“Wo ai ni.”Leslee and Garret Brandt practiced that phrase, which means “I love you” in Mandarin Chinese, before they flew to China to formally adopt their daughter. The words “I love you” in any language are the most important words a child can hear. Yet unwanted children worldwide never hear those words. Their life usually takes the brambly path of countless foster homes, and they may never experience any sense of permanency or parental love. Other children rarely venture beyond the walls of an orphanage where one caretaker oversees 14 orphans at a time.Yet, as evidenced by the number of adopted children in the Roaring Fork Valley, many locals want to give unwanted children a chance at love and family. The Brandts are one of an estimated 60 local families with adopted children. Sandra Whitton, founder and executive director of Littlest Angels International, said her adoption agency worked with 15 families last year to adopt four children locally and another 11 children internationally. Here are the stories of three local families and their experiences with domestic and international adoption, an increasingly common choice for families in an increasingly diverse valley.
The idea for this article began in June with John and Jennifer Acha of Rifle, who were anxiously awaiting the arrival of their adopted son, Mason.Mason was a little tardy. It wasn’t due to delayed paperwork or a country in turmoil that kept the Achas from holding their adopted son; Mason had missed his due date by a week when I first spoke with John Acha.”He’s late, so he’s already grounded,” joked John. Jennifer, although calmer than her husband while waiting for their son, had Mason’s nursery ready and was still debating over three different outfits in which to dress Mason for his ride home from the hospital.Mason arrived in the world – and in the arms of his adoptive parents – on June 22. John Acha called that day, his voice full of a proud father’s joy. “He’s got huge feet; he’s going to be playing football for sure.”Before Mason’s birth John had confessed, “I’m not so sure I want to associate his birth mother’s face with my boy.” John did meet the birth mother at Mason’s birth. It was strange, he said later, but somehow pleasant. Because the Achas is a “closed” adoption, the birth mother will have no future contact with the family. If Mason chooses to seek his birth mother as an adult, the Achas are not opposed. All they care about is that they have Mason to love for the rest of his life.John, 32, and Jennifer, 26, know what it’s like to love an unwanted child, only to see the child walk out the door. The Achas have been on-call foster parents through the Garfield County foster care program for three years. The last child they fostered was a 3-year-old boy.”His mother was addicted to meth,” said John. “This little boy had to take care of himself, because no one else did. He couldn’t speak in full sentences and still had a pacifier. We could see the hate in his eyes.”Neither John, a construction consultant, nor Jennifer, a coordinator for a company that cares for handicapped adults, are physically able to have children. It made sense to adopt a foster child through the state of Colorado. “These kids need a good, permanent home,” said John. “But we found the state tries to reunite the kids with the families. When they go through the foster system long enough, they’re over 9 years old and not very adoptable.”An Aspen friend suggested the Achas adopt through Littlest Angels International, an agency that caters primarily to Western Slope families. The Achas didn’t care about race or sex, but they did want a child under the age of 4, “so we could grow together as a family,” said John.They waited three years. “By chance, we got a newborn whose mother didn’t want anything to do with the kid or us.”The biological mother, a Caucasian Rifle woman in good health, was able to hold her baby at his birth but, soon after, handed newborn Mason over to the Achas, who took him home the next day.”People say we’re helping out the baby,” said John. “But we’re the ones being blessed. We get to be parents and later, spoil our grandchildren. It’s made our house a lot happier.”
Nothing worth something is ever easy.For the Brandts, of the Willits subdivision in Basalt, it meant waiting for an infectious disease scare to pass before adopting Jenny three years ago, and waiting another 2 1/2 to adopt their second daughter.The Brandts received the good news on June 29, from the Chinese Center Adoption Affair, that they are matched with an 8-month old baby girl named Lou Fu Jun, whom they will name Julianne FuJun when they pick her up in China later this summer. They eagerly await the day they can say the words, “wo ai ni” to the newest member of their family.Garret, a lawyer, and Leslee, a stay-at-home-mom, knew for a long time that even though they had two biological children, Bobby and Katie, they would adopt a Chinese child.”We saw a TV show on Chinese girls in orphanages and decided we wanted to adopt,” recalled Leslee. “We thought about Kazakhstan because Russian children would look more like us. We could have loved a child from anywhere, but China was always in our hearts.”
