By now, you probably know a thing or two about Chris Norton ’14. Injured during football practice his first year at Luther, he was paralyzed and given just a 3 percent chance of ever moving below the neck again.
He not only beat those odds—he blew them out of the water. After several years of intense physical therapy, he received his diploma from Luther and, with help from his fiancé, Emily, walked across the stage to get it.
In the past year, the couple, who married in April of 2018, has defied the odds again, this time by adopting five daughters in need of a home. Since moving to Florida to continue Chris’s physical therapy regimen at a facility there, Chris, 27, and Emily, 26, have fostered 17 children.
Chris admits that he was overwhelmed by the idea of fostering. Wheelchair aside, he hadn’t grown up around young kids, and the idea of being fully responsible for one was daunting. “Plus,” he says, “a lot of foster kids come from situations and environments where you don’t know what happened. They’ve been through abuse and trauma. It was very scary. I didn’t know if we could do it. But we did it with one, then it got pushed to two, then we got pushed to three, and then four, and then five, and then seven. Seven is the most we had at one time.”
Emily, meanwhile, was in her element. “This is Emily’s passion, being a good mother and caregiver,” Chris says. “It just fills her up. So it doesn’t feel like work or obligation to her—it feels like her calling.”
The couple became legal parents for the first time in December through their oldest adopted daughter, Whittley. At 20, Whittley is just six years younger than Emily, who had been a mentor to her since Emily was in high school. The Nortons adopted her as an adult, wanting her to understand that she had a permanent family.
Chris and Emily’s other four daughters—Ava, 10, Liliana, 8, Isabella, 6, and Ariana, 3—are biological siblings whom they adopted in February. The family, which has been featured on Inside Edition, Good Morning America, Fox, MSN, and People, is thriving—but the road to get there was a long and bumpy one.
Chris and Emily chronicle their journey in a book they released in July, The Seven Longest Yards. It traces their love story from Chris’s injury to Emily’s struggle with anxiety and depression to embarking on starting a family together. “Everyone saw our highlight-reel moments,” Chris told People. “We want to show people how we got there.”
If all of this sounds superhuman, just wait—there’s more! This summer, Chris started Wheelchair Camp in southern Minnesota through his Chris Norton Foundation. Free for kids in wheelchairs and their families, the camp leads activities that empower kids in wheelchairs to focus on what they can do, and it offers extra chairs so that parents and siblings can start to understand their family member’s experience. The Chris Norton Foundation’s fundraising goal this year is to raise money so that the camp remains free for entire families.
As far as how Chris does it all, he says, “You just realize your potential when you take on more than you think you can handle. That’s definitely the case for us. Our all-time highs are when we’re taking on a lot and living life to the fullest. That’s a really good feeling, to feel like you’re maxing out life.”
Learn more about the Chris Norton Foundation at chrisnorton.org.