Don Joss and his wife, Amy, have 15 biological and adopted children, including five who have severe special needs.
Don Joss glanced up from the register long enough to take in the football fans lined around his sports-cards store and out the front door.
They packed DJ’s Sportscards in Renton on a recent rainy Friday evening so Seahawks wide receiver Kasen Williams could sign their souvenir cards, photographs, miniature football helmets and jerseys.
Though Williams got the attention, the night’s real attractions were behind the counter: Joss, 44, and members of his unique, ever-expanding family, which has taken in some of the world’s neediest children with help from sports cards and the athletes who sign them.
How to help
To support the Joss family’s upcoming adoptions go to djssportscards.com and click on “Reece’s Rainbow” under favorite links.
As Joss collected the $15-per-person autograph fees, five of his 15 children helped out behind the counter. Two are biological, and three others, from Guatemala and Ethiopia, are adopted. Back at the family home near North Bend, Joss’s wife, 41-year-old Amy, tended to their 10 other biological and adopted children — five of whom have severe special needs.
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Proceeds from the Williams signing — a little more than $1,200 — went to The Shepherd’s Crook, an Ohio-based orphan ministry that has supported Joss and his wife in adopting foreign special-needs children. Foreign adoptions can cost $30,000, something Joss pays for with donations and proceeds from store sales and signings.
“It brings in new customers,’’ Joss says of player signings. “It drives more attention to my store and to the orphans and what this is about. People come here, and they see it’s for a cause, and they ask us what it takes to adopt a child from another country.’’
And with an estimated 130 million orphans worldwide, Joss emphasizes the global need for caring families. The orphans he now takes are often unadoptable in their home countries, where special-needs children can be abused and ignored.
But to Joss, each child is precious and unique. More precious than his most-prized vintage cards, which he protects in plastic sheaths while sharing their history and stories with all who want to hear.
Joss is a throwback to a time before sports-card trading went mostly online. His store has remained the same for 28 years, a place for customers to hold and discuss the merchandise, be it a 1956 Mickey Mantle baseball card, a 1962 Frank Gifford football card or Felix Hernandez and Russell Wilson rookie cards.
The player signings began a couple years ago when Joss met a red-haired sports- card enthusiast who kept coming into the store. Joss didn’t know his name, but Joss’ son, James, now 12, quickly recognized him as Seahawks punter Jon Ryan.
After Joss introduced himself, he and Ryan talked football, sports cards and foreign adoptions. Ryan offered to do an autograph session.
“He brought it up and was willing to do it basically for nothing,” Joss said. “We made over $1,000 in voluntary donations, and he was great. He spent extra time with everybody.’’
The idea caught on, and soon Joss had then-Seahawks running back Robert Turbin and linebacker O’Brien Schofield in as well as Mariners outfielder Stefen Romero. Joss doesn’t invite just any player: They must charge nothing, or a nominal appearance fee that won’t offset charitable funds collected.
On this night, Williams, 23, a Sammamish native and former Skyline High School and University of Washington star, got up dozens of times to pose for photographs and videos with customers.
“I don’t want to do this just to make money,’’ Williams said of the signing. “I want to do it based off of something that’s relevant, where I’m giving back to the community in some way.’’
As Williams left that night, his session done, Joss called out from behind the counter: “You helped feed my family, so thank you!’’
A positive effect
Caring for the ever-growing Joss family — now at 15 children and soon to reach 17 with the adoption this summer of Peter, 7, and Lucy, 11, both of whom have Down’s Syndrome and are from China — is a challenge. One of the couple’s biological daughters, Mercy, 7, who was born with a rare chromosomal deletion, almost died at age 1. She is fed through a tube and can’t communicate verbally.
“We were told she was going to be a vegetable,’’ Joss says. “But she’s happy. She crawls around, and she’s very close to walking. She’s doing things no one thought possible.’’
By the time Mercy was born, Joss and his wife already had adopted twins — Juan and Rudy, now age 12 — from Guatemala and another son — Jeremy, now 9 — from Ethiopia. Neither was special needs, but the Guatemalans were malnourished in their orphanages and the couple quickly saw a positive transformation.
That made the Josses consider more foreign adoptions. Later, having experienced Mercy’s special needs, they took things further, seeking foreign adoptees with needs so severe they were unwanted in their homelands.
They travelled to Bulgaria and adopted daughter Hope, 7, born with a frontal nasal dysplasia, which left her disfigured. She had come from a family of gypsies, often discriminated against in Bulgaria, and was so badly neglected in the orphanage that she couldn’t verbally communicate and was prone to hitting herself. Things have slowly improved.
That same trip, they adopted daughter Serenity, 6, who suffers from Apert Syndrome, a premature fusing of skull bones that caused facial disfigurement.
Later, they adopted another Apert Syndrome child, daughter Jillian, 2, from China. Along the way they’ve had two healthy biological sons, William, 6, and Donald III, age 22 months.
