By Paul Kandarian
When Marc McGiveney ’92 and Deb Harbin ’92 met as nursing students at URI in 1988, they were adults with children of their own. When they married four years later, they blended their families, including their four children, and proceeded to adopt four more. Five of their eight children had special needs. But they were special parents. And they knew they had plenty of the one thing all children need—love.
To the uninitiated, chaos seems to reign at a big house deep in the West Kingston, Rhode Island, woods. Marc McGiveney ’92 and Deb Harbin ’92 built the house for their family, which includes eight children—five with special needs, and four of those adopted—and five grandchildren. But for them, it’s not chaos. It’s just life.
Squatting on the floor, playing with a toy, and staring at the noisy scene around him is their son, Luke, 21, who has Down syndrome. Luke, whom they adopted as an infant, is gently tapping one of his many stuffed animals to his lips, “It’s sensory stimulation,” explains Marc. Luke occasionally flings the stuffed animal across the room.
Standing quietly and gently smiling amid the noise is another son, Norman, 27. They adopted Norman when he was 5. He had a litany of physical, medical, and emotional problems—“A perfect fit for this family,” says Marc. He was born to a mother with substance abuse issues and he suffered numerous strokes as an infant. Norman now works part-time in a silk screen shop and is a volunteer with the local fire department.
Marc and Deb have two other adopted children who are now grown and living and working outside the home: Jonathan, 27, adopted at the age of 4, who had serious adjustment issues after a dozen previous foster placements; and Will, adopted at 16, who had significant learning and social disabilities, likely exacerbated by the fact that he had also been shuttled around foster care.
It’s not chaos.
It’s just life.
Rounding out the household are two special-needs adults, a couple, who live under Marc and Deb’s care in a supportive living arrangement.
Stopping in to lend a hand are Deb’s daughters, Emily Flynn, 36, and Nathalie Morrissey, 31. Emily and Nathalie’s little ones scamper about, adding excitement to the busy scene. In the living room, Deb’s other daughter, Vanesa, 38, born with Rett syndrome, a crippling neurological disorder, lays curled and smiling in her small chair, doted over by the grandchildren, her face locked into a smile as she silently takes it all in. “Vanesa,” says Deb, “is small in stature but huge in presence!” Marc’s daughter, Ellen, 37, also lives nearby and often stops in to visit or help out.
Deb, 63, just home from work as senior director of nursing at Perspectives Corporation, stands at the counter, still in nursing attire, chopping potatoes. Her only notable lament, it seems, is that the main course has not been attended to prior to her arrival.
“You’d think someone would have put the ham in the oven,” she sighs with a laugh, looking pointedly at husband Marc, 67, a retired nurse. Marc, a calm and good-natured man with a long white ponytail and matching beard, just shrugs.
Amid the chaos, Haley, a small, furry rescue dog, runs from human to human seeking head pats and belly rubs. Hiding from the noise somewhere is Louis the cat.
This is a typical day in this household.
“Nah, this is quiet,” Nathalie laughs, as the din grows and dinner is prepared. “Now, Christmas—that’s insane.”
Marc and Deb met at URI in 1988 as nursing students. They married July 3, 1992, not long after graduation.
But they almost never met. Marc had to battle to get into URI, having earned a C in high school chemistry back in 1968. He had to convince the University to take a chance on him.
“I said, ‘Hey, I’m footing the bill here, and it’s on me. So if I don’t make it, I don’t make it, that’s on me,'” Marc says. “I could see their point. URI has a great nursing program and they weren’t letting just anyone slide in.” But he got his chance–and graduated with a 3.15 GPA.
Marc and Deb were both older students with families, and they met in a study group.
Marc, outspoken and opinionated, rubbed Deb the wrong way. He had what she describes as an “annoying conservative streak,” which, she concedes, time has tempered.
“I didn’t have much use for him when we first met. He had this kind of nonchalance,” she says. “He used to argue that the people who had Medicaid had the same care as people with private insurance. With me being a single parent of a special-needs child I had to take to a clinic all the time, I knew that wasn’t the case. So at first I thought he was a jerk.”
