A Family of Forty-Four, and the God That Brought Them Together
words by: Elaine Tomski
And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger;
because there was no room for them in the inn.
~ Luke 2:7 ~
Imagine Christmas dinner is ready, and mothers worldwide are calling children to the table by name. If the family is large, she takes a big breath before rattling off the list. However, Phyllis Leister must pause several times for a breath while calling her children one-by-one. The call for dinner might sound like this. “Leroy, Lydia, Uriah, Cindy, Amy, Ann, Abigail, Ava, James, Hannah, Andrew, Rosemary, Kyle, Aaron, Thomas, Silas, Noah, Melissa, Lucas, Eva, Josh, Leah, Layla, Benson, Dana, Josiah, Lee Ann, Jason, Karen, Julianna, Landon, Leon, Lavon, Jeremiah, Mary, Isaac, Micah, Jesse, Loretta, Jacob, Ethan, Laura, Abe, and Rueben, it’s time to eat!”
Horace and Phyllis Leister have created a home for an enormous family. Because their forty-four foster children’s identities require protection from public display, the names listed above are fictional. However, there is a real name and a God-stamped identity on every single one of them. Their hope (in Swahili, tumaini) is in God, and their home is named accordingly. Welcome to the Tumaini Home, where there is always room for love.
The vision of the Tumaini Children’s Home is “to see children, and people in general, who have been orphaned or abandoned know that this is not their identity, giving them a new truth. Their identity exists in their Father and Creator. Their future potential is as large as He is. We hope to bring about this new knowledge of identity, potential, and a promising future by creating a loving, Godly home and family environment for those who have been set aside and discarded, giving them value and worth by our actions and sacrifices as Godly parents.”
How does a family gain forty-four children, you ask? Let’s start at the beginning of the story and discover how God’s plan for the Tumaini family unfolds.
Horace and Phyllis were married in 1975 and, in their twenties, committed to fully follow Christ. God gave them a love for children and a desire to provide home and family for children who need both. Living in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, they served as foster parents for eighteen years, fostering over one hundred children. Their immediate family grew to eight children, including five adoptions, with a growing number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Horace served as a deacon, elder, and ultimately an ordained pastor. Phyllis served in children’s ministry, and together they taught marriage seminars. While attending a conference with other church leaders, Horace and Phyllis heard a presentation on providing homes for children worldwide. During this meeting, Horace also heard God’s call to missionary work in Africa. He first questioned that call because his son, Josh, had always been the one with a dream to serve in Africa. However, several months later, Horace received a word of confirmation. The Leisters sold their Genesee, Idaho, home of sixteen years and solidified plans to follow the call. In 2006, Horace and Phyllis attended Schools for Pastors in Eldoret, Kenya, and discovered the place where God was calling them to help orphaned and vulnerable children. Within a year, they moved to the Eldoret area, with four of their eight children. Their purpose was to build not an orphanage but a home.
The Tumaini Children’s Home is all about family. Many children who desperately needed a family came to the home: there were children who were rescued from garbage dumps, infants who had been abandoned naked in the hot sun, and a baby who was rescued from a rat-infested latrine. All of these abandoned little ones found a place of safety, and love with the Leister family. Children continued to come until Horace and Phyllis thought they could take no more. Thirty-three children seemed like plenty enough for one family.
Becoming Family Keys International
As the family grew, so did their support, their mission’s reach, and their building projects.
Their oldest son Josh decided to remain in Kenya with his parents. He became a Certified Clinical Officer, which is similar to a physician’s assistant. Josh, along with his wife Rachel, who is a nurse, tended to the medical needs of the Kenyan people.
Many infants come to the Leister family in critical condition, so Josh lovingly tends to their urgent needs and all medical needs of the Tumaini children. Gratefully, all of the abandoned, vulnerable, and malnourished children brought to the Leisters have survived.
In addition to their medical mission, Josh, Rachel, and their four children, together with Horace and Phyllis, help abandoned children understand the original intent for the family. “Advancing God’s Kingdom through His love of family and the generations.” They are Family Keys International (FKI), and they live out the truth of Psalm 22:27, “There are no orphans in God’s family and our Father lacks nothing.”
FKI is located on a ten-acre farm, including a vast home, workshop, schoolhouse, playground, basketball court, fire pit, prayer garden, vegetable garden, and fields of maize and beans. On the back acre is a house and barn for Josh and Rachel Leister’s family. FKI also leases an additional ten acres adjacent to their farm. Maize, beans, and oats fill these fields with the hope of feeding their families and many others who cannot feed themselves.
