Editor's note: A previous version of this column incorrectly spelled Whittley Norton's name.

Whittley Marquez told Emily Summers to stay away from her the first time they met.

Whittley was a second-grader at Franklin Elementary School in Muscatine and had already attempted suicide once.

Emily was six years older than Whittley. She volunteered for a mentoring program for younger students and planned to tutor Whittley in math.

But Whittley refused any kindnesses.

Family members “used to tell me I was worthless,” Whittley said of her childhood environment. “I always felt like I shouldn’t be alive, that I didn’t deserve to be in this world. I couldn’t process that someone wanted to really help me or care about me.”

Whittley’s effort to push Emily away was a failure. Emily and her husband, inspirational speaker Chris Norton, adopted Whittley on Dec. 11.

The adoption was unusual: Whittley is 19 and an adult. Her new parents are only six years her elder. But this has been a match more than a dozen years in the making.

Low moments and a lot of listening

Emily kept after Whittley despite the younger girl's protest. She encouraged Whittley to stay in school. Emily invited Whittley to church and hoped Whittley would take God into her heart.

“I don’t know if I would have thought of it this way when I was in high school, but I definitely felt matronly toward Whittley when we were growing up,” Emily said. “I wanted to take care of her, and the difference in age didn’t seem weird to me.”

Whittley was disinterested in church and became increasingly uninterested in living. She shuffled between foster homes after being removed from her biological parents.

By the time Whittley was a sophomore in high school, she was abusing alcohol and marijuana. She had attempted suicide multiple times.

Whittley said she can't remember all the abuses she suffered as a child, but it was mental and physical.

"I kind of have put a block on my memory of those times," she said.

Still, Emily remained by her side. She prayed for Whittley. She cried for Whittley. But most of all, she showed up for Whittley and she listened to Whittley:

“I can’t explain in words how frightened and terrified I was that something bad would happen to her,” Emily said. “She would be in the hospital after a suicide attempt and it was extremely hard for me to cope. I wasn’t sure what to do. I had to learn to put it onto God.”

Whittley’s steadfast rejection of Emily continued. They debated the existence of God. Whittley remembers one evening the two walked to a riverbank somewhere in Muscatine.

The pair talked about faith, religion and God for more than three hours. As night fell, Whittley felt something move inside her, something that was more than just self-loathing and pain.

“I started to believe in God that night,” Whittley said.

A long letter and a less-than-sincere request

The transformation in Whittley’s life was not instantaneous. She still fought addiction and suicide attempts. Whittley was 17 when she wrote Emily a long letter.

Emily had married her longtime boyfriend, Chris Norton. Whittley was a bridesmaid in the wedding. The couple moved to Florida where they started working as foster parents.

Chris is an Altoona native who starred in football and basketball at Bondurant-Farrar High School before suffering a critical neck injury that left him paralyzed from the neck down during his first year at Luther College in Decorah.

Years of intensive rehab allowed Chris to regain much movement, including walking with assistance at times. Chris made international headlines when he walked across the stage at his graduation.

He’s since appeared in a motivational film about his life, co-written two books, one with his father about the role of faith in his recovery, and the other with his wife about their life leading up to walking down the aisle with his bride on their wedding day.

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Chris first met Whittley at a party to celebrate Emily’s graduation from Iowa State University. He took to her in the same way Emily did. He grew to love her and worried about her mental health.

Whittley’s letter asked Chris and Emily to foster her for her last year in the system. She would no longer qualify for state services at 18.

Both Chris and Emily believed this was their calling.

“The question we both asked each other is what will happen to Whittley if we don’t bring her here,” Chris said.

But Whittley secretly hoped just to get to Florida, drop out of school and do whatever she wanted.

“I was basically (expletive) them,” Whittley said.

Emily and Chris, however, were not easily swayed. They wanted to help Whittley, but they would not be party to her willful self-destruction.

Emily and Chris agreed to take Whittley in with one stipulation: She had to finish high school.

“If she quit, the deal was off and she would have to go back into the system in Iowa,” Emily said. She and Chris yielded no ground.

Whittley acquiesced and toed the line. But with foster parents just six years older than herself, Whittley stumbled into some amusing situations.

One day, Whittley got sick at school. Chris went to pick her up. The office staff stared at Chris for a moment and told him that students couldn't check other students out of school.

"I had to do some fast explaining," Chris said.

Emily pushed Whittley to achieve in school.

"I think I had, like, three tutors at one time," Whittley said. 

It worked. Whittley graduated from high school. She moved back to Iowa and started taking courses at Muscatine Community College.

Whittley gets her Christmas wish

But she struggled with depression and anxiety being away from Chris and Emily. And, truth be told, Chris and Emily missed Whittley, too.

The couple invited her down to Florida for a weekend in early December. The invitation surprised Whittley. She had just visited for Thanksgiving. The trio sat down at the table. Emily set up a video recorder.

Emily asked Whittley what she wanted for Christmas. Whittley said she wanted to be adopted.

“What would that mean to you?” Emily asked.

“It would mean that I actually belonged to someone,” Whittley said, choking up as she spoke, “and that I’m not just some stranger in the world, that I actually have a family.”

Emily gave Whittley an early Christmas present. Whittley pulled out a board that read 12-11-18.

“Do you get this?” Emily asked. “Guess what’s on Dec. 11, 2018? We’re going to adopt you!”

Whittley cried. Emily held Whittley in her arms.

“You know you’ve always been ours,” Emily said. “We want to make it official for you.”

Chris put his arm around her shoulder: “You belong.”

The move was official Dec. 11 in Muscatine County District Court.

After more than 2,000 days in 19 foster care placements, Whittley Marquez became Whittley Norton.

And she finally found a family to call her own.

Columnist Daniel P. Finney grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines. Reach him at or 515-284-8144.

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