“I wasn’t aware then,” Marc says.
And Deb adds, “He’s come around.”
He learned a bit about health care early on out of necessity. His first wife had Hodgkin’s disease, and he had to learn how to care for her. At the time, Marc owned Island Records in Newport, and one of his customers told him being a male nurse might be a better career option for him–albeit for less-than-altruistic reasons.
“He said only three percent of nurses are men, so nursing would be a great place to meet chicks,” Marc laughs. “But he also said nursing is recession-proof. That stuck with me.”
Family circumstances forced both Marc and Deb to leave URI for a short time, and when they returned, they gravitated toward one another once again, rekindling their friendship. Their respective marriages had ended in the interim, and they began dating. Marc jokes that they would “steal kisses in the elevator.”
They both had small children, loved nursing—and each other. They moved in together in November 1991, graduated a month later, and married the following July.
“It went faster than we expected,” Deb says dryly. “We were poor, in debt, with families to raise, and we both got jobs as RNs.”
Deb worked her way up at Perspectives Corporation—an agency that provides services and support for children and adults with disabilities in Rhode Island—for 24 years before becoming senior director of nursing. But it almost didn’t happen at all.
Every child deserves a family and to be loved.
“I almost didn’t hire her. She was very, very outspoken,” says Judy Niedbala ’78, chief operating officer at Perspectives. “Turns out, she became a loud, outspoken advocate because she needed to for her daughter. Her strength is representing herself as a parent of a disabled child at meetings with other parents. That’s powerful. And she’s constantly challenging us as a provider to make sure we’re doing the right thing.”
“She’s very direct, but you can be direct with her,” Niedbala says. “You can say if she’s out of line and she’ll accept it.”
Marc spent 27 years in nursing, including 12 in the emergency room at Rhode Island Hospital, where he organized the first nurse’s union; for the last of his ER years, he also worked full time as the school nurse at Chariho Regional High School, where the kids called him the school “murse.” He stayed at Chariho for 20 years, retired in June, and is writing “a novel of suspense, revenge, and coming of age.” He’s also home a lot more to take care of his family, something longtime friend Phil Hoffman ’73 calls “remarkable.”
“They’re amazing, both of them,” says Hoffman, who met Marc in 1972 when he and his wife, Sue, took Marc in as a boarder. “They make a great couple. Deb’s more realistic and grounded, and Marc’s got this incredible imagination. They mesh well. And taking care of those kids … nothing fazes them.”
In that seemingly chaotic seven-bedroom home, with its adaptable architecture of wide open spaces and wide door frames—specially designed by Deb to accommodate wheelchairs—things run smoothly, thanks in no small part, they say, to URI.
“We learned so much there—professionalism, global leadership, critical thinking,” Deb says.
And Marc adds, “Everything we have sort of goes back to URI; it really made us able to think of others.”
Which comes in handy in a home like theirs.
“It seems crazy, but that was our normal,” says Emily, a 2007 URI doctor of pharmacy grad, now operations manager for Westerly Hospital’s pharmacy. She credits her upbringing with sparking her career in health care: “As I was growing up, I’d sometimes ask my parents why they kept adding to the family, and they’d say, ‘Every child deserves a family and to be loved.'”
For their part, Marc and Deb don’t see anything at all unusual about having a house full of people; they’ve often opened their doors to friends in need, taking them in, giving them what they need to get back on their feet.
“You can’t leave helping people to others,” Marc says. “Jon, Norman, Luke, Will—they would’ve had different—and worse—lives if not for our adopting them.”
“It’s more selfish than that,” Deb adds. “It makes us feel good. That’s why we do it.”
“My life’s philosophy is simple: If you can do it, do it,” Marc says. “You see someone who needs help, help. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard. But we’ve never bitten off more than we can chew.”
“Through all the challenges, by believing and having faith, it always comes back to you in spades,” Deb says. “What we give out is minuscule compared to the fullness it gives to our lives.” •