Traverse City Record-Eagle

March 5, 2013

Unlikely marriage benefits disabled couple

By Anne Stanton astanton@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — ACME — Ben Dornoff was six years old when he bumped into Kelly Beck, 4, in the Acme Kmart parking lot.

They were friends from church, and Ben wanted to take it a step further. He asked Kelly to marry him. She gently turned him down, saying, “We’re too young.”

He had more luck a year ago, when he proposed again. The two tied the knot in a sunny, outdoor wedding in late July.

Ben, 23, and Kelly, 21, are cognitively impaired, making the union out of the ordinary. Ben’s mom, Becky Dornoff, said she and her husband, Mike, have adopted 19 special needs children, and she has two biological children from a previous marriage.

Ben is her first to get married. The couple’s limitations make “not interfering” a big challenge for this first-time mother-in-law.

“It’s a real learning experience,” she said, laughing.

Ben and Kelly live in a small house in Acme with Kelly’s two aunts and uncle, all who are disabled. They have a room to call their own — a tiny, cluttered upstairs living room — but want their own place someday.

Kelly said she wanted to marry before her mom died from Parkinson’s disease. Her mom didn’t make it, but before she died, she strongly encouraged Kelly to “go with her dream.”

“Mom told me to keep it like teamwork,” Kelly said.

Ben attends school two days a week and works part-time at Britten Banners as an odd-jobs guy. Kelly works at Grand Traverse Industries, packaging merchandise. The two get support from a Northern Lakes Community Mental Health caseworker, who connects them to home health care, busing, and other services. Becky said her husband helps them manage their money — a point of friction for the couple early on, she said.

Ben said marriage had made his life easier.

“You can depend on each other when you need help,” he said.

Kelly said she talks to Ben about things she can’t share with anyone else.

Becky and her husband still have nine children at home, ranging from a 4-year-old boy, adopted from China, to Amanda, 32, their first adoptee. Eight of the nine are still in diapers. They get help from two aides at night when the kids are home from work, school, and training programs. Becky said she and her husband are pro-life and believe all children are “frankly wonderful.”

“Handicapped children are cool. We do it because we love it,” she said. “Don’t you dare call me a saint.”

Becky credits Northern Lakes caseworkers for their extensive help in navigating the 19 unique situations their children bring to the table. Some are in foster care or group homes, while another lives in their birth daughter’s home apartment. Many of their children are medically fragile, and four died.

“I don’t like that part, but no matter how hard you try, it happens,” said Becky, choking up.

Becky said that some people are flabbergasted when they hear Ben and Kelly married. But the couple knew they’d have lots of support, she said.

“The message is there’s a whole system that helps people be the best they can,” she said. “Ben and Kelly would rather have a young caseworker telling them what to do. They see it as help. When it comes from, me, it sounds like nagging. Who wants a mom telling you what to do for the rest of your life?”