Three years ago, they paid $303,000 for a 2,600-square-foot, manufactured rambler home on five acres with a barn and a creek. The property provided needed space and was partially hidden from the main road so they and their children can be outside without drawing attention.
In the family’s sprawling living room, Serenity, whose eyes are separated wider because of a cleft in her upper face, sat next to me and wrapped me in a hug.
“That’s just her way of saying hello,’’ Joss said.
She began patting my face, and Joss gently said “hands off” each time.
Joss was in a nearby rocking chair, cradling daughter Yu-Chi, 7, born in Taiwan with cerebral palsy and beaten by her mother so severely that she’s virtually blind and brain damaged. She can barely lift her arms or legs and must be fed through a tube, but she smiled wide as Joss rocked her back and forth.
“This is what I look forward to doing all day long,’’ Joss said. “When we first got her, we were afraid to even touch her because of what she had been through. They told us in the orphanage that they’d never seen her smile before.’’
His wife sat in another chair, holding the couple’s youngest biological son, Donald III. She described a chaotic schedule of doctor’s appointments.
“We’re booked every day for the next two weeks straight,’’ she said. “It comes in spurts. There are times when everything is scheduled and you have to go, go, go. But then it eases up.’’
A family friend visits from Ellensburg three times per week during the school year to help.
The healthy Guatemalan twins and Joss’ biological son, James, 12, are all within a few months’ age and avid baseball players.
“They’re like triplets,’’ Joss says. “We call them the three stooges.’’
The couple knows not everybody understands what they’re doing. They’ve heard criticism they should adopt American children instead of foreign orphans.
Their oldest child, Rebecca, 17, was adopted out of foster care in Washington. But after the couple had their first two biological children, Daniel, 16, and Elizabeth, 14, officials worried their family was too large.
“We were very frustrated,’’ Joss said. “We were made fans of going international, where you just got the kids and it’s done.’’
Joss says they don’t seek government assistance.
A home-equity loan financed two adoptions. The Shepherd’s Crook and another agency, Reece’s Rainbow, which specializes in special-needs adoptions, also helped raise money. The local Taylor Creek Church donated proceeds from a fireworks stand.
“They’re amazing,” Pastor Jason Katen said. “Just selfless people that give everything for their kids.’’
The church’s congregation often helps the family. Donations can be made in a collection jar at the store.
“I’ve had people put a quarter in, Joss said. “ I’ve had people put a hundred dollars in.”
Customers have donated items to sell; such as framed, autographed Edgar Martinez shoes that fetched $400. A signed Percy Harvin mini-football helmet sold for $50, as did a cut-signature vintage card from former 1950s Yankees All-Star Bill “Moose” Skowron.
A pain that lingers
But for all the highs of seeing their children grow healthier, the lows are unavoidable. The worst came in September, four days after bringing home an adopted daughter, Brooke, 4, from China.
Joss spots a dark-haired customer perusing basketball cards in a far corner of the store.
“He prepares the grave sites at the cemetery where we buried Brooke,’’ Joss said. “He told me he came in for work and they told him they needed to prepare a site to bury a small child who’d been adopted from China. He said,‘Hey, I know somebody who also adopted a baby from China.’ Then he went, ‘Oh, no!’ ’’
Brooke had Down’s Syndrome and weighed only 22 pounds. Joss spent “a great two weeks with her” in China, but within two days of her arrival in the U.S., she began vomiting.
Figuring she had caught the flu on the overseas flight, the couple kept watch. The vomiting stopped the following day and she seemed to improve, running around.
“And then, in the middle of the day, she went to lie down and we soon noticed she wasn’t moving at all,” Joss said.
They dialed 911, but it was too late.
An autopsy found she had been born with an inadequate immune system the couple hadn’t been told about and died from pneumonia.
The pain from Brooke’s death lingers, but Joss looks forward and not back. He’ll return to China this summer and come back with two more children — the couple’s ninth and 10th foreign adoptions and sixth and seventh with special needs. One of the newcomers will be daughter Lucy, whose photo now adorns the store’s donations jar near the register.
Joss holds up a baseball card of 1940s Cleveland Indians legend Lou Boudreau as two customers, Dave Nyikos, 35, and James Kirchner, 36, approach to hear its story. Joss describes how Boudreau invented the “Ted Williams shift’’ decades before such defensive shifts became common.
“It reminds me of shops I used to go to when I was younger,’’ said Nyikos, who became a customer shortly after moving here from Indianapolis a decade ago. “There’s always a good variety, and DJ (Don Joss) is very friendly. If he’s got something unique that comes in he’ll always shoot me an e-mail.’’
Kirchner, who moved from Miami three years ago, added of the orphans: “We respect what he’s doing. We’ll support him any way we can.’’
For now, that means buying cards, attending player signings and spreading the word. In a sports-card industry often given to nameless, faceless computer transactions, there still is a place where the give and take between owner and customer can be felt oceans away.
“We couldn’t be doing this without the help and support of others,’’ Joss said. “Everyone has just opened their hearts to us and our family.’’