The plight of medically needy orphans around the globe is a crisis few are aware of. In particular, Ukraine upholds antiquated and overburdened systems where developmentally delayed children are institutionalized in state orphanages where they are often neglected and abused.
In 2017, UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund) reported that 2.7 million children are in residential care (group homes or institutions). Of those, Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia had the highest populations of children in this type of care. They estimate that there are 140 million orphaned children globally, some of whom have living parents.
It's a crisis that goes unnoticed and is challenging as international adoption laws have created a maze of agencies and applications for families to overcome. But through concerned individuals and certain nonprofits, some of these children are finding homes.
Reece's Rainbow is one of those nonprofits. The national organization began in 2006 as a way to promote awareness of orphaned children with Down syndrome and has expanded to include all children with medical needs. They provide information about the adoption process both domestically and internationally. They also provide grants to families adopting and host a fund for donations.
The three families featured here decided to adopt children from Ukraine after feeling a bond with a child seen on a social post. All three also came across Reece's Rainbow in their research.
The Dales: Room to Love More
Laura Dale of Rathdrum, Idaho, has been fundraising to adopt two medically fragile children from Ukraine. She's been fundraising since February 2017 by selling anything from hand-sewn children's clothing to hand-dipped chocolate caramels.
But the Dales' story starts more than a decade before when she and her husband, Jonathan, decided to fost-adopt. Their second child, Kya, was born with chronic health issues. She was nonverbal and required constant care, which eventually became normal for the Dales, who had one other child at the time. In spite of their daughter’s medical issues, they wanted to expand their family but struggled with infertility.
“Kya’s health issues became normal,” said Laura. “There were acute illnesses where we went on autopilot, but we got so used to it that we thought about caring for a child like her.”
They first became foster parents and adopted their eldest son, Nathanial, and their youngest son, Aiden. Aiden was born with hydrocephalus from which he is mentally and physically impaired. He was 2 ½ months old when they began fostering him; he weighed 7 pounds. When the option to adopt arose, Laura said there was no question.
“It was an instantaneous feeling to say ‘yes,’” she said.
Later that year in 2011, their daughter passed away from her health condition, but Laura looks back at the opportunities Kya gave them.
“Her issues were so complicated … [but] she gave us the tools we needed to help other kids.”
They focused on caring for Aiden and raising their two other sons, now adults. With only Aiden, now 7 years old, to care for, Laura again thought about helping children like him.
“He will not progress beyond infant status and is not hard to take care of unless he gets sick,” she said.
After seeing a video of a medically needy child in Eastern Europe, Laura thought she would advocate. “I wanted to show these kids aren’t scary—they just want someone to love them,” she said.
Her research led her to Reece’s Rainbow where she began advocating by posting on behalf of “Clarence,” a 4-year-old boy institutionalized in what’s called a “baby house.” Often, children may be moved to an adult institution as young as age 5, in which case their life expectancy drops to about a year. The Dales watched Clarence's video repeatedly and decided to adopt.
“People ask, ‘Why aren’t you adopting domestically?’” Laura said. “In Eastern Europe, kids with special needs are pushed into institutions. Even physicians don’t know how to treat these kids with conditions like malnutrition.”
In the midst of their fundraising, her husband fell in love with “Aria” from a video Laura saw on social media.
“[Aria] was throwing things around her crib like our daughter had; I sent [the video] to him, and he said, 'When do we get her?'”
The cost of one adoption is at minimum $28,000. Adopting Aria will cost $13,000, but the Dales are nearing their goal and hope to visit Ukraine to finalize the adoption this summer. Even once finalized, they are required to return two more times before bringing their children home.
“You really expose yourself as a person. Many people don't understand the costs,” Laura said. “It's been important for me to work for it—to take the time [fundraising)]. Some people have paid twice what I was asking for, and that helps me get to where I’m going.”
The Brownings: Growing a Big Family
Charrissa Browning and her husband Phillip, of Port Orchard, Washington, already had a big family when their sixth child, Justus, was born with Down syndrome in 2009. As an infant, he underwent open-heart surgery. Once he had recovered, Charrissa started researching Down syndrome and came across Reece's Rainbow and was immediately drawn to the children listed on the site.
