"Time to get dressed," Sondra Headrick announces above a happy hubbub of a half-dozen 3-year-olds. Grant prances atop the back of the couch and licks the window, Jaycie strolls regally with a towel on her head, Ethan whimpers about an "ouchie" on his foot and Melissa inspects, Danielle flips through a book, and Sean—where’s Sean?—is sitting in the toy box in the dining room.
It’s a typical morning for this mother of sextuplets. On April 6, 2002, Sondra and Eldon Headrick of Rago, Kan., increased the town’s population from 12 to 18, and enriched the community by opening their home to a squad of helpers.
"OK. Who’s first?" Sondra asks as she settles on the living room floor beside a stack of six diapers, three pairs of ruffled overalls and three little boys’ sweat suits. She scoops up giggling Danielle, peels off her pajamas, changes her diaper, snaps her into her clean outfit, kisses her and reaches for the next blue-eyed tot. Every activity is assembly-line style. By the time Sondra dresses number three—oops—Danielle has wiggled out of her overalls and is parading around in her diaper.
Fortunately, Sondra has plenty of extra helping hands. When women in the neighboring communities of Cheney (pop. 1,783), Norwich (pop. 551), Kingman (pop. 3,387) and Harper (pop. 1,567) learned that one of their own was expecting sextuplets, dozens pitched in to help the burgeoning family.
"At first I called them our volunteers," Sondra says. "Now they’re our family. They’ve adopted us. The community takes so much pride in the sextuplets."
Leap of faith
A large family wasn’t planned by Sondra, 36, and Eldon, 35, who already had one daughter, Aubrianna, now 6, but longed for another child. Sondra, who conceived all of her children while taking fertility drugs, was six weeks pregnant when an ultrasound confirmed she was carrying six babies.
"The doctor started counting and said three, and I thought, ‘Oh, triplets,’" recalls Eldon, who earns $34,000 a year cleaning storm drains for the city of Wichita. "‘I can handle that,’ and then four and I thought, ‘That’s a lot,’ and five. I don’t even remember six because I was concentrating on holding Aubrianna and the room was spinning."
The couple had two weeks to decide whether to selectively reduce the number of babies in the high-risk pregnancy.
"I’d go to work crying every day," recalls Sondra, who at the time was a billing clerk at Kingman Community Hospital. Not only did she and Eldon worry about the babies’ survival and health, they worried about financial burdens. They already had spent their savings of $2,000 on fertility treatments, Sondra would need to quit work immediately to be on complete bed rest, and they knew they’d be hard-pressed to squeeze six more children into their modest mobile home.
"In that two weeks, I had a dream that I brought home healthy babies," Sondra says. "I felt at peace. I knew our family was praying. I decided to take the biggest leap of faith I’ll ever take."
Six healthy squealing babies—weighing between 2 pounds, 10 ounces and 3 pounds, 11 ounces—were born at 31 weeks. (A normal pregnancy lasts 40 weeks.) Volunteers were ready with open arms. They arrived in pairs around-the-clock that first year to feed, burp, bathe, cuddle and rock the babies. Sondra’s mother, Karen Hinnenkamp, who lives nearby in Suppesville, and Eldon’s mother, Janet Headrick, who lives across the road, took shifts.
"The community kind of sticks together," explains Chan’Tal Underwood, 35, of Cheney, who organized a brigade of women to prepare hot meals for the couple. The mother of three didn’t know Sondra; she simply knew that another mother needed help.
"No one ever turned me down," Underwood says. "I called friends and teachers. Sometimes two people would go together to make a meal—all home cooking, chicken and noodles or spaghetti and homemade bread. Sondra finally told me that they didn’t need a full-size cake every single day."
A group of faithful volunteers—all grandmothers—still arrives Monday through Thursday to help with the babies they love as their own.
"I think they’re just darling," says Olive McCormick, 64, of Kingman, who shows up at 7 a.m. each Monday. "I help Sondra change diapers and get them dressed and get their plates. I match socks and just do as much as I can."
Six potty chairs are piled in the bathtub, and progress is being made in the diaper department. When younger, the sextuplets required 50 diaper changes a day.
On Tuesdays, Betty Claypool, 78, wouldn’t miss driving 34 miles from Cheney to fix lunch, read storybooks and love on the toddlers.
"God has blessed me with good health, and as long as I’m able to help, I will," Claypool says. "I open the door and they say ‘Betty’ and run and hug and kiss me. It’s just been a joy."
Come Wednesdays, the little charmers scramble into the arms of Susan Brown, 52, a retired music teacher from Cheney. Brown read about Sondra, her former fourth-grade pupil, in her church bulletin and didn’t hesitate to help.
"I get there about 8 and as the different ones get up, mommy’s lap gets full and then my lap gets full," Brown says.
On Thursdays, the toddlers greet Ellen Olivier, 64, who’s been helping the Headricks for more than two years.
"They’re such happy children—and smart," brags Olivier, explaining how Sondra marks each child’s initials inside their look-alike shoes and the tots can read them. They’ve mastered their colors and are working on counting as well.
Like proud parents, these surrogate grandmothers can’t help but dote on their darlings. During a trip to White’s Foodliner in Kingman, Brown watched as the Headrick flock pushed tyke-sized shopping carts behind their mother.
"They were like little ducklings following Sondra, and they were so focused on their job," recalls Brown, who was helping Sondra shop for groceries. "Sondra would drop a banana in one cart and then a loaf of bread in the next. It was precious."
White’s Foodliner gave the Headricks $100 a month in free groceries for a year. Lubbers Chevrolet Ford in Cheney provided a 15-passenger van lease-free for three years. Other hometown merchants, including Pizza Hut and Sonic, donated meals.
"People have been overwhelmingly nice," says Sondra, who was embarrassed to accept help at first. "Eldon and I take care of our own."
A new home
Volunteers are eager to pitch in again to help the Headricks build a home in Norwich. The family has been approved by Wichita’s Habitat for Humanity, and Eldon and Sondra have completed the required 400 hours of volunteer work at area Habitat job sites to qualify for their own home.
The house plan will include enough space for seven growing children and even a dinner table, says Sondra. In their mobile home, the table long ago was replaced by six highchairs.
Sondra donated her hours at Habitat’s second-hand store in Wichita and was such a hard worker that she was hired to work weekends.
Working outside the home and raising seven children is "tough, very tough," Sondra says, who can’t imagine life without the squad of volunteers—who have become her close friends.
The surrogate grandmothers don’t like to imagine life without the Headricks sextuplets, either.
"I’m just so attached to those little kids," Brown says. "I know that someday Sondra won’t need us. The kids will go off to preschool."
Olivier thinks about that, too. "Oh, don’t worry," she says. "We’ll still visit."
And maybe fold a load of laundry or two.