Because many guests and supporters will travel to Eldoret to lend a helping hand, a guest house is also in the works. Every structure, garden, and field has been built, created, or planted by the Leisters, friends of the mission, and through the support of generous donors. God supplies the funds, and his people accomplish the work.
Room for Support
As the family grows, so must the support grow. Extra hands, extra hearts, and additional funds are required. Therefore, God has circled the Leisters with an invaluable team of supporters.
One such supporter is the Nussbaum family from Dalton, Ohio. Jeremy and Kelly Nussbaum and their children have been supporting the Tumaini Home since 2015, developing a close relationship with Horace, Phyllis, and the children. Kelly is in contact with someone from the Tumaini Home almost daily.
The Nussbaum family first learned of the Tumaini Children’s Home one day during homeschool when Sandi Stoltzfus shared her experience of Kenya. Sandi and her late husband, missionary aviator Brian Stoltzfus, served with Samaritan’s Purse in Eastern Africa. During Sandi’s visit, she asked the Nussbaum children, “Can you imagine having thirty-three brothers and sisters?” Jeremy and Kelly’s seven-year-old son Daylan cried out emphatically, “NO!” No way could he imagine having that many siblings! He also could not imagine the Tumaini children not having their own toothbrushes. However, when there are thirty-three children aged eight years or younger, it is not possible to keep track of all those toothbrushes. Therefore, Kelly says, “They gather the toothbrushes every morning and boil them, so they don’t mix their germs.”
Although Daylan came to understand why the children couldn’t have their own toothbrushes, he strongly believed they needed some things to call their own. So, he began drawing pictures to sell, raised money, and purchased a new pair of shoes for all thirty-three children. The Nussbaum’s seven-year-old son started the family tradition of raising money every year to help supply Tumaini children’s needs. Kelly also uses photographs to memorize the children’s names as she prays for each one. Through Kelly Nussbaum’s visit to the Tumaini Children’s Home in February 2020, we gain an eyewitness account of family love spread across the FKI acres in Eldoret, Kenya.
Tumaini Family Life
Horace is a builder by trade. The head of the Tumaini household needs building skills to accomplish multiple ongoing projects and repairs. He also manages the farm. His kingdom work requires a strong back, math mind, trowel, hammer, welder, and the patience to teach young ones the same skills along the way. As an ordained pastor, Horace is also well equipped to be the spiritual leader of the family. He shares his open Bible with the children and, no doubt, spends much time on his knees in prayer.
Phyllis has always been a homemaker. At times, she taught preschool and kindergarten. She was a school bus driver, a counselor, and served as a foster parent recruiter. It seems God was preparing Phyllis and her mother’s heart for their Tumaini family. Can you imagine the massive amount of laundry, shopping, and meals she must manage? On the blessing side, how many hugs does she share every day? And imagine the difference she is making in each of their lives!
The Leisters had stopped adding to the Tumaini family when they reached thirty-three children. Horace and Phyllis were becoming old enough to be concerned about raising the children to adulthood. However, they changed their minds when they discovered abandoned babies were dying with no one else to rescue them. Even the local hospital lacked funds to keep the infants alive. So, in the spring of 2019 Horace and Phyllis reopened their doors. Within nine months, they welcomed eleven more babies, making the total of forty-four children.
Today at the age of sixty-eight and sixty-three, at a time when many people are ready to retire, Horace and Phyllis choose to parent forty-four blessed children. Thankfully, Josh, Rachel, and their four children have come alongside. Family life may take forty-four times the sacrifice, but the Leisters also get forty-four times the wiggles, laughter, and love.
“Meeting basic needs is really difficult when there are only two parents and some staff with forty-four children to care for,” says Kelly. Organization is critical at mealtime. Each plastic picnic table has an assigned group of children, including older and younger children. The meal is family-style, and the oldest sibling at the table is responsible for seeing every child’s plate gets food. There are no second helpings. Kelly says, “When the food is gone, it’s gone! They do dinner well. They make it work.”
Somebody must also organize school time. Kelly says, “Their homeschool is like a mini private school with hired teachers joining to teach a homeschool curriculum from the States.” The school is lovingly named Shining Light Mission School. Can you imagine how many pencils, markers, and sheets of paper it takes to homeschool so many children? Recess time ushers in playground fun and soccer games.
When the school day is over, life-skill learning continues because there are now eleven babies needing care. The older children are helpful in the afternoon and evenings. Kelly says, “They do a good job of jumping in and grabbing a baby and just playing with them. They’re pretty awesome. They know their little buddies and take care of them pretty well.”
