Every family has its varied ups, downs, triumphs and lovable quirks, but the Eicher family takes that uniqueness to another level.
Among the Houston-based family members — parents Joey and Lisa, both 35, and kids Sevy, 16½, Archie, 16, Ace, 12, and Radko, 6 — there are one former American Ninja Warrior contestant, one internationally collected artist, one aspiring model, two adopted children from Bulgaria with Down syndrome and six Down syndrome advocates.
Mom Lisa — the former Ninja Warrior who showcases the family's trials and tribulations with charm, honesty and a healthy sense of humor via her Instagram handle @Eicherumba – says that by opening up about her family, she wants others going through similar challenges to feel less alone.
"I initially dipped my toe into a little bit of the vulnerability pond, to see how people would respond," she tells PEOPLE. "Every time I post something super real and raw, my inbox is flooded with other moms, whether it's Down syndrome moms or others, just saying, 'Oh my gosh, I'm going through this same thing right now. Thank you so much. I feel so much less alone.' I really want to normalize talking about it and especially with the adoption component, and especially with older child adoption. There's a lot of layers. My kids both come from trauma. They both were raised in institutions, and that's just a whole different layer to it."
Lisa and Joey Eicher have been together since they were 15, and although she can't quite explain it, Lisa was drawn to working with people with special needs and also knew she wanted to eventually adopt.
"I was always super drawn to people with different abilities and started volunteering in special ed classes starting in elementary school," she recalls. "Then in high school I babysat a boy who has Down syndrome. When my husband and I started dating, I pulled him into that world and he started babysitting with me. He had never really been around people with disabilities, but he also started to share the same passion. My other passion, again, from a very young age, I knew that I wanted to adopt one day. I talked to him about it and he was on board."
Lisa admits that they initially planned to start considering adoption when their first-born daughter Ace was older, but started the process when their daughter was 2, after finding an organization that advocated for international adoptions and orphans with Down syndrome.
"In my research, I came across an organization that advocates for orphans around the world, specifically those who have Down syndrome. When I found that organization, it was like lightning struck," recalls Lisa. "I was like, 'This is absolutely where we will find our child.' I had no doubt."
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Because Joey and Lisa were only 26, they didn't meet some of the age requirements for certain countries.
"To adopt in some countries, you have to be married for 10 years or you have to be 35," she explains. "There's lots of different restrictions. We ended up landing on Bulgaria, because we met all the requirements."
Fast-forwarding about a year, which Lisa says was "a long and tough process," the family welcomed Archie into their home. He was 7 at the time.
"When I saw his face specifically, there was just this overwhelming feeling, there was no doubt. He was our son. Then we had another baby biologically, Radko. He came along a couple of years after Archie came home. Then a couple years after Radko, pretty much the exact same thing happened with Sevy as what happened with Archie. I wasn't looking for Sevy, but I was just randomly scrolling and I saw her face, and it was the exact same feeling that I had when I saw Archie's face. It was like, 'Oh my gosh, there's our kid' — I tried to fight but there was no fighting it. I knew she was ours. We brought her home about 18 months after that. She was 12, much older."
"Our family is very confusing, I'm constantly having to explain to people," she adds with a laugh. "Because our first born is our second youngest, and our oldest is really our fourth. It's all confusing but yeah, that is the basic gist of how our family came to be."
One of the family's many unexpected blessings was discovering that Sevy, who is also non-verbal, is a gifted artist.
Courtesy Sevy Marie Sevy Marie Eicher
"The communication barrier was really hard in the beginning," says Lisa. "It was really just a struggle for all of us to meet her needs. And the biggest struggle when she came home was the fact that she and I did not bond or attach to each other at all. It was really tough, and it's taken me a long time to not feel a really intense guilt over the fact that I did not. She did bond more with my husband. Also with my daughter Ace [now 12]. She came to Bulgaria and was with me from day one when we brought Sevy out of the orphanage. She was only 8 at the time. They have a really cool relationship."
What changed everything for Lisa and Sevy was bonding over art. Lisa is a writer and one evening Sevy joined her at the table and started drawing using a pen and paper.
“She was starting to try to tell me, pat me on the arm and point to what she was doing, which was unusual because she didn't usually want me in her space," Lisa recalls. "Every mark she made was super intentional. She wasn't just scribbling — she was designing this beautiful piece of art with just a pen and paper. I told my husband, 'I think she's trying to speak to me through these drawings.' She's finding her voice."
That became their sort of nightly ritual, but one day Lisa and Joey later decided to scrounge around the house for art supplies to see if Sevy would want to work with other materials.
"We didn't have a lot of art supplies or anything like that," she recalls. "We had some scrap wood in our garage and some some random tools. We did have a couple of cheap-y little kid paint brushes and house paint. It's so crazy to think about that moment, but that's really the day that everything changed for her."
Fast-forward a few years and Sevy, who is entirely self-taught, is an internationally collected artist and has a waitlist of more than 8,000 people eager for one of her paintings (which quickly sell out via sevymarieart.com).
"She has collectors all over the world," says Lisa. "She gets recognized in public. We'll be stopped and [people say], 'Is this Sevy Marie? Are you Sevy's mom?' I'm like, 'Yeah, yeah.' People have been waiting for like two years just to have a chance to buy a piece of her art. It's been incredible.”
The family has also opened an inclusive, nonprofit art studio for the differently abled, Sandal Gap Studio.
“It's changed the whole trajectory of our lives,” adds Lisa. “The cost of living with a disability is insane. Now, Sevy has her own business. Obviously, her dad and I take care of the behind the scenes stuff, but it's her business, it's her art. Because of her, we opened a nonprofit art studio for people with different abilities. She has a career, and she has her own financial independence and she has the freedom to live a beautiful independent life. It has brought her so much joy.”
For more information about Down syndrome or to donate to research, education and advocacy efforts, visit globaldownsyndrome.org.