PRAIRIE DU CHIEN, Wis. - There are many ways to define the word "family."
For some, it's a bond based on shared genetics or a last name.
For the Wallin family in Prairie du Chien, it's something much more than that.
"I had this longing to be a mom and it was a longing that never went away," said Crystal Wallin.
When she and her first husband realized they couldn't have kids on their own, they started looking at adoption.
"We all have myths about, oh, you have to be a millionaire to adopt a child or you have to go to China to adopt a child," said Wallin.
But Eric, Annie and Renna desperately needed a new home, and they lived just minutes away from Wallin.
They just hadn't found each other yet.17436948
"They were removed from their birth home because of neglect," said Wallin. "They needed to go to homes where they were well taken care of and where they had the sort of things that you and I grew up taking for granted. You know, somebody made a hot supper every night. Somebody taught you how to use silverware. Somebody gave you pajamas and made sure that you took a bath."
They needed her just like she needed them.
So Wallin took a leap of faith. She formally adopted Renna, Eric and Annie -- now ages 10, 9 and 7 -- five years ago.
"It's like a puzzle piece that finds that missing spot. And when you pick up a child and you have that unfulfilled longing for your own ... finally that hollow spot is gone. It's filled," said Wallin.
But raising children who grew up neglected comes with its own set of challenges.
"Is it okay if I talk about this, Annie?" Wallin asked the youngest of the three siblings.
"Uh huh," said Annie.
"Okay," said Wallin. "Annie, as a baby, spent much of her time in a high chair. So Annie's fine motor skills aren't as good as yours or mine. She's not always good at holding eye contact in close proximity without breaking away after three or four seconds because she didn't get a lot of face-to-face like you do when you hold a baby."
When you come from a home where neglect is the norm, forever is something you have to figure out one day at a time.
"They don't have that network of, 'No matter what, mom and dad love me.' So when I said I'd be there forever and then I was working hours that weren't conducive to their schedule, I probably left too. Because, after all, everybody leaves," said Wallin.
She changed her work schedule as a critical-care paramedic to the night shift so she could better care for her family.
"I knew that it wouldn't be easy. And I'm not going to sit here and tell you it's a bed of roses because it's not," said Wallin.
When she and her first husband got divorced, she used it as a lesson for her kids.
"We've learned, too, sometimes people come and go out of your life. And it's for their reasons and it's not anything to do with the kids. They've learned to not internalize things or blame themselves," said Wallin.
But sometimes, people come into your life and they become a new part of your family.
Crystal and Kurt Wallin got married on the beach this summer.
With his three kids, they now have a family of eight.
"I adore kids, so it was nothing to have some more running around," said Kurt Wallin. "I enjoy every second I have with them."
"It doesn't matter if your last names are all the same or if you have the same color eyes or anything. It's just that, at the end of the day, you know those people have your back and they love you," said Crystal Wallin.
And while life has gotten really busy, it's also gotten a whole lot happier.
"I have that full house, right? That full house I always wanted. We have it," said Crystal Wallin.
For more information on adoption in Wisconsin, check out dcf.wisconsin.gov/children/adoption.
To learn more about foster parenting, go to dcf.wisconsin.gov/children/foster.
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