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"To the family that allowed me to play them, the Tuohy family, I know they're in here and you'll probably hear her in a minute. [Silence] Maybe not. Thank you for … giving me the opportunity to do something different."  —Sandra Bullock, during her Best Actress acceptance speech at the 82nd Academy Awards.

It's hard to know what surprised Bullock more on that March evening in 2010, the fact that she'd just won an Oscar or that her special guest, Leigh Anne Tuohy, didn't react with triumphant fist pumps and an explosive woo-hoo! That's because the southern spark plug Bullock portrayed in The Blind Side isn't known for holding back. She's an outspoken lady who loves the Lord and lives each day with passion and purpose.

Leigh Anne's kind heart and determination are what first inspired her to reach out to a hulking young African American man wandering the streets of Memphis. Michael Oher needed love, direction … a home. So the Tuohys adopted him. With their support, Michael earned an education and excelled on the football field. He was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in 2009, and earlier this year became a Super Bowl champion.

Now Leigh Anne wants to help other children find what she calls "forever families." As the host and producer of the weekly UP reality series Family Addition, she stands in the gap for couples attempting to adopt children out of foster care. Here's what she had to say during our conversation, much of which can be heard in episode #207 of The Official Plugged In Podcast:

Plugged In:  I'm guessing most people have seen The Blind Side and may think that they know you. Maybe I should start by asking how closely the real Leigh Anne Tuohy resembles the one we've seen in the movie.

Leigh Anne: I told Sandra Bullock that, when my three kids saw the movie, they walked out and were looking at each other, shaking their heads, Oh my gosh, there's two of them running around! I said, "You will never receive a greater accolade than that." She shadowed. She hung around, [as did] John Lee Hancock, the writer and director, for almost two years. They were at several of our Thanksgivings, several of our Christmases, Michael's games, SJ's games, Collins' events. They really knew the pulse of our family. Y'know, for Hollywood not to screw something up is really nothing short of a miracle, and we were very humbled by what a great job they did with the movie.

Of course, Hollywood reserves the right to tweak the facts here and there in the interest of dramatizing a story. Was that true in your case?

There are things that are inaccurate, but they had nothing to do with the message or the platform of the movie. The movie showed Michael a little sketchy with football. He gets so mad, y'know, "I was never that bad!" John Lee Hancock really wanted people to see the vast amount of space Michael Oher had covered in a short amount of time. He used the analogy of football to do that. … It's amazing what [Michael] took in over a several-year period. But that doesn't have anything to do with the message of the movie. For the most part it was very, very accurate, and for that we're forever grateful to the people who worked on The Blind Side.

What is it like to have a major Hollywood star win an Oscar for playing you? That has to be pretty surreal.

It is, it's crazy. It continues to be crazy. Sandra Bullock is an amazing lady. We have a very private, personal relationship. We stay in touch. I was just with her a week ago. I'm going to be with her again next week. It's been a wonderful, very God-driven relationship. The Lord has used this movie in mighty ways. He uses simple people to tell a story.

Well, for those who haven't seen The Blind Side, it's the true story of how your heart went out to a young man in difficult circumstances, and your family ended up adopting him. Now you have a reality series called Family Addition on UP. How is this show a natural extension of your experience with Michael and your heart for adoption? Why'd you do it?

We really believe, through our journey with Michael, that there are no unwanted kids, there's just unfound families. I tell people day in and day out that the least part of parenting is genetics. It really is. That's the least of it, because it comes from after the day the kid is born. Honest to goodness, Michael Oher is probably more like me than my two biological kids because he was around me for so long. He folds clothes like I do. He cleans like I do. I'm a neat freak; Michael's a neat freak. My two biological kids are messy, just like their dad. It's amazing. It's about environment, environment, environment.

I know you're familiar with Focus on the Family's Wait No More ministry.  As a result of that effort, nearly 2,000 families have begun the process of adoption from foster care. That's exciting, but there's still a lot of work to do, isn't there?

The shame of it—and why we ought not to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror in the morning—is that there are 30,000 kids every single year who age out of foster care in this country. They never have a forever family. It's not just about writing this huge check. It's about opening your home and your heart to amazing kids that just want to be loved. Family Addition hopes that people will step up out of their comfort zones and make sure that the Michael Ohers of the world stop slipping through the cracks, and that they are valuable, contributing members of society. All we need to do is offer them hope and love and opportunity, and they too can have a life-changing experience.

You are a persistent woman, and we see that on the show in how you stand in the gap for these families to keep the process moving. Have you found that producing a reality series has gotten you more cooperation from a system that can move pretty slowly at times?

It has. It's amazing when you have a microphone and a camera what people do. And sometimes you just have to be a little forceful, because people don't like change, especially our government. They don't like to be told what to do. They don't like to say, "Well, maybe that's a better way." The foster care and adoption system is pretty flawed in this country. Yeah, sometimes I have to use a little adult strength, but it seems to work. Week in and week out, we highlight those issues. We give you a road map to follow. People will look at it and go, "I'm having that same trouble. What's that family doing?"

Recently my wife was deeply moved when she attended legal adoption proceedings for friends in our church. As much as she tried to describe to me how that felt, I didn't fully appreciate it until I saw the Sotos experience the same thing on your June 7 premiere. But the episode was much more than that. There was even a little Extreme Makeover Home Edition there.

Each week it's Team Tuohy, it's a group effort. It's my daughter, Collins. It's Miss Sue Mitchell, Michael's tutor in the movie played by Kathy Bates. We do a room makeover. It's something different each and every week. It's not always the same thing, because each family's story is unique. Just like every birthing experience is different, we think the same is true of every adoption story. So we do something every time to say, "Thank you. Thank you for what you're doing," and to leave a footprint of where we've been.  … You may not be able to adopt or take a foster care child into your home, but you can help the people who are doing it. You can walk shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand and make a difference with these families that are going through the process. We show you that each week as well.

Before we let you go, Leigh Anne, one more question about the Tuohy family: It must have been special to share Michael's Super Bowl experience and all that event has become. Is there a highlight or a memory that stands out?

I think the highlight of it was when I hit the field after the game. I just looked at him, and of course I was sobbing. In the NFL [regular season], one week they announce offense, the next week is defense at the home games. We just finished year four in the league—we go to all the games—and each week when he's in Baltimore and they introduce offense, I cry when he comes out. And my husband looks at me, first game of 2012, and he goes, "It's season four. You're not still gonna cry every time he runs through the smoke. I mean, come on." And I do, because every time Michael runs through the smoke it represents hope to me. It represents that he made it. He never gave up. He worked through all the obstacles. And we're still, 11 years later, working through obstacles.

So we'd just won the Super Bowl. It was a close game. With our credentials we get on the field. He's surrounded by photographers. But he looked at me, I looked at him, and it's almost like something you see—ha ha, the cliché—out of a movie. I ran up and I hugged him, and I was just sobbing. He was going, "We made it, Mom. We made it, Mom." And we did. [getting choked up] We made it. And he … to see your child live a dream out is very life changing. He did make it, and he worked hard. But there are other Michael Ohers that so deserve a chance. Getting out of our comfort zone and doing Family Addition offers kids a chance, because it makes people aware that there are valuable kids who just need an opportunity.

Well, we're rooting for Family Addition and for the families featured on your program.  Leigh Anne, thanks so much for being with us.

Thank you for having me, and thank you for what you do.

Published September 2013

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