Parents needed for international kids with medical needs
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- John Skaff and Sarah Stephenson were pretty busy with their three young adopted daughters when they decided three weren't enough. They enjoyed family time with Erin, 8, Jaiden, 8, and Christa, 7, as much as they enjoyed their professions -- she is a veterinarian and he is an engineering staffing professional -- but knew they could do more.
Skaff and Stephenson have adopted two more Chinese children, Jerry, 6, and Katie, 4, to increase the ranks of the bustling family that shares a home and small farm with donkeys, horses, cats, birds, rabbits, birds, ducks and a guinea hen.
All of their children are considered to have special needs, but only Katie has discernible issues, in her fingers and toes.
"What they consider special needs for adoption can be a deformity in an ear, birthmark on a face or a cleft palate. Most of them are repaired before they leave China," Stephenson said.
In July 2011, the Charleston couple traveled to China and adopted Katie. When she found out about a new rule in China that simplified subsequent adoptions when they occur within a year of the first adoption, Stephenson quickly searched for a fifth child.
Stephenson reviewed cases and found Jerry. She and the girls sat down with Skaff and convinced him that Jerry would be a good fit in their family.
"We had Katie and had said that was it. Then she wanted to bring a boy into the all-girl program," Skaff said.
They went back to China late in 2012 to bring home 6-year-old Jerry, who had an intestinal issue that probably overwhelmed his birth family. He was abandoned when he was 3 months old and lived in a facility for children with significant medical needs.
"He has been an unbelievable miracle," Stephenson said. "He spoke very little English but quickly learned the alphabet and numbers to 100."
Today, his family helps him manage his condition through his diet. "He needs to eat very healthy. He's made us all healthy," said Stephenson.
Stephenson is such a believer in the Chinese adoptions that she's become advocate for affordable adoptions. She works with Agape Adoptions, which is a relatively small agency that focuses on international adoptions of children with medical needs.
Stephenson also hopes to dispel the misconception that few boys are available for adoption in China.
"People have it in their minds that only girls are available. That's not true, but the only boys who are available are those with special needs. There are tons and tons of boys who never get considered because of those needs," she said.
In his kindergarten class last year, Jerry scored 100 percent on everything. All the Skaff children do very well in school.
The family marveled at the ease of Jerry's adaptation into their family because he was the eldest of the children they'd adopted.
"We prayed really hard that he wouldn't be afraid and would adjust smoothly. We prayed that if he did that, then we'd give all the credit where it was due -- to God for blessing us with an amazing family."
Through their connection with international adoptions and their strong faith, Stephenson and Sherri Willis (see accompanying story) share a desire to spread the word about the joy of special-needs and international adoptions. Stephenson especially wants to help match prospective parents with resources.
"I'm blessed to have the greatest job in the world, but I consider my side work in advocating and in spreading the word that this is not a hard thing to do. If anybody is interested, I am more than happy to talk to them," Stephenson said.
"There are so many countries. I'm super familiar with China, but there are waiting children all over the world."
She acknowledges that adoption is expensive but emphasizes that help is available through organizations and foundations such as one founded by singer Steven Curtis Chapman.
"People think the expense is impossible. Yes, there's expense, but there are ways to lessen the expense. There are grants available. People do fundraising," she said.
"I'm in debt up to my eyeballs, and I am delighted to be. We've invested in our kids and their future."
Julie Robinson is a former Gazette staff writer. Reach her at email@example.com.