This Mother’s Day is Jaclyn Raymond’s first since becoming a mother of five on April 13.
The 27-year-old Ahwatukee resident and her husband of five years, Aaron, 30, adopted five siblings, culminating a years-long odyssey that offered as many multiple challenges and obstacles as Odysseus in Homer’s epic tale.
But with compassion and conviction, determination and love, the Raymond family is complete – and living an otherwise typical family life with baseball games, dance recitals, pizza outings and more.
“Love is absolutely what drove us from day one,” said Aaron, a purchasing agent with Ashton Woods. “While some may say this is a Father’s Day story, I think it is better fitting for Mother’s Day. We’ve both sacrificed so much, but Jaclyn has really gone above and beyond for these kids. She is full of unconditional love and affection.”
“It’s complicated and layered,” said Jaclyn as she related the story of how she became a mother of the five siblings ranging in age from 5 to 13.
And it all began in 2014 with an 8-year-old boy named Terrance, one of approximately 30 students in Jaclyn’s third-grade class at a school in Memphis, where she taught as a Teach for America Corps member.
She saw he needed help in his underserved but close-knit neighborhood and that he deserved more than he was getting at home.
Jaclyn recalled she first saw Terrance when he arrived two weeks late to class after being expelled from another school.
“Even within this impoverished community, it was known his family struggled,” she said.
“In early December, Aaron and I decided to take three struggling boys to a Memphis Grizzlies basketball game. Later in the school year, he asked if he could come home with me. I had to get my principal’s blessing, and I told Terrance if for one week he could really behave, like angel-appropriate, I’d do that. And for one week, he was.”
Every Friday after school and all day Saturday thereafter for months, the couple ferried Terrance to their home, where tutoring was interspersed with “fun things” as she began by teaching the third- grade boy to read.
Soon thereafter, as spring blossomed, his fifth-grade sister and younger first-grade brother were part of the weekend visits.
“They wanted to come with Terrance, too,” said Raymond. “It wasn’t a secret – it was understood in the community, and even in my classroom, that they needed more. Aaron and I framed ourselves as their mentors.”
That April, Aaron accepted a job in Flagstaff with a homebuilding company.
News of his new job and the impending move after the school year impacted the couple’s new charges.
“The kids were devastated,” Jaclyn recalled.
They told Terrance they would fly him out to visit Flagstaff for two weeks.
That summer, the children’s birth mother asked if they’d also include his older sister and younger brother. The younger child whom they’d kept weekends, now formally named A.J. (for Aaron Jr.), was deemed too young to fly alone even with his siblings accompanying him. Jaclyn once again headed to Memphis so he, too, could come for the visit.
“I had to fly to Memphis to pick them up, and at the time there were no direct flights. They stayed with us for two weeks that summer,” she said, speaking of August 2015. “Going back and dropping them off was the hardest day – we knew that their mother was still struggling. They were crying and I was crying and I told them every summer for the rest of your life you can come see us.”
There followed months of care packages from the couple filled with toothbrushes, crayons and assorted little presents sent to the children.
“In April 2016, we learned the children had become homeless and were living in a van – except Terrance, who stayed wherever his head landed,” said Jaclyn.
“Their birth mother posted on Facebook that she’d been kicked out of their grandmother’s house and were living in a van. Aaron and I responded that we were still planning on the summer visit and would work out our finances so we could keep the three kids for the school year,” she added.
The couple were renting a small, three-bedroom vacation home in Flagstaff owned by her parents, Gary and Barbara Weeman, residents of Ahwatukee since 1995.
That 1,800-square-foot house turned out to be a tight squeeze for five people.
But another challenge tested them further.
“Two weeks after they came on June 19, Brittany’s birthday, Aaron and I got a text from the birth mother saying she couldn’t do it anymore and asked if we could take her other two children, Jason, 4, and Janice, 5. I remember getting that message and looking at Aaron and knowing we had to do it,” she said.
“We’d never even met the kids, but she’d told us if we didn’t take them, she’d have to give them to the state.”
So, those children also came to stay.
“We now had seven people in a three-bedroom house that we were very fortunate to rent from my parents, way below market price,” she said. “Still, it was rough.”
At one point, Terrance moved back at the bequest of his birth father. After nearly three months, the Raymonds heard from Terrance’s paternal grandfather that new arrangement wasn’t working.
He flew back.
“It was hard for Aaron and I, but good for Terrance because now he knows this was where he was meant to be,” she said.
For one year, the couple paid all expenses relating to their new children. Finally, in April 2017, the State of Arizona licensed the couple as foster parents – providing a modicum of financial aid.
“It was a horrendous experience. I was 25 and Aaron 28 so we didn’t have a life savings to pull from. We were on our own,” Jaclyn recalled.
Jaclyn’s parents were aware of what the couple was going through.
They realized that in many respects, she was following their example.
While employed as a vice president at Goldman Sachs in New York City, Gary Weeman was diagnosed with leukemia. After no bone marrow transplant match was found, he opted for Interferon, even though his oncologist warned that it had only a 2 percent success rate with leukemia.
“I’ve been on it ever since,” said Weeman, who contacted the AFN about his daughter and son-in-law’s story.
After moving to Ahwatukee, Weeman started volunteering with Make-A-Wish Foundation in Phoenix. He estimates in 10 years, he dealt with 106 cases.
“Jaclyn loved to come and meet the kids and get involved. She was in her early teens,” he said, acknowledging this early immersion into selfless giving may have also inspired her to join Teach America following the Xavier College Preparatory alum’s graduation from ASU’s Barrett Honors College in 2012 and earning her master’s in social justice and human rights at the university in 2014.
“She saw Terrance when he came in to her classroom with dirty clothes and hungry, and it didn’t matter what color he was, she wanted to help him. She deserves some credit and recognition for what she’s done,” Weeman said, adding:
“It’s a most admirable thing for someone else’s child, but as a parent, Barbara and I see it as a very self-sacrificing life. She and Aaron are giving up a lot of opportunities. She’s so young, and now she has five traumatized children, and it’s not an easy battle.”
Aaron admits life is a lot different than what he’d envisioned when the couple married in 2013
“Going from no kids to suddenly five has been a life changer. It has been a wonderful experience so far being able to see the world from the children’s perspective,” he said. “The kids hadn’t seen any of the world. To be able to enjoy all of the new experiences – like meeting Santa for the first time, playing in the snow, going into the ocean, flying across the country, Disneyland and rides, have been just as much of a joy to us as it has been for them.”
“Jaclyn and I no longer have quiet evenings with each other. Now we have family baseball games and dance recitals, which already become some of my favorite memories.”
On April 13, the five children – Brittany, 13; Terrance, 12; A.J., 10; Janice, 7; Jason, 5 – and Jaclyn and Aaron Raymond climbed into their Toyota Highlander and headed to Flagstaff, where the adoption was finalized in Superior Court.
“The day itself was really exciting, but its been such an up-and-down journey,” said Jaclyn. “Adoption is also bittersweet, and that’s what Aaron and I have to keep our pulse on. They’re happy to have a stable, loving home with two parents, but they also miss where they come from and they miss their birth mom. But these are gorgeous and smart kids, and I don’t know how we got so lucky.”