Local families adopt Down syndrome children from Ukraine
Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 4, 2012
By Katie Scarvey
The family of Traci and Mike Williams have a lot invested, emotionally and financially, in rescuing their daughter Anna from an institution in eastern Europe, and they’d tell you in a heartbeat that it was all worth it.
Last December, we wrote a story about the family as they waited patiently to adopt Anna from Ukraine, working through a thick tangle of red tape.
Traci and Mike have three biological children, including a daughter, Ashlyn, with Down syndrome. Traci had become aware of an organization named Reece’s Rainbow, a charity that advocates and fundraises for the international adoption and rescue of children with Down syndrome specifically. Inspired by what they saw on the website, Traci and Mike decided to adopt another child with Down syndrome.
As Traci explained, children with Down syndrome face a bleak existence in eastern European orphanages. They are typically turned over by parents to the state at birth and live their lives — which are often shortened by neglect and malnutrition — as second-class citizens locked away in institutions.
Traci felt called to act. She and her husband, Mike, with the support of Reece’s Rainbow, brought Anastasia — they call her Anna — home with them in July.
But there’s a heartwarming twist to this tale of continent-spanning love.
As they were going through the process to adopt Anna, Traci shared her story with Carol Miller. Carol is Ashlyn’s special education teacher at Southeast Middle School.
“On a field trip, Traci showed me Anna’s picture, and I asked if I could have her,” Carol said.
No, Traci told her, but she could adopt one of her own.
The seed was planted.
Traci sent Carol to the Reece’s Rainbow site, and “it was over,” Carol said. Although she was “bound and determined” she wanted a little girl, she was drawn to a little boy called Quinton on the website. His eyes spoke to her, she said.
Carol fell in love as she gazed at her computer screen.
As a special education teacher, of course, Carol had a good understanding of the reality of raising a child with Down syndrome. Carol also notes that her mother was a social worker at a residential facility, and Carol spent part of her childhood in a group home that her parents supervised.
Carol brought up the idea of adopting with her husband, Brian, by asking jokingly if she could have $25,000. That was the cost of adopting a child as estimated by the Reece’s Rainbow organization.
Carol told him about Quinton (whose Russian name was Kiril) and asked him to pray about it, promising that she wasn’t going to bring it up again. She did, however, post a photo of Quinton on their refrigerator.
And really, who could resist this angelic little boy with the blonde hair and the soulful eyes?
Brian could not resist, as it turns out. A police officer who works second shift, Brian ended up doing a lot of the paperwork for the adoption, Carol says, since she is at school most of the day. Although they started the process four or five months later than the Williamses did, they ended up getting Quinton in the same month that the Williamses got Anna.
“It’s a miracle that he opened his heart to it,” Carol says. “I can’t tell you how much he loves him.
The Millers went to Ukraine this summer, coming home with Quinton at the end of July after spending 47 days in Europe. They were there for so long because they chose to complete the required waiting period there, which not all families are able to do. They were allowed to spend about four hours a day with Quinton until the adoption was complete. Carol and Brian rented out the top floor of the home of one of the cooks at the orphanage during the time they spent there.
Although it was clear to Carol that Quinton hadn’t ever received much attention, it wasn’t long before he was interacting with her and Brian and returning their smiles and affection.
It’s hard for Carol to remember some of what she saw in Quinton’s orphanage. A few of the children in his group could walk, and the staff members would get angry because they were more difficult to control. Carol observed one toddler tied to his playpen for hours at a time, so frustrated that he would bang his head over and over.
Carol picked that child up one day, stroking his head and comforting him. “He looked at me as if to say, ‘Why are you speaking kindly?’ Carol said. “It was so sad. No one had ever been kind to him.”
Traci and Carol are all too aware of the horror stories of children neglected in eastern European orphanages. Some Reece’s Rainbow parents have gotten children who are so severely malnourished that they weigh a mere 10 pounds at 9 years of age.
Reece’s Rainbow has recently received a spike in interest, Traci notes, because of a story done on “World News Tonight” by Diane Sawyer. Carol and Brian met the family profiled in the piece while they were in Ukraine.
They’ve had Quinton, who will turn 2 in February, for almost five months now.
“He’s the best thing that ever happened to us,” Carol said during a recent holiday visit to Traci’s house.
Quinton scooted around and played with Anna, 6, who only occasionally had to be reminded to “be gentle” with him.
Traci explained that Anna had been transferred from a home for children to an adult mental institution, which is what typically happens to children with Down syndrome, if they survive their early years.
Anna, she said, was the first child from this particular institution who had been ever been adopted.
“People didn’t know why we were there,” said Traci, who went with her mother, Freida Heitman, for the final trip to get Anna. (Mike went on the first two trips.) “They couldn’t understand why we would want her.” Some people actually believed that those who adopt a special needs child would be doing it for some evil purpose — like harvesting organs.
When Traci and her mother would be out in public with Anna during the time they were waiting for her passport to be completed, people would look at them and glare. “Everywhere we went we would get the eyeball,” Traci said.
People would ask her why she was adopting a child with special needs, she said. In fact, people would try to talk her out of it, pointing out that there were plenty of other children that she could adopt. No one seemed to understand that they wanted to adopt Anna simply to give her a better life than the one she was fated to live in Ukraine as a child with Down syndrome.
In the culture, Traci and Carol both learned, children with Down syndrome are not valued. Even though Quinton’s parents were wealthy, Carol said, they did not want to take care of him and signed abandonment papers, never once visiting him after giving him up.
“It’s hard to believe,” Carol says, adding that it took her a while to get over her anger at Quinton’s parents for giving him up.
The director of the institution was initially very mistrustful of them, Traci said, but finally came to realize that her new family loved Anna.
Traci notes that she’s mailed the director four sets of pictures since bringing Anna home, and that after receiving the most recent set she has responded, saying she is happy Anna has found a family and is loved.
Anna made an easy transition to her new family. “A lot of children who are adopted tend to grieve their old life and caregivers,” even if that life was miserable, “but not Anna,” Traci says. “ She has bonded to our family so well.”
“Even before we left Russia she started to understand things we would say in English as though she came pre-programmed knowing English.
“She took to us like she’d known us forever,” Traci says. “She never cried” — although sometimes, that can simply be a sign of how devoid of hope life is for children like Anna. The children learn quickly not to cry out loud, Traci says — though they may cry silently — because no one ever responds to it by giving them attention. Anna has only recently started vocalizing when she cries, Traci says, although that isn’t often.
When they first met Anna, she didn’t really understand affection, Traci notess. Now, she “seeks out hugs and kisses.”
Although Anna and 11-year-old Ashlyn have their clashes — mostly over toys — they have their tender moments as well. Ashlyn, Traci says, will sometimes crawl into bed with Anna to sleep with her.
Brother Mason, 10, says he likes Anna a lot. Anna is also tight with brother Spenser, 17, who has thanked his mother for the family’s new addition.
“He throws her over his shoulder and they run all over the house,” she says.
While basically healthy, Anna had scabies and parasites from being neglected, Traci says. She had never had a real bath, and once she got over the initial shock of bathing in a tub, she wanted to take three baths a day, Traci says. In fact, they had to figure out ways how to barricade the bathroom so that Anna wouldn’t try to give herself a bath all day long.
Traci and her mother began to get nervous after they’d been there for a while and Anna’s passport wasn’t coming through. They had run through their money faster than expected, having to pay for an expensive hotel room and racking up about $2,000 to pay for transportation to and from the orphanage.
They were fortunate, she says, to be able to spend their last nine days there with a mission group in Moscow, and they were also lucky that Anna’s passport finally came through, only a few days before Freida’s visa was set to expire. Traci’s biggest fear was that they would have to return Anna to the orphanage and fly back home while the paperwork for her passport was completed.
Both the Millers and the Williams family had help raising the money that carried them through the adoption process.Traci and Mike had collected about $33,000, more than the amount estimated they would need, but they still wound up having to spend $19,000 of their own money. Since they had to stay longer than they thought, Traci was forced to spend the money they’d brought for the flights home, but a last-minute donation of $2,000 allowed them to buy their plane tickets. They came home with only $100, says Traci, who’s grateful for all the support they’ve gotten.
As the two families visit, The Williams’ older daughter, Ashlyn, hugs Carol, whom she calls “Miller.”
In fact, there are lots of hugs. Carol hugs Quinton, Traci hugs Anna, Anna hugs everybody.
It’s a happy, huggy new year for these families, one full of hope and love.
For more information, go to www.reecesrainbow.org.
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