It was a story Dorothy Atwood DeBolt enjoyed telling, one that any harried parent of young children might find somewhat familiar.
The phone rang one day as the busy mother raced around her home, getting ready for an out-of-town trip and wrapping up housework before her kids got home. She answered and a child said: “Mom, this is Jennifer. Can I go to the playground after school?”
DeBolt replied: “Sure, honey, but be home by 5,” and hung up. Seconds later, she said aloud: “Oh my God, we don’t have a kid named Jennifer.”
Dorothy DeBolt, who laughed along with her family whenever she misplaced the names of the many children she did have, may not have had a daughter named Jennifer. Nor did she figure out which neighbor child might have made that errant call.
Yet DeBolt, who died Feb. 24, and her husband did, remarkably, raise 20 children — six biological and 14 adopted. Many of those they adopted had physical or emotional disabilities and most — though not all — were from other countries.
DeBolt, whose family became the subject of two films, including an Oscar-winning documentary, died of cardiac arrest at her El Cajon home. She was 89 and had been in poor health for several years, her husband, Bob DeBolt, said Monday.
The couple, who founded an Oakland-based nonprofit adoption agency for special needs children, taught their own to be self-reliant and to live independently. They made no special accommodations in their two-story home in Piedmont, near Oakland, mostly because they were cash-strapped, they said, but each child, with encouragement from the others, learned to navigate through it.
The family included adopted children who were paraplegics and others afflicted by polio, spina bifida, paralysis and blindness. One was born without legs and arms. One saw his parents killed in a bombing, and some were wounded in war. One, a girl who was blind, battered and abandoned when she was adopted by the DeBolts at 4, had been named “The Child Who Never Smiles” by orphanage workers in Korea.
The girl, named Wendy, soon did, after a corneal transplant that restored the sight in one eye. “She went darting around the house, cupping the chins of her brothers and sisters and laughing out loud for the sheer joy of seeing for the first time,” Dorothy DeBolt said in a 1988 Times interview. “That’s the kind of ringside seat to miracles we’ve had.”
The family was featured in the 1977 documentary “Who Are the DeBolts? And Where Did They Get 19 Kids?,” which won an Academy Award and was narrated and produced by actor Henry Winkler. The DeBolts later adopted their 20th child, Reynaldo, a Mexican street kid with a paralyzed leg who was part of a sequel.
Dorothy DeBolt and her first husband, Ted Atwood, had five children in the 1950s when they adopted two Amerasian boys who were products of the Korean War. After Atwood died in 1963, Dorothy took in two more — both disabled youngsters from Vietnam.
In the late 1960s, she was a widow with nine kids when a friend set her up on a blind date with Bob DeBolt, a civil engineer who was recently divorced and had one child.
Neither was expecting much when Bob arrived at her Spanish-style home. The door opened, he later recalled, and “here was this mass of little people,” along with his stylish, mini-skirted date.
They were married in 1970. “I fell in love on the first date,” Dorothy told The Times in 1988. “I always think I can give some hope to ladies out there who have kids and think they’ll never get married again.”
The blended family grew, with each new child learning to contribute to the household and support the others.
Bob DeBolt said Monday that his wife was moved to adopt partly by her faith — “Thank you, God” was posted about the house — although she was not overly religious. Mostly, he said, “she was motivated by the fact that because these kids were disabled didn’t mean they weren’t adoptable.
“These weren’t throwaway kids,” he said. “Her goal was to allow every child to have a permanent home.”
Born Dec. 29, 1923, in San Francisco, Dorothy was the elder of two children of Esther and Michael Nortier. Her mother, from Sweden, and her father, from the Netherlands, owned several Bay Area restaurants.
She attended UC Berkeley, then became a professional pianist, joining a San Francisco combo that played boogie woogie and other popular music. She stopped playing professionally after starting a family but taught all her children to play and enjoy music.
The adoption agency she and her husband founded, Adopt A Special Kid, or AASK, was the first in the country to focus on special needs children, the family said. It has placed 3,500 children in California and thousands more through its affiliates around the country.
Two children, J.R. and Twe, died as adults. Along with her husband, Dorothy DeBolt’s survivors include her children, Mike, Mimi, Stephanie, Noel, Kim, Marty, Melanie, Doni, Ly, Dat, Trang, Phong, Tich, Anh, Reynaldo, Sunee, Karen and Wendy, 27 grandchildren, six great-grandchildren, and her brother, Art Nortier.