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Couple extends family and finds strength

MT. VICTORY — While they may look like your ordinary family, their story is anything but normal.

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Keri and Dustin Robinson sit with the members of their extended family. Their two sons, Lennon, left,  and Lott are autistic and a year ago, the Mt. Victory couple opened their home to Faith and Zach Jenkins, two local teens who needed a structured family life. The Robinsons said they have learned valuable life lessons from all four of the children in their new family. (KENTON TIMES PHOTO/DAN ROBINSON)

Dustin and Keri Robinson have four children in their Mt. Victory household — two young biological sons and two older siblings to whom they have opened their home. Both sets of children have their own story.

Lennon,5, and Lott Robinson, 4, have autism. Zach, 16, and Faith Jenkins, 12, come from a troubled home life.

But together, they have combined to create one big family, said Dustin and Keri. Married for six years, Dustin is an employee of Honda Transmission in Russells Point while Keri is a stay-at-home mom.

Lennon and Lott were diagnosed with autism in 2012, but the signs were there earlier on, according to their parents.

The biggest change with Lennon was noticed after his 12-month vaccinations.

For the first year-and-a-half, he was developing normally, but that’s when things took a downward turn.

“He had a few words that he would say up until that age, then at about a year-and-a-half, he just regressed — quit talking, wouldn’t play with you, eye contact at that point was pretty much nonexistent,” Dustin said. “But it’s progressively gotten better.” Lennon is considered non-verbal, but has about five words he says, according to Keri.

While Keri and Dustin both had it in the back of their minds that Lennon may have autism, it didn’t truly hit home until some research was provoked by a question in a packet sent to them from Hardin County’s early intervention services. It focused on the developmental level of the child.

“One of the questions was, ‘Does your child hand-flap?’ and at that time, he was flapping at everything,” Keri said.

“We just thought he was excited,” Dustin added. But sure enough, a Google search for hand-flapping returned numerous results referring to autism.

“It was really hard to digest. I think we both knew, but just seeing it there confirmed everything,” Keri said.

Lott’s case was a little more uncertain, his mother said.

“Right around the time he was supposed to start talking, he wasn’t talking,” Keri explained.

Lott, too, is considered non-verbal, but is beginning to talk.

Keri takes the children to a center in Wapakoneta three days a week for ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) therapy, which, she said, has made a difference.

Raising two young children can be a challenge by itself, but two children with autism can make for quite a difficult time, the couple said.

“Probably five out of our seven days are spent with a meltdown, a tantrum, screaming, throwing himself on the floor, hitting himself in the head — that’s just the behavior aspect,” Keri said. “On top of that, everything’s texture with (Lennon), so there’s certain foods he won’t eat. Lott’s getting a lot better, but Lennon is a lot more severe than what Lott is.”

Food is a guessing game, the parents said, since the boys are non-verbal and won’t point. And with weakened immune systems, illnesses are also a guess as they are not able to communicate what is wrong with them.

“They can’t tell you anything, you just go strictly off of behaviors,” Keri said.

Safety concerns are another big issue around the house. The Robinsons learned, among other things, that doors cannot be left open or their children will venture outside.

The Robinsons hope to put in a fence at their home this spring or summer to help make the home safer for the children.

Despite what may seem like a chaotic environment to the outside observer, the Robinson household feels quite normal to them.

“This is our normal. Aside from the teenagers, I wouldn’t know what it’d be like to raise a normal, typical-developing kid,” Keri said.

The boys having autism has changed Dustin’s outlook on life. Nothing is taken for granted, and what may seem like the smallest developments for some parents can be a gigantic step for the Robinsons.

“I think your eyes are a lot more opened to the world of a lot of stuff that’s going on, and you’re more appreciative of the things you have,” Dustin said. “All the kids, I know we’re supposed to teach them, but all of them have taught me different things and different values of life.”

But while having their eyes opened to the world of autism, Dustin and Keri also were awakened to the plight of Zach and Faith. They were living in a home with no water, heat or electricity.

Dustin met Zach through his position as Ridgemont Junior High basketball coach.

During his seventh grade year, Zach, who was living in Hepburn at the time, was being brought to practice by the seventh grade basketball coach who lived in Kenton. But the following year, the coach had moved up to junior varsity, while Dustin remained at the junior high level. Still needing a ride, Dustin offered to bring Zach to practice.

According to Dustin, it was about two weeks into practice that Zach asked him a question that caught him off guard.

