"WHAT TURNED OUT TO BE ONE OF THE GREATEST DECISIONS WE WOULD EVER MAKE WAS NOTHING WE EVER PLANNED FOR."
This was the first thing Laura said to me when I asked her to share the story of their journey towards adoption.
Several weeks ago, I had the incredible opportunity to photograph the court hearing for an adoption. My job takes me to some pretty interesting places and events, but this may have been one of the sweetest days on the job in a long time.
Their adoption journey was not something they had planned. 4 years ago, they were planning their wedding and dreaming of starting a biological family. But when they began learning the statics surrounding children in foster care, they couldn't help but take action.
"WE DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT THE MASSIVE NUMBERS OF KIDS IN NEED OF A FAMILY. THERE ARE NEARLY 500,000 CHILDREN IN FOSTER CARE IN THE UNITE STATES ALONE. THOSE 500,000 CHILDREN WOULD FILL TWO ENTIRE FOOTBALL STADIUMS! THE STATISTICS LEFT US WONDERING IF WERE WERE SUPPOSED TO BE A PART OF THIS WHOLE FOSTER CARE THING. WE HAD WATCHED FRIENDS AND FAMILY GO THROUGH THIS PROCESS. WE KNEW IT WAS MESSY. AFTER SEEING MY SISTER AND HER HUSBAND GO THROUGH A REALLY TOUGH DAY IN THEIR PROCESS TO ADOPT THROUGH THE FOSTER CARE SYSTEM, I TOLD TIM, 'THERE IS NO WAY WE CAN DO THAT!' HE RESPONDED BY TELLING ME THAT IF THIS IS WHAT GOD HAD FOR US, WE COULD DO IT.'"
As Tim and Laura continued talking about beginning to foster, Tim began to feel very strongly about taking in a child with an autism diagnosis. Tim and Laura had both worked at a school for children with severe autism. They were trained and well equipped for the task at hand, but the idea of bringing a child into their home who was diagnosed autistic was slightly daunting. They continued to process what this would mean for them, and pray about what steps to take next.
Laura's sister was in the process of adopting two children, and while their social worker observed their extended family all together, she instantly knew that Tim and Laura would be the perfect parents for Donnie, a beautiful blonde haired, blue - eyed boy with a pretty significant autism diagnosis. She approached them with this and after taking about a week to think through what this would mean for them, they told her they were interested in moving forward. She emailed them a picture of Donnie, and they instantly fell in love with his amazing, infectious smile.
They quickly began to acquire the necessary training required for being an approved foster parents in the state of Massachusetts. Their home study was completed in March, four long months after completing their training. The process was tedious and required an incredible amount of patience.
"I WOULD LOVE TO TELL YOU WE LEARNED OUR LESSON IN PATIENCE, BUT I'M STILL JUST AS IMPATIENT AS I WAS BEFORE WE STARTED THIS PROCESS. WORKING WITH CHILDREN AND FAMILY SERVICES REQUIRES A TYPE OF PATIENCE I'M NOT SURE I WILL EVER POSSESS."
On April 2, 2016, which ironically (or amazingly?) happens to be Autism Awareness Day, Tim and Laura met Donnie.
"I WORKED AN OVERNIGHT SHIFT THE NIGHT BEFORE, BUT THERE WAS NO WAY I WAS GOING TO FALL ASLEEP AS WE DROVE THE HOUR INTO BOSTON TO MEET DONNIE! HE MOSTLY PLAYED ON HIS IPAD AS WE HUNG OUT IN THE LIVING ROOM WITH THEM. HIS FOSTER MOM, WHO IS ABSOLUTELY AMAZING AND POURED HER LIFE INTO HIM FOR MANY YEARS, TOLD US HE DEFINITELY LIKED US BECAUSE OF THE WAY HE ALLOWED US TO SIT BESIDE HIM WHILE WE PLAYED ON HIS IPAD ON THOSE FIRST FEW VISITS."
Building a relationship with a child who has a severe trauma history, lands on the far end of the autism spectrum and often struggled with aggressive and self-injurious behaviors was not an easy process and came with some unique challenges. Tim and Laura went into their first few times with Donnie with eyes-wide-open, recognizing that trust would be difficult to earn.
"THERE WAS NO REASON WE SHOULD HAVE EXPECTED HIM TO TRUST US OR WANT TO KNOW US. SO MANY PEOPLE HAD BEEN UNTRUSTWORTHY IN HIS 9 YEARS OF LIFE, AND WE WERE ABOUT TO REMOVE HIM FROM THE PLACE HE HAD MADE A HOME OVER THE LAST 3 AND A HALF YEARS. WE SPENT TWO MONTHS VISITING WITH DONNIE BEFORE HE MOVED INTO OUR HOME, AND AFTER MANY HOURS OF WII, IPAD AND LEGOS, WE BEGAN TO BUILD A RELATIONSHIP."
Donnie officially moved in with Tim and Laura on May 28th. He had poor verbal-skills, weighed 57 lbs, wore size 8 slim pants, and was used to a diet of McDonalds, pizza and Little Debbie Cosmic Brownies. Vegetables were a non-existent part of his meals. However, with help from their previous training working with autistic children, a little help from Vitamix, some super sneaky vegetable hiding, a huge dose of patience, and an even larger dose of unconditional love, Donnie began making incredible changes.
"TODAY, HE SPEAKS IN FULL SENTENCES MORE THAN EVER, WEIGHS 74 POUNDS, WEARS SIZE 10 REGULAR PANTS, AND EATS A FULL BOWL OF BROCCOLI WITH HIS DINNER EVERY NIGHT - TO EARN IPAD TIME OF COURSE! HE CONTINUES TO MAKE AMAZING STRIDES THAT MANY WORKERS CONSIDERED TO BE IMPOSSIBLE FOR HIM, AND WE COULD NOT BE MORE PROUD OF HIS COURAGE TO TRY NEW THINGS."
On March 3rd, after 9 months of having Donnie in their home, the adoption was made official.
After 2,028 days in the foster care system, family and friends crammed into a small courthouse outside of Boston and watched Donnie legally become a member of the family. Donnie officially had a forever home.
A couple observations about this amazing day:
I've had the chance to watch Tim and Laura love on Donnie a couple of different times now - and let me tell you - they are amazing with him. They have learned his trigger points and how to avoid them, they have learned how to redirect him when he begins to become overwhelmed, they have learned what makes him laugh, they have learned how to effectively deal with his tantrums and self-injurious behaviors. No one else could be as perfect for Donnie as they are.
It was truly amazing to see what an incredible support system Tim, Laura and Donnie have. They say it takes a village - and Tim, Laura and Donnie have an astonishing one. It is amazing to watch Donnie interact with these people who have become his new family. He is one unbelievably loved little man.
"HE IS OUR SON, AND WE ARE HIS PARENTS. THIS IS NOTHING WE EVER PLANNED FOR, BUT IT WAS CERTAINLY ONE OF THE GREATEST DECISIONS OF OUR LIVES."
"ANYONE WHO EVER WONDERED HOW MUCH THEY COULD LOVE A CHILD WHO DID NOT SPRING FROM THEIR OWN LOINS, KNOW THIS: IT IS THE SAME. THE FEELING OF LOVE IS SO PROFOUND, IT'S INCREDIBLE AND SURPRISING.“
~ NIA VARDALOS ~