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A true family gathering

Couple’s brood includes 9 from many different backgrounds

So many stockings hang off the Carbaugh’s Victorian-style fireplace, one can barely see it.

It is evidence of the size of their family, as Annette, 54, and Mark, 52, have seen their family grow from one son – 32-year-old Martin Carbaugh, recently elected to the state legislature – to two more legally-adopted sons and six others who are family in all the ways that matter.

“They all consider us ‘mom and dad,’ ” Annette Carbaugh said, looking across the living room as four of her sons lounge on couches and the floor around the Christmas tree.

It is, as Annette says, a rainbow family – the eight newest family members are all from Burma, both Karen and ethnic Burmese. How they came to be a family, celebrating Christmas and other holy days with the Carbaughs is a testament to the open hearts of people of deep faith.

A split brings them together

It started, or seemed to, with a church split, the kind of event that can damage one’s faith forever. But Mark Carbaugh attributes that sad event with having played a key role in how the Carbaughs, in their suburban home off Auburn Road, came into contact with the city’s Burmese refugee population.

“We were devastated when we had to leave,” Annette said, adding Martin noted that God often takes what is horrible and uses it for something good.

When the Carbaughs left their church, they ended up at New Life Lutheran Church, which offers a church service for the Burmese community.

Annette, who sings, was at a tea house and was approached by Koko Oo. The two talked about their love of music and she invited him to the couple’s home to play his guitar. They connected with him, and soon after, his younger brother Tobias Oo, known as “T.”

The Oos’ mother suffered from a mental illness and was no longer in the area. Their father was headed to Texas to look for work and left the two young men to care for the family home.

“Our family was totally split up,” Tobias Oo said.

“Their dad wanted them to get jobs and take care of the house,” Mark Carbaugh said. “We felt they needed to be in school and live with us.”

But the Oo family house was infested with fleas, making it impossible for Koko and Tobias to stay there, Annette said.

With the support of their father, the Oo brothers moved in with the Carbaughs – continuing their schooling at South Side High School. Now 25 and 23, they are both in college. Koko is studying classical guitar performance at IPFW and Tobias is at IvyTech.

Koko plans to one day be an orchestral conductor and Tobias has been tapped for franchise management by the Culver’s fast food chain.

“I would have been a loose cannon,” Tobias said of what life would have been like on his own. They have been with the Carbaughs now for about 5 1/2 years.

Tobias, Koko and Annette also work and perform together at Audiences Unlimited.

Through the Oos, the Carbaughs met Emily Kapaw, 25. She too is part of their family – pictured in the portraits on the wall above one of the sofas.

Tragedy sent them

As the sun set through the living room window, Koko leaned down on the floor and harassed his napping younger brother, Tuwah David Carbaugh, 16. A few feet away, Tuwah’s older brother, Daniel, 17, snoozed amid pillows on a couch next to Mark. The teens just arrived home after a day of classes at Carroll High School.

Officially adopted in November, the teens have been largely with the Carbaughs since their father was killed April 2011. He was beaten to death by a neighbor after a night of drinking.

Mark is on the board for LAMB – Lutheran Agency for Missions to Burmese – and said he heard about the homicide from a pastor. The two boys were placed immediately after their father’s death with their sister’s in-laws.

Watching the news, Annette thought she recognized Tuwah as one of the boys who would come to the Burmese-language services in church. She and Mark remembered him because he was always talking during the services.

“It kept bugging my heart,” she said.

She said she felt a desire to check on him and made contact with him through Facebook. When he suffered a back injury, she helped arrange for medical care.

The injury became a more serious infection and Tuwah was transported via ambulance to Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.

Later that night, she woke up Mark.

“She said ‘I’m going to Indy,’ ” he said, laughing. “She was gone for a week.”

Not wanting Tuwah in the hospital alone, she dragged Koko and his guitar along with her and the two stayed with Tuwah while he recovered. When he came back to Fort Wayne, still needing intravenous antibiotics, the Department of Children Services encouraged his placement with the Carbaughs on a more permanent basis.

Daniel came to the home in August 2011. The teens’ mother died in a refugee camp in Thailand before the family came to the U.S.

A biological uncle in Atlanta expressed a desire to adopt them, but after the Carbaughs drove them down and they found that home infested with cockroaches, the Carbaugh family grew again.

Annette jokes about the influence of bugs in moving their “kids” into their home: fleas for the Oos and roaches for the others.

Daniel said he has always felt at home with the Carbaughs, always feeling like part of the family.

“They cared about us,” he said, a smile on his face.

Extended family

At a meeting to determine where Tuwah and Daniel would live, one of the teens’ sisters, Ei Mer, said she wanted Annette to be the boys’ mother.

“I said, ‘then I’d be your mom,’ ” Annette said.

Along with Ei Mer, 22, the Carbaughs claimed the other sisters – Esther Win, 19, and Silver Win, 21. Married with two small children, Esther Win lives in South Dakota. Silver Win is married with a young son and lives in Texas.

Along with Martin’s daughter, the Carbaughs consider these their grandchildren.

“Neither of us set out to do this,” Mark said.

The Carbaughs have been involved in the Love Church and other ministries. Throughout the years, they worked with the youth at the churches they have attended, having kids always running around in the house.

They talk easily about their faith, of the need to love and to reach out.

He said he and Annette talked about providing foster care, but always worried about making a connection with the children and then having to send them back.

“We didn’t send these back,” he said.

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