“He said, ‘Hey coach, can I come shower at your house?’ It was a different question, I hadn’t heard that request yet,” Dustin explained. “I said, ‘Why can’t you shower at your own house?’ He said, ‘We haven’t had running water for three months.’ I said, ‘Well how have you been washing your practice jersey?’ because I had been running these kids for two weeks straight, just running them to get them in shape. He said, ‘I haven’t,’ so I said, ‘Yeah, Zach, you can come shower at my house any time you want.’”

Dustin got another idea of how things were at the Jenkins home when he offered to take Zach to the Belly Acre in Mount Victory to get some food.

Despite saying he was starving, Zach ate just half of his sandwich and fries, raising another red flag in Dustin’s eyes.

“I said, ‘You told me you were starving. He said, ‘I am starving.’ I said, ‘Why didn’t you eat all of your sandwich?’ He said, ‘I’m going to make sure my sister eats,’” Dustin said. “So he was making sure Faith had something to eat.”

Zach and Dustin got to know each other better through the drives back and forth to practice. But at one of those practices, Zach appeared rattled to Dustin, so he asked him if everything was all right.

“He said nobody was at home watching his sister,” Dustin said. “I understood that and said, ‘Well you’ve had the chance to meet my wife, how about when I pick you up, Faith will just come and stay with Keri while you’re at practice, so you’ll know she’s safe.’ He was fine with that.”

The Robinsons met Faith for the first time at Thanksgiving in 2012. The siblings went with the family to both Keri’s and Dustin’s family’s Thanksgiving get-togethers.

“I remember them both saying that was the best Thanksgiving they’d ever had,” Dustin said.

It was from that point on, Keri said, that the two started staying with the family. Keri kept in contact with the Jenkins’ mother, Brenda, telling her the two were more than welcome to stay with them until she could get on her feet, which she was fine with.

The siblings’ mother later moved to Ridgeway, and for about one week, Zach and Faith went back to living with her.

Keri received a call from Alicia Cook of the Hardin County Family Resource Center. Cook was looking to get Zach and Faith out of the Ridgeway home and into one with heat because of concerns of an upcoming winter storm. She asked the Robinsons if they could take in the brother and sister permanently.

Keri and Dustin talked about it and “it was really a no-brainer. They had already been here since Thanksgiving,” Keri said.

Upon hearing the news he and his sister would be staying with the Robinsons, Zach said he couldn’t have been happier.

“It was the greatest thing ever,” Zach said. “It was the biggest relief. I didn’t have to worry about anything. I’d never really had that experience before.”

The Robinsons received temporary custody of the children, pending the siblings’ mother going through drug rehab.The family had monthly visits from children’s services, receiving updates on the mother. Her situation went unchanged and she continued to use drugs.

In October, Brenda died from an overdose. “That was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, pulling the kids out of school and telling them their mom had passed away,” Dustin said.

“With Brenda’s passing, we now have full custody, and I’m sure she would have wanted it that way,” Keri added.

Coming from the lifestyle the two grew up in, the couple said, “They’re amazing kids.” The two are also quite intelligent, Dustin added, as both have been on the honor roll every time since joining the family.

“That’s a big accomplishment for them, going from, ‘OK, no one cares if I get good grades,’ to ‘Now I have to lock down and study,’” Dustin said.

“They’re doing it, and succeeding in doing it.”

Zach, now a freshman, is involved in basketball, golf and choir. Faith, a seventh grader, also plays basketball and is involved in cheerleading and band. She said she also may take up softball.

As a family of six on just one income, the community and school have both come to the Robinsons’ aid, according to the couple.

“We’ve taken on a lot, but there’s been people that have helped to make everything happen and we’re very appreciative of all that,” Keri said.

According to the couple, Zach and Faith’s interaction with Lennon and Lott has helped the younger boys.

“I know we helped them out with their situation, but they’ve helped us out tremendously with the boys,” Keri said. “That interaction with other kids – granted they’re older – and just being able to look at them as role models and listen to them talk and interact and everything, they’ve really helped us, too.”

“Change with autism is big for them. When Zach and Faith first came, especially for Lennon, it was really rough for him. He would get on the floor and hit his head off the floor just because he couldn’t deal with the change,” Dustin added. “But it’s a big step for Lennon to let them into his world because it’s so hard to get into his world, and he allows them in it.”

Now as one big family, Zach and Faith consider Lennon and Lott their brothers and Dustin and Keri their parents, and the feeling is mutual.

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