The nine Terras: A family in the best sense

This is a story on the Terra family published in The Bee on Jan. 8, 1995, by former Bee staff writer Dennis Roberts. It was part of The Bee's "Unsung Hero" series. On Sunday, David and Sara, along with one of Sara's twin 3-year-old boys, were killed in an automobile accident.

It happened again the other night. This time the Terras were at the Sizzler restaurant when a total stranger walked up and told them that they look like a terrific family.

"Most everywhere we go, people compliment us on the kids," Louise Terra said.

They are a striking bunch. Handsome, well-groomed, polite children — all seven of them — not in a lock-step way, but in a way that you can tell they respect each other, and other people.

And even though their skin colors are all different — ranging from mom's light Portuguese hue to Matthew's dark Ethiopian complexion — it is evident that they are a family in the best sense.

"They don't see each other in different colors," Bill Terra said.

Added Louise: "When they ... talk to others about their family, they're all brothers and sisters. They don't make a distinction."

When the Terras contacted Family Connections Adoption Services in 1987 to talk about adopting a child, they had no intention of becoming a kind of multiracial "Brady Bunch."

Hispanic siblings Paul and Lucia, now 12 and 11, came first. But like that old potato chip commercial, Bill joked, the Terras could not stop at just one adoption. Fourteen months later came Brian, Mark and Sara, now 11, 10 and 8, children whose racial mix is mostly black and white.

The agency actually called the Terras when David, now 5, whose parents were black and Hispanic, became available.

"I said, "What's one more?' " Bill recalled. By that time they had moved from a 1,700-square-foot home with no back yard to a 3,000-square-foot house on a large lot.

The most recent addition is Matthew, 14, who came to the United States from an Ethiopian orphanage two years ago for special medical treatment. Despite the fact that he could speak no English at first, Matthew fit right into the family, Louise said.

Since Family Connections focuses on "special needs" children — youngsters with physical or emotional challenges — the Terras knew going in that these youngsters would require a huge investment of time and money. Four needed glasses, all needed dental work, three required surgery. And there have been the usual childhood scrapes, stitches and burns.

Not only that, but most of the children had to be taught basic living skills — eating with utensils, brushing teeth, even playing. All that has taken concentrated effort, which the Terras have cheerfully given.

"They're very solid people and they work as a team," said Audrey Foster, executive director and founder of Family Connections.

"Their home is warm but organized," she continued. "It's set up so their children can grow mentally, spiritually and emotionally. They know how to have fun with the kids, but also how to set limits, so the kids are a pleasure to be with."

Laughter is the key, the Terras say. They are not afraid to kid each other.

And time. Lots of time. Bill and Louise have had plenty of nights when they would like to collapse into bed after helping six children with homework.

Forget it. Bill still has work to do from his job as a salesman for Albert Paper Company. And Louise, a teacher at Modesto High, usually has her own homework to grade.

They do not see themselves as heroes, though they acknowledge that they have built a family out of children who "wouldn't have had a chance" left in their original surroundings. They credit religion — they attend St. Joseph's Catholic Church — and natural optimism and huge doses of humor.