“Down syndrome is such a personal thing for us. I read profile after profile and couldn't believe the difference between my child and the photos online,” she said.
In June of 2010, the Brownings decided to adopt two children from Ukraine—a boy Maxim and a girl Ivana. Both were around 5 years of age at the time and in the same institution. To raise their adoption fees, Charrissa sold things, fundraised on her blog and hosted a silent auction.
They were able to adopt Max just before he turned 6, before he was moved to an adult facility. “It's a place with a mixed population of individuals with mental and health conditions. Once there, children have an 80-percent chance of dying because of neglect and also abuse from other patients. It's also more difficult to adopt once they're transferred,” Charrissa explained.
Their daughter, Ivana, has Down syndrome, and like their son, Justus, had needed heart surgery after birth—except she had never received the proper care. Ivana was born with a hole in her heart and had been relinquished by her parents. It's a miracle she survived the years she did before they adopted her, Charrissa said.
“When we met her, her head was shaved, she weighed 20 pounds and wore clothing sized for 18- to 24-month-olds. She was in a laying room where all they did was sleep or lay in a communal crib—like a playpen,” Charrissa said. “When we met the orphanage's director, he saw the difference between our son and the others and even remarked on that.”
Ivana was not only suffering from her condition, she was also dehydrated. During their stay, the Brownings were allowed two visits per day and began sneaking her juice and snacks to build her strength.
“It was heartbreaking because some of the children realized that ours were coming home,” Charrissa said. “We'll always have a passion; it's an overwhelming need.”
In December 2010, they brought home Max and Ivana, now 13 and 12, and they immediately began to thrive. That first year with three new children with special needs was a difficult one, but they relied on their faith to help them through.
“God called us to this. We had to rely on a strength that was bigger than us,” she said.
The Wallaces: Fulfilling the Desire to Give a Child a Home
Andrea and Matt Wallace always knew they wanted to adopt. Although they already had a large family—eight children with seven at home between the ages of 3 and 17—they had been foster parents in Washington. When they moved to Bonners Ferry, Idaho, however, the state's foster system did not allow them to continue fostering because of their family size. After the rejection, a friend of Andrea's referred her to Reece's Rainbow. Once she got more involved in the online adoption community, she learned about the plight of orphaned children with medical needs.
“It's such an eye opener to see the neglect and abuse that goes on,” Andrea said.
One day, in her social news feed, a video posted showed a 15-year-old boy, Dima, with cerebral palsy. The post was from Maya's Hope, another online nonprofit that advocates for orphaned children. Andrea knew he was the one, and the family has been learning about their future adoptive son and brother through the organization for the past year and a half.
“I saw the video and felt that was the child we needed to help,” Andrea said. Her family required little convincing. “They're excited to help give a family to someone. They've been a part of the process and have seen the challenges.”
International adoption is not without its challenges. Because of delays in the process beyond their control, some of the paperwork they had filed expired, causing a cascade of expirations for other work filed as well. Andrea has raised money by selling her crochet work at the farmers market and online plus raffling a friend's quilt. In addition, they have taken a personal loan to cover the costs and have a family sponsorship on Reece's Rainbow where donors can contribute.
The Wallaces know that their future son has some developmental delays and a language barrier but are prepared to welcome and care for him.
“We have some special needs in our family and have been researching special services, too. We're also learning about his culture, religion and learning the language, too,” she said. “We homeschool, so I'll work with him. We know he has some delays which might be institutional, but we won't know more until we get there.”
The Wallace's are days away from hearing whether they are cleared for travel to finalize the adoption.
How to Help
Not everyone can change a child's life through adoption, but they can still make a difference by supporting organizations and families who adopt. Donations don't have to be financial. Friends can donate time or offer clothes and supplies as they would with a new baby. Or, sponsor a child on social media by posting their story.
“There are a lot of kids who are alone in this world,” Andrea said. “If you're religious, pray. If not, think about it. Try to donate or sponsor—think of ways to help.”
Charrissa Browning echoed the sentiment: “Adoption is not for everyone, but everyone can do something.”
The Brownings: Charrissa Browning; professional photos were taken by Ashley Montoro Photography.
The Wallaces: The whole Wallace klan, including Andrea's parents.