Maria Sebralla, adoptive mother of six, shares about staying encouraged despite the unknowns that may come with special needs adoption.
I knew I had met “The One” for me when my boyfriend said, “Children…Yes! I would love a dozen!” As a young married couple, we planned for many children. After years of marriage and no children, we realized God had another plan for us. Adoption! We found Holt and started our adoption journeys. Our first was a referral of a baby girl. Our second through the fifth were all waiting children — each child having a different challenge or the possibility of one. Our sixth child, however, had significant special needs.
We were traveling back from a weekend with family when she popped into my mind. I had seen her pictures over the years and read her profile. She couldn’t still need a family after all these years, I thought, but I had to check… and there she was! She was 9 years old now. I read over her profile again, which included premature birth, impaired vision due to prematurity, cerebral palsy, clubfoot and little education at a school for the blind. She was pulling at my heartstrings.
My husband and I looked at each one of this child’s challenges and discussed our comfort level and how we believed we could support her. When we initially looked at her profile, when she was 5, we were concerned with the challenges she presented. Now, four years later, we were seasoned parents of five children, some of whom had or were facing different issues. Through our experience with special needs adoption and our children’s growing independence, we were comfortable moving forward with a plan.
We identified many great resources. One of the most valuable and one we used with all of our adoptions was the international adoption center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. It was the springboard from which we identified additional resources for each of our children, and we stress the importance of having an international adoption medical center as your prime resource. From the beginning, they will help you decide whether to move forward with adopting a child referred to you by fully evaluating all of the information you have received — helping you make the right decision for you, your family and the child. Support is provided before, during and well after your adoption.
After consulting with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital about adopting Georgeanna, we felt confident they could help us address all of Georgeanna’s issues associated with her cerebral palsy. Her legal blindness from the premature retinopathy would most likely be addressed with glasses, adaptive equipment, surgery for her turned-in eye, and the strong resources in the ophthalmology department at Children’s Hospital, CEI (Cincinnati Eye Institute) and the Cincinnati Association for the Blind and Low Vision.
When a Holt social worker asked Georgeanna how she felt about having a family, she liked the idea but expressed concern about leaving her grandfather, who had placed her in the orphanage when she was 3 due to his poor health and inability to continue caring for her. He would go to the orphanage to visit and bring her favorite treats.
“I want a family but how could I leave Patoom [grandfather in Thai]?” Georgeanna asked. Her social worker assured her that Patoom wants her to have an adoptive family and that all would be fine.
Georgeanna’s grandfather passed away six months before we arrived in Thailand to meet our daughter and complete our adoption. She dearly remembers her last visit with Patoom, the special lunch he brought her with her favorite, Pepsi cola, and how he talked to her about getting a good education. He said he would try and come back to see her again soon, but that would not be. Her Holt social worker instead visited her and explained to Georgeanna that her grandfather would not be able to see her again in this life, but had passed on to the next.
She would later tell me, “I know he loved me. He would always tell me he loved me.” I remember being so frustrated that the adoption was taking longer than it should and that things were constantly delayed. Looking back, I truly believe everything happened the way it was supposed to.
Georgeanna had time to grieve and process her loss and had the peace of mind she needed to leave Thailand knowing she wasn’t leaving her grandfather behind.
We united with Georgeanna in August at 11 years old. She knew no English so we depended solely on a translation app we would speak into. Our other children were getting ready to go back to school, but we were planning on having her stay home a while to focus on bonding. Most kids would have been thrilled with that, but she was not. We were working on English, visiting many doctors and professionals, and spending time getting accustomed to one another. After a couple weeks home, she came to me, teary-eyed, and said, “May I please go to school?”
Georgeanna was enrolled in school and started from ground zero. She was in school for two years in Thailand at a school for the blind where she began to learn braille. We would not continue with the braille since she received glasses and was now able to see 20 feet in front of her. Glasses opened up her world!
Next, she was fitted with braces on her legs for support, began physical therapy, and off she went to school. By December, she was speaking English and we no longer needed an app. She was learning to read and write, and do simple math. Physically, she was gaining strength and after her second year home, began a swim program with our local swim club. By the end of the summer, the leg braces were gone! Her therapist declared there was no longer a need for them!
Though so much work and progress has been done, Georgeanna’s cerebral palsy manifests itself daily with some balance issues, stiff and weak muscles that we work constantly at strengthening, and overall fatigue. Her arms appear occasionally stiff as she works to balance herself while walking and her gait is slightly rigid and her left leg turned in a bit. Georgeanna struggles to do most things quickly, but has been constantly challenged by her siblings to increase her speed. She’s made great progress and we as a family have learned the virtue of patience!
Georgeanna struggles to see, especially details, though being able to see 20 feet in front of her with the help of her glasses has been the single most important addition to her new life. Though still legally blind, she is able to attend school with a great amount of independence, and enjoys being a part of her typical 5th grade class, raising her hand to be the next student to read the lesson.
Georgeanna has special tutors to help close the educational gap she is facing. She also has two very dear friends in her class who have taken her under their wing and are a constant source of support and encouragement. (These two girls will never really know the magnitude of their kindness!) She visits the physical therapist for eight weeks with home programs set up for the duration of the year. Georgeanna’s class went skiing this year and she was so hopeful to be a part of that. She received lessons with instructors and was able to ski with assistance on the bunny hill. What a glorious day!
When Georgeanna joined our family, adjustments were in constant motion — especially when there are eight members in the household! Georgeanna has a sweet gentle spirit, kind heart, and occasionally, a feisty temper. Learning to be part of a family takes time and patience for her and from everyone in the family. The kids are asked to give of their time and talents to help Georgeanna and are mostly good about this, with the occasional nudge.
Our fifth child, Emily, was adopted at 5 years old. She was especially excited about Georgeanna’s adoption and exclaimed, “I know I can help her, Mom, I just know I can!” Although Emily is three years younger than Georgeanna, Emily has been, and still remains, Georgeanna’s mentor.
Georgeanna has had tremendous growth in all areas this year. She started the school year reading at a 1stgrade level in the 5th grade and by December, she tested at a 4th grade level. She is now reading the same novel with her 5th grade class, and is working on a lighter version of 5th grade science, geography and language arts. We are working hard to close the gap so that she is up to par with the actual grade she is in. She will be in summer school this year, and probably every year, until she graduates, and could not be happier about it!
Long term, having not identified any learning disabilities thus far, we are hopeful Georgeanna will graduate from high school by age 21. We have been, and continue to be, so blessed to have very special and talented people helping Georgeanna to overcome her challenges with cerebral palsy. Georgeanna seems to have a very special gift of deeply appreciating the help she is given by her therapists and teachers. This has led her to talk about wanting to teach or work with kids who have cerebral palsy and low vision.
There are still many unknowns, but one thing we know for sure, Georgeanna has a loving and supportive family who will help her work through any obstacles she may face and we are so proud of her and blessed to have her as a part of our very special family! Though not a dozen, we have half a dozen beautiful children and our hearts are open to another child that may speak to us through Holt’s waiting child list.
Maria Sebralla | Adoptive Parent
Children with special needs are waiting for loving, permanent families on Holt’s photolisting. Meet the waiting children here!
Concerned about affording adoption? Holt’s Families Not Finances campaign funds grants of up to $10,000 to help support the adoption of specific children with special needs on our photolisting. Learn more about Families Not Finances here.