The story of a boy named Spencer and all the people who came together to help him become the active, independent, outgoing kid he always had the potential to be.
I met Spencer Morrow seven years ago at an orphanage in northeastern China. It was my first trip for Holt as the senior writer for the organization, and I had never traveled to China before.
I had never seen the inside of an orphanage.
And I had never met children growing up in institutional care, without the love and security of a family.
For many reasons, this experience is as vivid in my mind as many of the experiences I’ve had traveling for Holt in the years since.
We visited Spencer’s orphanage toward the end of a ten-day journey through three provinces where Holt has programs for orphaned and vulnerable children. By comparison with the other orphanages we had seen, this one was quite impressive.
On a tour of the facilities, we strolled past large play areas with brand new, brightly colored play structures, peaked inside rooms with adaptive equipment for kids with special needs, and observed classrooms fully stocked with every educational resource that the children might need.
But for all the fancy stuff, the place was oddly quiet and cheerless. It felt like what I expected an orphanage to feel like — cold and sterile and nothing like a home.
Part of what made the silence so odd at this orphanage was that unlike the other orphanages we had visited, this place was absolutely teeming with children. In other regions, Holt had established foster care programs to provide a more nurturing alternative for children waiting to join adoptive families. Because so many children lived with foster families — or had already gone home to families through adoption — the orphanages were practically empty!
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But in 2010, this was a new region, and a new orphanage partnership for Holt. We had yet to establish a foster care program in this particular province. And at the time, this orphanage had yet to begin the process of uniting children with families through adoption. As a result, every child who had ever come into care still remained in care at this orphanage.
In one room, we came upon a group of children probably 4-6 years old. They sat huddled together on the floor, all in plain gray shirts tied to their shoulders, and looked up at us with eyes huge and full of fear. Kneeling down at a safe distance, we tried to put them at ease. Some of them timidly approached us, while others just sat and stared at the strange-looking foreigners in their midst.
It was among this group of children that I met Spencer.
He had adorably full cheeks, high-set eyebrows and an uneasy expression. His shirt was inside out and hanging off one shoulder, and he was sitting with a brace on one of his legs. As I knew I might need to advocate for him once home, I snapped a picture that captured all of these details — including a little white piece of paper with his name on it that he held uncertainly in one hand.
But even if I hadn’t taken a picture, I would have remembered Spencer.
In fact, of the many children I met and interacted with — and the hundreds of pictures I took on this, my first trip to China — it is this picture of Spencer that burst into my brain three years later when I saw an altogether different photo. A photo of a little boy standing victorious with one fist in the air. A photo of a boy with full cheeks and high-set eyebrows who I recognized instantly.
It was Spencer. And he was standing. And he was smiling, with certainty and pride.
To me, this photo captures so many things.
It captures a child’s extraordinary ability to overcome the disadvantages and so-called disabilities with which they are born. It captures what happens when you open yourself up to hope and possibility. It captures the dedication of so many loving, compassionate people — in the U.S. and in China — who are working to ensure that every child has a chance to reach their full potential. And last, but in no way least, this photo captures what it means to belong to a family that is 100-percent devoted to you.
Spencer Morrow came home to his family in May 2012, nearly two years after I met him.
He came home in a wheelchair, with a contracture that caused one knee to bend at a 45-degree angle. He could not walk, but to his parents’ surprise, he was quite independent and scooted from place to place. His knee just wouldn’t straighten, and the orthopedist his parents took him to couldn’t explain why — saying “he was a puzzle.” But within months of coming home, he received a hamstring release and four different casts to help straighten his leg — enabling him at 7 years old to stand for the first time, just as he stands in that victorious photo, with his fist in the air.
Today, Spencer is 11 years old and in the fourth grade. His family is still searching for answers about his knee, and he mostly uses forearm crutches to get around. But in the four years since he joined his family, Spencer has been able to do far more than he ever could in the first seven years of his life.
He has zip-lined and he has played in the ocean. He has become a Boy Scout and an announcer for a local youth basketball team. He loves to play on the playground, and has gone fishing, swimming and boating with his family. He is very outgoing, his mom says, and he has such a positive attitude.
Spencer’s story could have gone such a different direction.
If no one had ever advocated for the directors at his orphanage to consider international adoption for the children in their care, Spencer could still be in that cold, sterile place. If his parents had not seen his face on Holt’s waiting child photolisting, and read about a 5-year-old boy who is smart and resilient, he might still be just one child in a crowd of children, wearing the same gray shirt, all needing the kind of love and attention that no orphanage is equipped to provide.
Countless others are part of Spencer’s story as well — people who didn’t have the privilege of meeting Spencer like I did, but who care so much about children like Spencer that they donated to Holt’s Special Needs Adoption Fund (SNAF) that year.
Holt knew the Morrows were the perfect family for Spencer — a family that would advocate for him, that would “be willing to make changes in doctors/therapies and/or drive further to get the answers” they needed, as the Morrows now advise other families to do. A family that would see that “Spencer is so much more than all of his different diagnoses.” Debbie and Chris Morrow had plenty of love and attention to offer. They had experience parenting older adopted children with special needs. They could give Spencer opportunities to zip-line, be a Boy Scout and go fishing. What they did not have were sufficient financial resources to bring him home, and on top of that, to meet all of his medical costs.
But because of the compassion and generosity of people they would likely never meet, they received a SNAF grant to help bring Spencer home.
Today, the puzzle of Spencer’s knee remains unsolved. But in another way, Spencer’s puzzle is complete — each piece a different person who played a role in helping him become the outgoing, independent, active boy that he always had the potential of becoming.
In that orphanage in China seven years ago, when I met and snapped a photo of a little boy with a brace on his leg, our stories momentarily converged. Spencer is one of the first children I met before he came home to a family — whose story I would get to observe, from a distance, as it unfolded over the years. He helped me understand how all the pieces come together to accomplish the big-hearted mission of this organization I work for.
From orphanage directors and caregivers and our staff and government advocates in China, to our adoption staff and child welfare advocates in the U.S., to our then-waiting child program manager, Jessica Palmer, who wrote Spencer’s photolisting profile, to Debbie and Chris Morrow who read his profile and saw beyond his age and special needs, to the donors to our Special Needs Adoption Fund who filled in the last piece of the puzzle to bring Spencer home to his family.
I am honored to get to share not just Spencer’s story, but the stories of hundreds of children and families whose lives are touched every year by Holt donors and our staff and partners around the world.
Spencer’s mom, Debbie, offered this advice to families who are considering adopting a child with special needs: “Be prepared to learn more than you ever thought possible and be blessed beyond measure by your child.”
I could say the same thing for myself, in the small role that I play to help advocate for children who need families. Because of children like Spencer and families like the Morrows, I too have learned more than I ever thought possible. And I too have been blessed. Truly. Beyond measure.
Robin Munro | Managing Editor
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