When they put in the paperwork to adopt Jenny in 2003, Asia had been hit hard by SARS. The Brandts were told it would take more than a year before the adoption was final. But nine months later, Jenny was placed in their arms in a Chinese orphanage. By Chinese law, they had to wait a year before they could start the paperwork for the next adoption, and waited one more year for the paperwork to go through, due to a huge increase in Chinese adoptions. Regardless of the scares and the holdups, the result was priceless. “It just felt so right,” said Leslee of the moment she and Garret met Jenny.Still, Jenny seemed terrified when she first met her new American parents. “Compare it to being abducted by aliens – no one looks, smells or talks like anyone she’d been around before,” said Leslee. “She did not trust us. But I told her, I’m your mommy, we’re your Forever Family.”Around 2 1/2 years, Jenny decided her new life was OK. “I could just see her whole body relax,” said Leslee. The biggest reward was when Jenny genuinely laughed. “She used to be scared when we tickled her, but when we heard her laugh from her gut,” Leslee trailed off, her throat tightening with emotion.At age 3, Jenny announced, “I’m so glad I got you as a new mommy.”The Brandts make sure Jenny knows her heritage. Jenny has a video, “Jade Goes to Kindergarten,” which teaches numbers, colors and a few other simple words in Chinese; she enjoys counting in Chinese and occasionally asks for milk in Chinese. The Brandts took a signing class at Colorado Mountain College so they could communicate with Jenny when she was an infant, and they still play Chinese lullabies for Jenny before she goes to bed.To further ensure Jenny and Julianne know their heritage, the Brandts attend an annual reunion picnic with other families whose daughters were adopted from the same orphanage. They also celebrate Chinese New Year.”It’s very important to foster their culture, as best as this lily-white girl can,” said Leslee. She, too, grew up a minority in a predominately Latino community and knows what it’s like to feel different.”If she ever asks the question about why she looks different, I’ll tell her that I believe we’re all made in God’s image and that we all look different. But I will also tell her, I am your mom and I am raising you and then I’ll wait to give her a shoulder to cry on if she needs it.”The Brandts knew they’d adopt again. Said Leslee, “We always wanted four children. But it’s also because I heard an adult Korean adoptee say he always wanted to look across the table and see someone like him.”She also heard a friend ask, “If you had two years left to live, what would you do? If you had 24 hours left to live, what would you regret not doing?””My answer was, adopting a baby.”
Katie Seward, an Aspen preschool teacher, decided she had waited long enough. She was in her early 40s and was ready to have children. Since she wasn’t married, adoption was the answer.She chose international adoption over domestic because “usually domestic birth parents don’t want single people.”
Seward chose Cambodia and went through Covenant International adoption agency. It took five months from start to finish, with no glitches, said Seward. When she got her referral from Covenant International, she got a fax photo of her daughter-to-be.”It wasn’t a very good photograph,” recalled Seward. “But I looked at it and thought, well, that’s my baby!”The moment she landed in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, to pick up her daughter, “I knew I had made the right choice,” she said, her voice choked with emotion. “When I held her in my arms, I knew it was meant to be.”Six-week-old Paxton lived in a small orphanage and was undernourished when Seward met her, but in good health. The orphanage had no records on the birth mother. Now Paxton, age 6, attends Aspen Elementary. Her best friend is Chinese. Seward does not believe there will be any issues of being “different” in predominantly white Aspen.”Paxton always knew she was adopted and she has so many Cambodian friends up and down the valley. Skin color doesn’t mean much to her.”Seward has ensured Paxton knows her cultural roots. They celebrate Cambodian New Year and along with other local families who adopted Cambodian children, Seward takes Paxton to the Denver-based Cambodian Heritage Camp where Paxton sees other families like her own. “I’m sure she may have questions later on, but she sees me as her mother, as loves me as much as I do her,” said Seward, holding back tears.Paxton asked for a baby brother, and got one on June 12 – a 4 1/2-month-old boy from Ethiopia.Seward originally tried adopting a boy through Kazakhstan, but kept hitting bureaucratic walls. After nine months of trying, she gave up. Seward adopted little Caleb from Wide Horizons for Children adoption agency. “The process was very simple paperwise, and they allow single people to adopt. In six months’ time, it was all said and done.”
Flying into Addis Ababa was unnerving, but when Seward landed, she found a modern city where Caleb’s orphanage was located. He was well-fed and healthy. Again, when she saw her new baby, she felt that all was right.”He was mine,” she said, crying again. She remembered he looked right at her and smiled.She emphasized that both her children’s orphanages, while doing the best they could with what they had, were a difficult place to be in. “It was all very emotional. I wanted to take all the children home.” Caleb was the lucky one. He’s nursing from a bottle and sleeping quite well, said Seward. Paxton’s beside herself with excitement and has told everyone she could about her new brother.Seward knows it’s unusual to raise a dark-skinned child in Aspen, but takes a simple approach: “I’m hoping we don’t run across anything we can’t resolve. I’m hoping Caleb has friends and not colors.”Adoption as a means for having a child is a no-brainer for Seward. In fact, it should come from the heart instead of the brain, she said. “I don’t understand the foster system. In an orphanage, at least the children had the same nanny. But all of these children need a home. I would say to anyone who is on the fence about adopting, get off the fence and get the babies. You can’t get them home soon enough.”Annie Addison is an award-winning freelance writer who lives in the midvalley with her husband and two young boys. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Six local artists will debut new works Friday as part of the Snowmass Art Walk, an initiative to connect the town’s existing public art with new installations this summer.