HAMILTON, Mich. (Detroit Free Press) - Michigan's only family of sextuplets -- six children born from one pregnancy -- turned 5 last month with a celebration involving cake and roller skates.
Although the Van Houten family of Hamilton watches little television, and has not followed the controversy swirling around the recent birth of octuplets to single mother Nadya Suleman, they know firsthand the blessings and challenges of raising children from a high-order multiple birth.
"If she's not a praying woman, she better turn into a praying woman," quipped Amy Van Houten, 31, a onetime schoolteacher, about the parenting challenges Suleman faces.
Suleman is unemployed and unmarried, and already had six children by in-vitro fertilization when she became pregnant with eight more. Ethical and medical questions about how she got pregnant and who will provide for her children have ignited a hot debate and thrust multiples into the spotlight.
After John, Gerrit, Samantha, Nolan, Peyton and Kennedy Van Houten were born about four months premature over a period of 10 days in January 2004, the family received support and donations from their community and people around the world.
A platoon of friends and family -- about 15 to 20 people -- rotated in and out of the house for about five months after the sextuplets came home to help with feedings and provide relief.
In the first year, Wal-Mart donated damaged bags of diapers to the family, and a friend's home was storage for items donated by friends and strangers.
Enfamil donated baby formula. Spartan Foods donated baby-care products. Gerber donated baby food. This year, a $600 annual clothing allowance from Carter's comes to an end.
In 2005, a local pastor and Realtors staged a marathon sit-in atop a tractor-trailer in Hamilton to raise $70,000 in donations so the Van Houtens could buy a four-bedroom house in a subdivision with big lots.
"The only thing we've asked for is prayer," Amy Van Houten said. "The Lord has laid it on other people's hearts to help."
After the sextuplets were born, Amy Van Houten unexpectedly became pregnant with the couple's seventh child, daughter Drew.
The hordes of helpers are gone now. And the daily routine of caring for seven children appears to zip along smoothly, but the family still faces numerous challenges.
One of the fears with any woman carrying multiples is premature birth, which significantly increases the odds for complications.
When the sextuplets were born, their combined weight was just more than 9 pounds -- the size of one full-term, above-average newborn. Their medical care was covered by their father Ben Van Houten's health insurance.
John and Gerrit have multiple disabilities. Both are nourished through feeding tubes. John learned to crawl and sit up in the past year, and has severely diminished eyesight. Gerrit has the cognitive and motor abilities of an infant. Both will likely need care and assistance for the rest of their lives. They attend a special-needs program at a county school.
Last year, the couple bought an $18,500 elevator for their house for when the boys get too big to be carried upstairs to their bedrooms. A volunteer contractor contributed the labor to install it.
The family travels in a 15-passenger van equipped with lifts to accommodate wheelchairs.
The other children are physically small for their age, but are sharp, talkative charmers. Nolan has mild cerebral palsy, which affects his gait, and he's bused daily to a preschool class at his parents' old school, Blue Star Elementary.
Peyton, Kennedy and Sammy are to start kindergarten in the fall.
Like Suleman in California, the Van Houtens also received some criticism for the decision they made to proceed with the pregnancy, even as doctors suggested a procedure to reduce the number of embryos Amy Van Houten carried.
"They are here for a reason," she said of the California octuplets, and certainly about her own family. "God allowed them to be born. We're strong believers. We're not judges."
The Van Houtens sought out fertility specialists after they had several years of difficulty conceiving.
She got pregnant during the second month of taking hormone shots to stimulate her ovaries' egg production.
The first ultrasound revealed three beating heartbeats. A week later, a second ultrasound showed six heartbeats.
Ben Van Houten said: "People look at us and say, 'What did they do? How can you have so many kids at once?' " Because of their religious beliefs as Baptists, the couple ruled out reducing the number of embryos through so-called selective reduction.
"That was not an option," said the 34-year-old mechanic with TUV-SUV, a Holland-based German manufacturer of machinery.
And the future? Bills? Food? Proms? Money for college? "The future, the future, people are always asking us about the future," he said. "We've had the philosophy of taking it one day at a time, one minute at a time."
BY PATRICIA MONTEMURRI FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER