Billings residents Jerri and Brad Hrubes, who have four grown biological children, have opened their home and hearts to four more children in the past decade. In 2009, they took in Christy and Roby, two siblings from Haiti whose adoptive parents brought them to the Hrubes to stay for a week or two and never returned.
The following year, a magnitude 7 earthquake in Haiti killed hundreds of thousands of people. Senator Jon Tester’s staff contacted Brad and Jerri to see if they’d be interested in adopting a 6-year-old girl named Sarah and her younger brother, Donaldson (DJ).
DJ was found under a pile of rubble during a body-recovery mission. Nearly 4 years old, he weighed 10 pounds and had serious health issues stemming from malnutrition and poor environmental conditions; Sarah weighed just 25 pounds. Orphaned by the earthquake, they had nowhere to go.
The Hrubes took them in to their home in Billings, and their family grew to include four adopted children and four biological children. “It’s chaos and it’s crazy, but we love it,” Jerri says.
Four years ago, DJ woke with blood coming out of his tear ducts. With DJ’s vision rapidly deteriorating, Jerri began driving him to Salt Lake City for monthly treatments. Meanwhile, DJ’s nurse in Billings recommended that they apply for a Big Hearts trip. Sarah Blackburn, a social worker at Billings Clinic, completed the family’s nomination and the Big Hearts Board of Directors swung into action.
At the time of his nomination, DJ was almost completely blind and had started learning braille. At school he struggled to adapt to his vision loss, but he maintained a friendly and joyful demeanor. “He’s faced extensive challenges in his young years and has done so with a pure heart,” Sarah wrote in her nomination letter.
July brought both good news and additional health struggles. About a month before the family’s Big Hearts trip to western Montana, DJ underwent a successful cornea transplant that restored his vision. Around the same time, Brad received a colon cancer diagnosis and started undergoing treatment.
The trip gave the Hrubes an opportunity to reconnect with nature and one another while enjoying some firsts together. It was the first family vacation the six of them got to take together. Despite his Montana roots, it was Brad’s first trip to Glacier. It was also the first time in a 4-year string of illnesses and traumatic injuries that Jerri was given the opportunity to relax, unwind, and be taken care of. “I’m real grateful for that trip because I really haven’t stopped being a caretaker since all of the tragedies started happening,” Jerri says. “It still feels like a dream.”
Big Hearts volunteer Martha Kesler is grateful she could help make that happen. “It was so nice to give them that sense of ‘ahhhh, you can drop your shoulders and relax,’” she said of her role in the trip.
Although Martha has been heavily involved with Big Hearts since its inception, this was the first time she served as a trip ambassador. She developed a natural rapport with the family—DJ even took to calling her “Martha May” after a favorite character in Dr. Seuss classic “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”
Their trip was hosted by Swan Mountain Outfitters out of Swan Lake. They rode horses, rafted the Middle Fork of the Flathead with Glacier Rafting Company, fished Flathead Lake with Howe’s Fishing, and enjoyed a chuck wagon dinner complete with a singing cowboy poet. During the rafting trip, DJ, who had only recently regained his sight, spotted a bald eagle on the bank of the river.
Martha fondly recalls the kids’ delight at encountering a llama named Popeye their first night at the ranch; it set the tone for the rest of their adventure. She also smiles when looking at a photo of DJ “all duded up” with a cowboy hat, boots and chaps.
Jerri grew up barrel racing and recognizes a budding love of horses in her youngest son. “DJ’s very good at handling a horse… He really wants to get one and I hope to do that for him when everything calms down.”
Martha and Jerri have kept in touch since the trip wrapped up in September, and Martha hopes to visit the Hrubes soon.
In characteristic form, Jerri wants to continue giving. She’d like to become a Big Hearts volunteer.