Part of showing children how to be a family involves forgiveness. Every one of the Tumaini children has an abandonment story. The Leisters work with each child to deal with their trauma, and they help the children to find forgiveness for their birth parents. Horace and Phyllis point them to God, who has graciously provided a way for the children to know what it is to be loved and nurtured in the Tumaini family home.
When a new baby made its way to the Tumaini Home during Kelly’s visit, she heard Phyllis say, “I always think of the mom, missing her baby today.” How confused or deceived that young mother must be. Phyllis helps the children find compassion for their birth parents, so children learn how to be loving rather than confused. The children learn what good parenting looks like through examples in the scripture and the example set forth by the Leister family. Choosing forgiveness blesses the future of the Tumaini children as well as the future of Kenya.
What does the Tumaini family do for fun? An occasional family movie night is always a delight. So are the family volleyball games with plenty of players for each team. Phyllis claims, “Dad’s team usually wins.” And how about family vacations? How do you take forty-four children on a yearly vacation? You don’t. Instead, the Leisters make four different trips per year, taking eight to ten children along. They plan small group activities over three days and two nights, creating Tumaini family memories to last a lifetime. On one such trip, the rains came. Still, Phyllis said, “Life is so good with family, even in the rain.” FKI is grateful for financial supporters who make these opportunities happen.
Room for Jesus
Horace and Phyllis face a considerable challenge to provide financially, educationally, and emotionally for so many children. But, Kelly says, “I know their greatest heart’s desire is that they all love Jesus. After supper, everyone gets on their pajamas and ready for bed. They come with pillows and blankets to join together as a family for a time of devotion and worship.”
The Nussbaum family’s fundraiser for 2020 creates a lifelong opportunity for each of the Tumaini children. Although the COVID virus traveling restrictions threatened Kelly’s plan to visit in February, ultimately she was permitted to travel from Ohio to Kenya to deliver the best possible gift. The Nussbaum family raised funds to purchase Bibles for all forty-four children. And on each Bible cover, the child’s name is engraved.
Kelly says, “In a family so large, it’s easy to feel unseen.” So, during her visit, she greeted each child by name, visited with them one-on-one, and gave them their name-engraved copy of God’s True Word. Kelly says, “It was really cool to sit there and hear them say, ‘Oh, I know God loves me. I know he sees me.’ Their faith is pretty awesome.” During her one-on-one visits, Kelly asked how she could pray specifically for each child. The children asked her to pray that they don’t lash back at their sisters and brothers, and they asked her to pray that their words and actions be kind. She says, “It really shocked me how much they are just like any other person on the planet with all the same fears, all the same dreams. Maybe more fears than some because of the trauma they experienced early in life. They’re just so funny and sweet and kind and happy! I guess I thought, going halfway around the world, they might be different. But they are just like any other kid who wants love and attention and care.”
Do you recall how one of the babies was rescued from a rat-infested latrine? Thankfully, she is now an amazing 12-year-old girl who struggles like every other girl about to enter her teenage years. Even with such a traumatic start in life, she’s still a blessed child loved by God and family. Kelly says, “It is amazing to me how Horace and Phyllis saw a need and moved across the globe to meet that need.”
Room for Sacrifice
Being called to serve in Africa does not come without sacrifice. Of their original eight children, Josh’s family is the only one living in Africa. Horace and Phyllis’s remaining seven children, along with their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, have either returned to the United States or never left the country. For the Leisters living in Kenya, not being near their American family is a sacrifice felt by both parents and children. There is no possibility of a Christmas day drive to mom and dad’s house from the U.S. to Kenya. Instead, they will celebrate Christ’s birth back home in the snow.
On Christmas day in Kenya, eighty-five-degree temperatures will not bring snow. However, there will be plenty of snowflake ornaments on the tree. This Christmas, the flurry is to be found in the excitement of forty-four children who cannot wait for the celebration to begin. Brothers and sisters will wrap gifts for one another. Children, ages nine-months to fourteen, will circle on the floor to sing out Christmas carols and wait to peek into the stockings all hung in a very long row of nearly four dozen stockings.
Although the little town of Bethlehem struggled to find room for the birth of baby Jesus, you can be sure there will be room at the table for all the Tumaini children when their mother calls each one to the table by name.
Perhaps, there was no room for the Christ-child at the inn because that is not where he chooses to be born. Rather, in our humble hearts, He will dwell. And when we invite Christ in, there is plenty enough room, energy, provision, forgiveness, faith, hope, and love to accomplish any task our heavenly Father gives us to complete. Horace and Phyllis, Josh and Rachel, and forty-four blessed Tumaini children, live this truth out every day. They understand the key to a family is God’s love. //
How to Support Family Keys International
If the Lord is urging you to support Family Keys International, you can donate online through Room to Bloom.
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