Interview with Theresa Thomas, co-author of “BIG HEARTED: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families”

Big HeartedEvery now and then a special book comes along that grabs you and leaves a mark.  BIG HEARTED: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families is such a book.  Deacon Mike and I are blessed to know and work with co-authors Theresa Thomas and Patti Maguire Armstrong who are also popular contributing writers for Integrated Catholic Life.  This book, their second collaborative effort after the award-winning “Stories for the Homeschool Heart”, is written for everyone and the themes of love, faith, prayer, sacrifice, compassion, mercy and strong values will stand out in today’s troubled secular culture.

I had an opportunity recently to interview Theresa Thomas about this wonderful book and her work with Patti:

What is BIG HEARTED and who should read it?

Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families is a collection of stories put together by Patti Maguire Armstrong, best selling editor/author/writer and mother of ten, and me, a family columnist, author and mother of nine.

The stories are about everyday people, like those you might meet in your own town on the street, in different walks of life, and the stories highlight the beauty of being generous, open to life and big-hearted. The reader is invited into the private lives and thoughts of each story contributor as he or she experiences amazingly fulfilling personal moments and events or pain and challenges, which eventually surprise and bring remarkable blessings. The book includes stories of:

-A father of seven healthy boys who struggled to love his Down syndrome baby girl

– A mother of twelve who found herself without money one Christmas

-What the dedicated love of a foster father did for a wounded child

-A special relationship between a teenaged brother and his infant sister

-Two grandparents who, in their final days, inspired their grandchildren

-Orphans from Kenya who prayed for adoption by an American family and found an astonishing answer

People who want to be energized by the good in the world, or who want to be inspired to embrace life to the fullest without fear will enjoy Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families. This book is a positive answer to the negativity so prevalent in the modern secular world.  I believe that people who want to find hope and happiness amidst their own struggles will find inspiration in this book.

Where did the idea for BIG HEARTED come from?

I come from a large family (13 children), and Patti and I both have large families ourselves (she has ten children and I have nine). We have both known such joy and generosity that comes from living with many relatives and having large families! We worked on a previous project together and talked often about writing something from our family experiences.

More specifically, when Patti and I were near Philadelphia promoting our first collaborative book, Stories for the Homeschool Heart at the Catholic Marketing Network (CMN) Convention, Patti ran into the publisher at Scepter Publishers, who had published one of her earlier books, Catholic Truths for Our Children. He approached Patti about writing a book highlighting the benefits of large family life. Patti in her enthusiastic and upbeat way jumped on the idea and sweetly pulled me in.  She told him, “That sounds wonderful! But you have to have my co-author Theresa in on this project too! She’s from a family with 13 kids and has nine of her own. We think on the same wavelength. We work great together. It’ll be perfect.”

I’m glad Patti had so much confidence in me, but I was a little nervous interjecting into this proposition. I had nothing to be worried about though. The Scepter publishing executives were friendly and passionate about their faith.  Patti and I had dinner that night with them, and with lively conversation and synergy that comes from shared faith yet different perspectives and ideas, the kernel of BIG HEARTED was born. It would be a book about big-hearted not just big families. We were sure that was the right way to go.  The project at once felt very God-directed.

How did you and Patti start working together?

Patti worked as a writer and editor on Ascension Press’s best-selling Amazing Grace series with Matthew Pinto and Jeff Cavins. Several of my stories were accepted for the books, and through this Patti and I met and began working together. Soon we realized how much we had in common- a deep faith and love of our Catholicism, dedication to our families, and we were both mothers of many who liked to write on the side.  We both also home school (we actually found out that we started the exact same year!), so initially we wanted to put together a collection of stories to give support to other homeschooling families.  (That was the premise of Stories for the Homeschool Heart). Soon we realized we could do other things together too.

Patti is vivacious and outgoing. She goes in five different directions with energy and zest. I’m more introspective and quiet. I prefer to dig in deep, one thing at a time, and I tend to be very cautious.  A little example of this can be seen in one particular experience when we were meeting for the first time in person at the Catholic Marketing Network convention in Valley Forge, PA:

Patti arrived at the hotel at midnight at the CMN conference and she was already networking with people. I was in bed, reading intently about book promotion and strategizing how the following day might be most productive and efficiently used. She called me and said, “You should come down (to the lobby) and meet so and so. We’re all getting together.”  I’m like, “No, it’s midnight.  I’m in my pajamas. I can meet them in the morning. ” I don’t meet people after 10 p.m.  {{laughs}} Patti is your classic extrovert. She is energized by people and thinks in multiple creative ways at the same time.  I would consider myself more of a friendly introvert. I like people very much, but but I like to meet them one at a time, talk one on one, and cautiously plan everything. I enjoy executing details behind the scenes.

While our personalities are very different, Patti and I see thing much the same way, which is why we work together so well.  She’s good at one thing. I’m good at another. It’s a great professional relationship and a personal friendship has developed from that.

Back to BIG HEARTED – is it just for big families?

