Aimed at bringing about lasting change, adoption is a major issue in the world of parenting – for social workers, other professionals, and of course the individuals whose lives it affects. In 2007 and 2008, around 136,000 young people were adopted each year in the U.S. alone, and while that number might not be as high as you’d expect, the life paths of many abandoned, dispossessed and ill-treated children were changed forever.
In this list, we’ll take a glimpse into the lives of celebrities whose lives were impacted by adoption. Some may have wrestled with cultural identity, others may have sought an elusive sense of stability, but all share a common theme: people stepping up to the plate to welcome children from sometimes troubled circumstances into their homes. The relationships that have been built between these famous individuals and their adoptive families provide a fascinating perspective on some of the continuing issues surrounding adoption.
10. Ray Liotta
Six months after his birth in 1954, Hollywood actor Ray Liotta – perhaps most widely known for his role as Henry Hill in Goodfellas – was adopted by Mary Liotta, a town clerk, and her husband Alfred Liotta, the proprietor of a car parts store and a nearby Democratic club president. Liotta then grew up with his new parents in New Jersey and tried to put thoughts of his biological parentage out of his mind. However, his perspective changed after the birth of his own daughter in 1998, at which point he felt he had to trace and locate his birth mother. She later explained to him that she had given him up for adoption because she was too young and couldn’t contend with the responsibility. After the meeting, Liotta said he was “disappointed” by his mother’s story but “really grateful that [he] was adopted.”
9. Nelson Mandela
After his father passed away when he was nine, Nelson Mandela – born Rolihlahla Mandela, in 1918 – was adopted by Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo as a good turn to Mandela’s father, who had advocated Jongintaba’s ascension to chief years before. Mandela left the small village of Qunu for Mqhekezweni, also in South Africa, where he would study English, history and geography in a single-room school adjacent to Jongintaba’s palace. Mandela’s contact with elder chiefs, who visited the royal home on business, helped further his knowledge of African history. Mandela went on to champion the fight against apartheid and was jailed for 27 years on charges of conspiracy to overthrow the government and sabotage. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 and the following year was sworn in as South Africa’s first black president.
8. Faith Hill
Adopted by Pat and Edna Perry while she was still a baby in 1967, Faith Hill was raised in a devoutly Christian family. The future Grammy-winning singer – then known as Audrey Faith Perry – grew up near Jackson, Mississippi, along with her two adoptive brothers, before moving to Nashville, Tennessee at the age of 19 to pursue her music career. While she was on the path to fame, Hill sought out and eventually found her birth mother, about whom she said she had “no feelings of anger.” “I have a lot of respect for my birth mother,” she added, also mentioning the fact that her mother gave her up for “what she felt was a better chance.” Hill went on to build a 15-year relationship with her mother, who died in 2007. The star also took the opportunity to become acquainted with her biological father and brother.
7. Gary Coleman
After his birth to a homeless woman in 1968, Gary Coleman – who played the lovable Arnold from TV’s Diff’rent Strokes – was adopted by Edmonia Sue Coleman, a Chicago nurse practitioner, and W.G. Coleman, a fork-lift driver. From a young age, Coleman had to deal with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, a chronic kidney disease that necessitated daily dialysis. This and the medication used to treat the condition stunted his growth and gave him child-like features even as an adult, although the condition didn’t stop him from rising to stardom. However, behind the scenes, Coleman’s relationship with his adoptive parents was rocky. In 1989 he was awarded a $1.28 million judgment against them and his ex-business adviser relating to misappropriation of his assets. Coleman’s adoptive parents remained estranged from him right up until his death in 2010.
6. Dan O’Brien
Two years after his birth in 1966, the 1996 Olympic decathlon champion Daniel O’Brien was adopted by Virginia and Jim O’Brien, the latter a lumber company worker. The home in Klamath Falls, Oregon was diverse, made up of other adopted children with Asian, African, Latino and Native American ethnicities. O’Brien himself is of African and Nordic heritage. He often struggled with his identity and attempted to learn about his African-American cultural background during his college years. Despite having had to get to grips with his heritage on his own, however, O’Brien seems thankful for the opportunities adoption provided him, and he believes other adoptees should maintain a similar sentiment. “I’ve seen some adopted kids who want to flee their adoptive home at age 18 and not look back – that’s wrong,” said O’Brien. “You need to be there for the people who are there for you now.”
