Meet the big-hearted couple who adopted six blind children from around the world – including a baby girl who was dumped in a rubbish bin.
Joe and Karen Bartling, both 60, dreamed of having a large family but struggled to conceive naturally after having their biological son Joel, 30.
Following failed IVF they turned to adoption and heard about a baby that had been abandoned in a South Korean orphanage through a customer at Karen’s shop.
Keen to help, they decided to adopt two-year-old Hannah, who was born with no eyes due to a developmental disorder. She moved to the US to be with them in 1997.
Over the next decade, Karen and accounting firm director Joe – who met on a blind date – became the go-to couple for social workers trying to find homes for blind children.
As well as Hannah, now 23, the Bartling brood consists of David, 18, Bethany, 18, Jesse, 17, Abi, 17, and Obed, 12 – all of whom are completely blind.
Former flight attendant Karen, of Oakton, Virginia, said: “We decided to adopt and the first one just happened to be blind.
“As soon as the first picture of Hannah came across we were like, ‘Oh my goodness.’
“It was a head-scratcher. We were like, ‘Oh well, that is interesting.’ We went to the airport and just picked up this child. She was a precious little baby.
“It took us about a week or so to wrap our brains around the fact she was blind and that would never change. It was one day at a time.
“She has a processing disability and learning disability as well and is much younger than her 23 age, but she is so delightful.
“A few years later we had a social worker approach us and ask us if we would be interested in taking in this little girl whose parents were divorcing.
“We immediately rushed to save the day but it was very eye-opening.
“She had needs that were far beyond our ability and experience and we ended up not being able to finalize the adoption.
“It was devastating. We waited many more years before we could even discuss adoption again, then one day there was a publication in our mailbox on blind children.
“I leafed through and there was Jesse’s picture with the words, ‘Parents needed for blind child.’
“After that, we became the go-to couple for the social workers and the agency when they had a blind child.”
In 2002, Karen and Joe adopted Jesse, now 17, who suffers from severe intellectual disability and was left in a South Korea hospital by her birth mum.
Next came Abi, also 17, whom the Bartlings adopted in 2004 after a police officer found her screaming and crying, abandoned in a trash can in a park in India.
The youngster was born with a rare genetic condition called Fraser Syndrome, which caused her eyes to be malformed and covered by skin.
Their fourth child David, now 18, joined the family that same year after another US family decided they could not handle a blind child.
David, who was born with cataracts in one eye and has an abnormally small other eye due to microphthalmia, was abandoned on the steps of a government building in China.
Twelve-year-old Obed Josiah, who has cerebral palsy and severe intellectual disability, joined the Bartlings in late 2006 from west Africa.
A few months later they adopted their sixth child Bethany, who is now 18 and is blind due to Retinopathy of Prematurity after being born at 28 weeks in Thailand.
Though they do attract stares in public and sometimes have their bills paid by kindhearted strangers in restaurants, Karen said they are a “run-of-the-mill family”.
Obed and Jesse require 24-hour care but Hannah loves singing, Abi likes reading books in Braille, Bethany adores socializing with friends and David dreams of going to college.
Joe, who also has a 26-year-old son, Brian, from a previous marriage, said: “We had no idea it would be like this.
“Wherever we go it is a spectacle. It’s not our fault, we just attract some stares.
“Depending on where we are and how the community responds to us, it’s quite interesting.
“Often when we are out in rural areas in places where people don’t see a diverse family like ours we get our meals paid for every so often.
“Sometimes it happens time and time again. It’s like, ‘Wow, this is something that is unique and touches people’s hearts.”
“Really we are kind of remarkably unremarkable. We are not sitting here saying, ‘Oh, you can’t see,’” Karen said.
“I have to cook the meals and do the laundry but they all get involved – they all make their beds and do their own chores. We are just a normal, run-of-the-mill family.
“We don’t have any help so it’s 24/7 caregiving and there is burnout.
“The most challenging thing is that Jesse and Obed are 100 per cent dependent on me for care – bathing, grooming, teeth-brushing, hair combing, food, diapers and dressing.
“For me it is just, ‘Make sure everybody gets food and is on the right bus at the right time.’
“At our age we are watching our friends retire and there are good things we are missing out on, such as having grandchildren. We do have one grandson but that is going to be different for us.
“We are not going to be empty nesters ever, and there won’t be a retirement day.
“It’s challenging but rewarding.
“We never imagined this would happen – I never in my wildest dreams imagined we would be in a lifestyle with special needs young adults.
“How many people really do expect what life throws at them?”
By Ben Gelblum and Shanti Das
Since you’re here …
We do not charge or put articles behind a paywall. If you can, please show your appreciation for our free content by donating whatever you think is fair to help keep TLE growing.
Every penny we collect from donations supports vital investigative and independent journalism. You can also help us grow by inviting your friends to follow us on social media.