No! Oh my goodness no. Being big-hearted is so much more than simply having a large number of children. Big-heartedness is a mindset- a generosity, a welcoming of love and openness to life. We can all be big-hearted in some way, no matter what our family size.

There are so many ways to be ‘big hearted’! Each family has a charism; each has its own mission and purpose. Our families are as unique as fingerprints, as snowflakes, as unique as each individual person on this planet! Some of us are called to be big hearted by bearing or adopting many children to love and educate and to raise to know love and serve God in this world so we can be happy with Him in the next. Others of us are called to be big-hearted by opening our homes and hearts to an unexpected pregnancy, or to a child with a disability or disease. Still others of us are big-hearted by mentoring children, as in being a teacher or coach. Some are big-hearted in their service to the elderly. There are so many ways!

There was a big-hearted woman in my old parish. Her name was Mrs. Corey. She was a retired schoolteacher. She used to come over and just read to my children. She had noticed me with my little children at Mass on a Friday morning and simply out of kindness thought she could help a young mother. She offered herself and what she did best to me-  by reading to my children she gave something valuable to them- her expertise and to me- small break. At Christmastime she even brought me homemade cookie dough, saying she knew what it was like to have young children and thought I’d like the experience of cutting out cookies with out having to spend the time to make the dough from scratch. That’s big-hearted.

Then there was Mrs. Schwindaman, who was big hearted too. She watched my children so my mother could take me to chemotherapy after I had been diagnosed with cancer. My husband could not take me to every six-hour long session because he had to work.  In order to free up time for my mom (who would have ordinarily watched the children) to take me, Mrs Schwindaman came over. Every other Monday for six months, she watched my children- played games with them, made them lunch, brought over puzzles and told them stories. That’s big-hearted.

The book is full of stories about people like Mrs. Corey and Mrs. Schwindaman, people who look outside themselves to accept challenges and be generous, even when it’s inconvenient, even when they’d rather be doing something else.

Are the stories in BIG HEARTED just for mothers?

Oh no! Several of the stories in BIG HEARTED are written from the dad’s perspective In the story, “The Gift I Feared”, Thomas Mahala shares his honest raw feelings about his daughter being born less than perfect:  It’s a girl!” the nurse announced. After the birth of seven healthy sons, those words should have brought great joy,” he writes, “ Under different circumstances, I would have done back flips. Instead, as I caught a glimpse of my daughter’s face, I scrutinized her eyes. When I saw her almond-shaped eyes, my heart froze—Down syndrome.”

Men and women can both relate to an unexpected twist in family life. Thomas Mahala navigates the situation in a way that will inspire others to do the same. I believe that readers will relate to Thomas’s struggle, and follow his thought process and struggle to accept and eventually love intently his new child.

In “Not What We Planned”, a story by contributor dad Leon Suprenent, an unmarried teenaged daughter announces, “”Daddy, I’m pregnant.” What father reading this cannot imagine what he might think, do and say in such a situation? This book is for men and women, and all kinds of families.

Although BIG HEARTED isn’t just about growing up in a large family, there are many families inside that are bigger than the average size. Is there anything you would like people to know about having a large family?

Yes! Don’t be afraid! It is joyful and challenging and chaotic and fun! It is frustrating and amazing all at the same time.

People often told my mother, who had 13 children: “I could never do what you do. I’m not cut out for it.” That’s simply a fallacy. No one is ‘cut out’ for being unselfish and giving. We all have to fight our human nature that is fallen on account of original sin. My mom wasn’t born patient and organized. I certainly wasn’t born patient and organized. But a funny thing happens when you are open to life, and one by one each child joins your family. Your patience grows. You learn to be organized. These traits are developed as you experience opportunities to acquire them.

Will there be a BIG HEARTED 2?

Hmmmm….There might be! The response to this book has been overwhelmingly positive so far. I can see a sequel or two in the future. I’d like to include stories about being big hearted in placing a child up for adoption, or helping someone who nearly gave up hope on life because of abuse or neglect. We’re accepting stories like these and others and we’ll see what we collect.

Thank you Theresa (and Patti) for sharing this gift with all of us!

I encourage you to check out BIG HEARTED: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families for yourself and tell your friends.  You won’t be sorry!


Looking for a Catholic Speaker? Check out Randy’s speaker’s page and the rest of the ICL Speaker’s Bureau.

Randy Hain, Senior Editor and co-founder of The Integrated Catholic Life™, is the author of The Catholic Briefcase: Tools for Integrating Faith and Work which was released by Liguori Publications. The Catholic Briefcase was voted the Best Catholic Book of 2011 in the About.com Catholicism Reader’s Choice Awards.

Randy Hain’s exciting new book, Along the Way: Lessons for an Authentic Journey of Faith was  released by Liguori Publications in November, 2012. Along the Way was recently named Runner-Up in the About.com Catholicism Reader’s Choice Awards for Best Catholic Book of 2012. Learn more here. His third book, Something More: A Professional’s Pursuit of a Meaningful Life, was released in February, 2013. All of Randy Hain’s books can also be purchased at your local Catholic bookstore, Amazon or www.liguori.org.


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