5. Darryl McDaniels
Darryl McDaniels, the “D.M.C.” (“Devastating Mic Controller”) of hip-hip group Run-D.M.C., was adopted by Byford and Banna McDaniels not long after his birth in 1964. He grew up in Hollis, New York, where he first met bandmates “Run” and “Jam-Master Jay.” However, it was only after he began to research his autobiography that, at the age of 35, McDaniels discovered a surprising piece of personal information: the parents that he had always known had actually adopted him. McDaniels went on to meet his biological mother Berncenia Lovelace when he was 41. “I was happy and feeling a lot of love energy from him,” said Lovelace upon seeing the son she had been forced to relinquish. McDaniels is now much involved in adoption and foster care, having set up a summer camp for foster children and currently sitting on the Board of Directors of Children’s Rights, a group that works to improve child welfare systems. He also received the Congressional Angels in Adoption Award in 2006 for his efforts in support of adoption and with kids in foster care.
4. Dave Thomas
Only six weeks after his birth in 1932, Rex David Thomas, commonly known as Dave Thomas – the founder of fast-food giant Wendy’s – was given up for adoption. Thomas was taken in by Rex and Auleva Thomas of Kalamazoo, Michigan. However, when his adoptive mother passed away five years later as a result of rheumatic fever, Thomas traveled around the country with Rex, living in grimy boarding houses and small trailers as Rex attempted to make ends meet. During the summers he would stay with his adoptive grandma Minnie Sinclair, from whom, Thomas said, he gained valuable life lessons in acting with respect toward others. Thomas later dropped out of high school, but he maintained an incredible drive and developed the world’s third-largest hamburger chain. Throughout his life, he also always remained tied to his adoptive history, starting the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption and receiving accolades for his work in the area from Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton. He died in 2002 at the age of 69.
3. Bo Diddley
In 1928, long before he became a pioneering figure in rock and roll, Bo Diddley was born Ellas Otha Bates, in McComb, Mississippi. He was adopted while still a child by Gussie McDaniel, his mother’s cousin, together with three of his own cousins, into a family of poverty-stricken sharecroppers. Ellas McDaniel, as he was then known, cut his musical teeth by playing violin in the orchestra of Chicago’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, but it was at another place of worship, a Pentecostal church in the vicinity, where his interest in more rhythmic music was sparked. McDaniel went on to take up the guitar and, while working as a mechanic and carpenter, did street performances with friends to hone his new sound. After renaming himself Bo Diddley, he forged a decades-long career as an R&B vocalist and musician, influencing and paving the way for such rock and roll luminaries as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who. He died in 2008.
2. Nicole Richie
Nicole Richie was born in 1981 in Berkeley, California. As her biological parents had financial troubles, a three-year-old Nicole Richie moved in with Lionel Richie, the famed singer-songwriter who had played with her musician birth father, and his wife Brenda Harvey. “[My parents] trusted that they would be better able to provide for me,” said Richie about her new family. Her adoption did not actually become official until she was nine years of age. And what’s more, only one year later, in the wake of his infidelity and domestic issues with Harvey, Lionel moved out of the house, which apparently had “a big effect on [Nicole].” “Nicole was really crazy about her dad,” explained Harvey. Nicole Richie went on to have a career in reality television and is the creator of House of Harlow, a jewelry, clothing and accessories collection.
1. Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs, the co-founder and former CEO of Apple, Inc., was born to Joanne Schieble and Abdulfattah Jandali, a Syrian immigrant, in 1955. The couple had gotten together at the University of Wisconsin, but the parents of Schieble, a Swiss-American Catholic, would not consent to her marrying an Arab (although the pair were later wed anyway). This situation precipitated a trip to California for Schieble, where she gave birth to Steve and subsequently put him up for adoption. Thus, Steve became part of the family of Paul and Clara Jobs. Jandali, who never met his son, said that Schieble had “the baby without anyone knowing, including me.” During his life, Jobs, who died in 2011, gave credit to his new family. “They were my parents,” he would say in reference to Paul and Clara. Paul was a carpenter and mechanic, and his knowledge of electronics and tinkering was passed on to Jobs, whose new hobby arguably served him well in his later forays into technology.
Bonus Entry: Babe Ruth
After baseball legend George Herman Ruth, Jr.’s birth in 1895, he spent seven years in the care of his parents George Ruth, Sr. and Katherine Ruth, who saw six of their eight children perish during infancy. In 1902 Ruth was legally removed from his mother and father, perhaps owing to bad behavior, and was committed to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys in Baltimore, Maryland, an orphanage and reformatory. While at St. Mary’s, Ruth picked up his passion for baseball and honed his skills by playing around 200 games annually. Perhaps Ruth’s toughest moment at St. Mary’s came with the passing of his mother in 1910. He never received another visitor while at the school, but he would later go on to receive a lifetime of adulation from baseball fans for his exploits on the field. The man they called “Babe” died in 1948.