Eleven years after the birth of their youngest of four sons, Robert and Cindy Russell of Emory were blessed with a daughter.

As the boys grew up and moved out of the house one by one, Robert and Cindy grew concerned about their daughter spending a large part of her childhood as an only child; they had home-schooled their four sons and had grown to love the “big family experience.”

A busy, active, and full household had long been a source of joy for the two parents. So in 2010, the couple decided to make their big family even bigger through adoption; now they have eight more kids.

Robert, a Greenville firefighter since 1985 known for his calm and humble demeanor, describes their busy lives matter-of-factly: “Well, we just try to spend a lot of time with our kids,” he told the Herald-Banner this week. “My wife home-schools them, and with my work schedule, I’m on for 24 hours and off for 48, so it works out.

“They love to camp, hunt and fish, so when I get home, that’s what they want to do, because it’s daddy time, I guess,” the avid archer and bow hunter said cheerfully.

As much as the Russells value the recreational and learning experiences that outdoors activities offer, Robert’s sister Regina Saucier praised the couple’s work as in-home teachers, especially since some of the children have special educational needs.

“They are like students of their children,” she said. “They don’t try to teach all of the kids the same way, because they understand that each of them is an individual. Some of the kids weren’t babies when they were adopted, and Robert and his wife have just been so compassionate when it comes to working with the kids through their trauma, getting them the counseling they need and tweaking the home environment to help each kid,” Regina noted.

By generously expanding their family, the Russells have also learned to embrace the children’s diversity of personalities, interests and needs.

“While I wouldn’t say adopting has changed our outlook on teaching, working with special needs has taught us to be a lot more patient, and we’ve learned to teach a little differently,” Robert said.

“We have a boy with high-functioning autism who plays the piano well – you play something for him once or twice, and he’s pretty well got it,” Robert gave as an example. “We also have a girl with ADHD and who is bipolar, and we have to teach her a little slower.

“They’re all different – some learn best verbally while others do better reading it themselves,” Robert explained. “They’re also different as far as personality and interests. Our biological daughter, who is 16 now, is laid-back and easygoing, a couple of our kids would rather be outdoors than indoors, and the one with high-functioning autism is more into music and electronics.”

In addition to educating their children and fostering their interests and talents, the Russells have also emphasized instilling important life skills in their children.

“As a fireman, he has done such a good job of teaching them safety,” Regina said of Robert. “I mean, those kids are aware of their surroundings.

“He comes across as a quiet person, but still waters run deep – a lot of people just don’t realize how insightful and funny he is, and he passes it along to his kids.”

Regina is clearly very proud of the upbringing her brother and his wife are providing for their 13 children.

“They’re also very consistent in how they raise and teach the kids. I often joke that if my brother and his wife raised more kids, that we wouldn’t need as many prisons,” she said.

While many people may marvel at how someone could manage such a full house, Robert humbly reminds them that large families used to be much more common.

“Big families are pretty nice – I think a lot of people might miss out on the big family experience,” he said. “I’m 55, and my parents and grandparents – of course they were all farming back then – had big families … but we like it. It’s pretty nice.

“When I meet my maker, I hope he’ll just give me a pat on the back and say, ‘Good job, son. Come on home.’”

Travis Hairgrove is a news reporter and features writer at the Herald-Banner and covers city government for many municipalities in Hunt County. To reach him outside of business hours, email THairgroveReporter@gmail.com.