the cardiologist, said he offered them his home because he’s seen how the Rancourts are supportive of other patients and families in the hospital. They helped create the Whole Hearted Foundation to assist families who have children with cardiac problems.
“They’re always offering to do things for everybody else. This was a way to pay it back,” he said of offering space in his home. He joked: “I told them an extra bonus is, they’d have a pediatric cardiologist in the home. And my wife is a preschool teacher.”
More than 650 people have donated more than $50,000 to a GoFundMe campaign to support the family. Many added comments such as, “Your kindness and selfless devotion touched our hearts.”
Losing their material possessions has been a tough hit. It was a scramble to refill medication lost in the fire. Their insurance company told them to buy what they need and keep the receipts, but outfitting seven kids has been a challenge. Neighbors brought clothes for the kids the day of the fire, and Jacques Rancourt took them to Target to fill in the gaps. The family that never ate at restaurants is eating many meals out. It could take more than a year for their home to be rebuilt.
Since the fire, friends and strangers have donated winter coats, hats, gloves and enough grocery cards to last several months. The family mechanic heard their van was scorched and brought them his personal 12-seater. When Emily Rancourt called the ballet studio where Lily dances, they offered to outfit her ahead of her class. The volleyball club where their two oldest daughters play gave the girls uniforms, kneepads, sweatshirts and shoes.
“Everybody came out of the woodwork to give us what we need even if we didn’t know we needed it,” she said. “It’s been such a relief to be able to go on as normal as possible.”
When people praise her for opening their home to so many adopted and special-needs children, she tells them this: “We feel like we’re the blessed ones. These kids have opened our eyes to what it truly means to fight and be brave. The love they’ve cast back on us has been tenfold to what we’ve given them.”
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