Helen Johnson, 15, is part of a big, blended family of nine, which sometimes draws looks and unusual questions from Williamson County neighbors
Kyleah Dunn, USA Today Network – Tennessee

Helen Johnson, 15, is part of a big, blended family of nine, which sometimes draws looks and unusual questions from Williamson County neighbors

The sound of smashing plates woke them all up.

Brentwood’s Kristi Johnson and her then 9-year-old daughter, Helen, already were on edge: The two were staying in a guest house in Ethiopia, there to bring home the family’s second child from Africa.

Kristi went downstairs to explore, and first saw that all the house’s plates had been shattered.

She found the culprit in the living room.

“There was a monkey sitting on the couch with the remote in his hand, changing channels and watching TV!” Helen said.

The two laugh as they remembered the most unique part of their 2011 wonderful, heartbreaking, moving and hilarious adventure to pick up Helen’s brother, Wes, from an orphanage.

“I got to feed the monkeys,” Helen added quickly. “It was so cool to see them.”

The Johnson family — nine members strong — looks a little different than most Williamson County families. First, of course, is the size.

And three of the kids are adopted, the older two from Ethiopia and the youngest from Memphis.

Kristi, 42, and her husband, Will, 45, decided to adopt when complications prevented her from having a fifth child — and Will always wanted to have five kids.

He ended up with seven.

Helen, 15, the oldest, loves all of her brothers and sisters. And she said she’s thrilled to have Ethiopian culture and food and restaurant visits be part of her family.

But to see Ethiopia herself has been the most exciting part of it all.

Mother and daughter went there to get Wes, a malnourished 1-year-old boy with a misshaped head.

Kristi first saw the boy in an orphanage on a trip to find the biological parents of the first child the family adopted, Lucy Lane. Kristi decided on the spot her family would adopt Wes, too.

Her oldest daughter, then in third grade, pushed and pushed to go on the trip to get Wes.

“I got to miss a week of school,” Helen said, smiling. “That’s always a good thing.”

Beyond that, Helen added, because of her sister Lucy, she’d gotten to hear lots of stories about Ethiopia.

“I wanted to be there and experience it with them. I was dying to go. I thought it’d be really cool, an amazing life experience.”

The girl didn’t complain once during 30 hours of flights to get there. She was shocked as soon as they got off the plane.

“All these people begging for food outside the airport,” she said.

“It was eye-opening. I was in Brentwood, and everything’s given to you — nice schools and nice people. And then going to this place where people are dying? It was crazy to see.”

Also eye-opening: wildlife everywhere, breathtaking natural beauty, dirt roads and cows wandering the streets.

Her first look at baby Wes jarred Helen.

“He was like a stick and his head was misshaped. My brothers and sisters were chunky little babies,” she said.

“It didn’t really scare me. But I’m like, ‘We need to feed this dude, now.’ ”

Still, Wes was easy to love, always smiling and laughing, grabbing Helen’s hand as he was just learning to walk.

Helen, now a sophomore at Ravenwood High School in Brentwood, enjoys having a nightly prayer and big family dinners together with her blended family.

She finds most people are supportive, but out in public, they do get the occasional odd question. “Are you guys a VBS (vacation Bible school)? Are you guys a church group? Is it different having a sibling who’s African-American?”

“It can get frustrating,” Helen said, shrugging. “I just try to act with respect.”

Reach Brad Schmitt at or 615-259-8384 or on Twitter @bradschmitt.

Nashville Storytellers: Unique family beginnings

You can hear Helen Johnson’s story and more on Aug. 28 at the next Nashville Storytellers, which will present five first-person stories of the unique ways families are forged. Helen, the first teen speaker to ever take the Nashville Storytellers stage, will share a personal account of being the oldest sibling in a blended family.

When: Aug. 28, doors open at 6 p.m., storytelling begins at 7 p.m.

Where: Noah Liff Opera Center (3622 Redmon St., Nashville)

Tickets: $20 purchased at, includes appetizers and two complimentary drinks (beer, wine and soda); a portion of the proceeds will be donated to Family & Children Service, which helps support adoption, foster and other care for children. 

More info:

Our storytellers

Helen Johnson, a 15-year-old who is the oldest in a family of seven siblings, including three through adoption

Michael McSurdy, who adopted a man in his 20s

Brandie Reeves, who formed a family of choice in recovery

Curtis Shaw, who became a father of twin boys with the help of a surrogate 

Bhim Subdei, an immigrant who raised his newborn son in a refugee camp

You can find a podcast of all our past Nashville Storytellers on iTunes.

For video stories from past speakers, including celebrity chef Maneet Chauhan and Tennessee Titans radio play-by-play man Mike Keith and poet Tiana Clark, visit


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