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By Jackie and Bob Spears

When we were applying for our second adoption, a social worker told us “I would never give you a normal child.” We could see her point. By then we already had two Cambodian boys in permanent foster care plus an adopted daughter who had spent her first 11 months in Medical College of Virginia’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and was still being fed through a gastrostomy tube. We were also temporary foster parents for a dozen refugee kids from at least four countries (thankfully, not all at once). Our “not normal” adopted son weighed less than two pounds at birth and came with a frightening list of actual and potential health problems.

None of this was planned. There was no sense of having a mission to help the less fortunate. More or less accidentally we stumbled across people who needed help, thought we might be able to provide it, and jumped in. We don’t regret it, but this is not a warm, fuzzy story of love triumphing over adversity. It’s real life, with a mixed bag of results, some uplifting, some heartbreaking.

Not What You’d Call a Normal Family

Chun Tate and Ra Yoeun

Our two Cambodian sons came first. For legal/bureaucratic reasons they were not adoptable, but we got permanent foster placements, and they are family. Both lost their families and spent much of their childhood in communist work camps with no formal education. When the Pol Pot regime collapsed, they escaped to refugee camps in Thailand. At about 14 years old, they arrived in Richmond semi-literate in Khmer and speaking no English. Initial adjustments were confusing and frustrating—they were teenage boys who had grown up with no family, no role models and brutal discipline, dropped into a bewildering new culture. They didn’t understand us, and we didn’t understand them. On the plus side, they were bright, hardworking and (mostly) cooperative. After English lessons and a year or two of public school, they each went to middle and high school at Collegiate School.

Here their paths diverged. One overcame his traumatic beginning. Today he is a retired Naval officer with a lovely wife and a son at Virginia Tech. He won a full scholarship to Virginia Military Institute, is an engineer with a master’s degree and has one of the sharpest minds we have ever encountered. The other was too emotionally damaged. After two failed marriages and a bankruptcy, he considered returning to Cambodia, but found he couldn’t successfully cope with either culture. He now lives in a Cambodian enclave in California with his third wife and children, subsisting on welfare and income from Uber. Their everyday language is Khmer, and his command of English has regressed to a rudimentary level.

A pediatric neurologist told us that our daughter, born in Chesterfield County, would never be able to hold a job or live independently, and probably would never learn to feed herself. Today she has friends, a good job and has earned her associate degree. She has emotional difficulties and a severe speech impediment, but she is successfully making her own way. We are enormously proud of her.

As an infant, our adopted son, born in Williamsburg, was at risk for cerebral palsy, had hydrocephalus (thankfully transient), had breathing problems from undeveloped lungs and lost his hearing due to an antibiotic reaction. Against the odds, he survived and grew into a healthy adult with good intelligence. Unfortunately, he also has poor impulse control, little ability to organize or plan, and has episodes of violent rage. He’s never held a job for more than a few months at a time and is currently unemployed and living in his car. We haven’t given up on him, but it is increasingly discouraging.

Not What You’d Call a Normal Family

Nicholas

Our temporary foster kids were an equally mixed bag. We had two Vietnamese American boys who were abandoned by their birth mothers. One was pulled from a trash bin as an infant by an older woman who raised him. He came to Richmond with his foster mother but was taken from her because she wasn’t an officially approved foster parent. She had an apartment near us, so we became his official foster parents, but he spent much of his time helping her. He was a sweet, good-natured kid, always cheerful and helpful. Today he is married with children and works as a mechanic. The other boy grew up wild on the streets in Saigon. He seemed normal at first but became increasingly erratic. He was removed to a psychiatric ward after he threw a kitchen knife at Jackie. When released, he went to a group home and later wound up in prison.

There were at least ten others. One was an Ethiopian boy, one leg withered by polio, who walked to Kenya and claimed his friend was killed by lions during the trip. He came to America because he was confident our doctors could fix his leg. When he learned the truth, he accepted it cheerfully and went on to a successful life. Another was a mildly developmentally delayed Vietnamese girl who grew up as a child prostitute and was sent off in a refugee boat by her mother, with instructions to send back money and medicine. She married (against our advice) at 18, soon divorced, and resumed her childhood occupation. There was a Somali girl who thought any cooperation with us was blasphemy against Islam. We had a four-year-old Cambodian girl, removed from her home because of drugs and neglect, who was ultimately returned to her mother by social services. We have heard nothing, but have little hope for her.

We have no regrets, but no illusions either. We were given a chance to change what we could and accept what we couldn’t. We hope we had the wisdom to tell the difference.


Jackie and Bob SpearsJackie and Bob Spears have been married for 48 years, have four children, and have lived in Richmond for 41 years. Jackie grew up in Richmond; Bob is from a military family and grew up all over. They were married at FBC where Jackie attended, and where her mother, Jackie Booth (later Bowles) was a soloist with the choir. They now attend the Studio class at FBC Sunday School.

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By Candi Brown and Steve Blanchard

The dictionary defines adoption as: “the action or fact of legally taking another’s child and bringing it up as one’s own, or the fact of being adopted.” But a dry legal definition doesn’t even begin to tell us what adoption is. Its definition is probably as broad as the number of reasons individuals or families have adopted children. For this feature, here’s a glimpse at how two of our staff members might define it as they have welcomed children into their homes. These stories may help define adoption, but it is so much more. In their cases, it’s a journey of love.

Candi’s Story

Adoption has been a central focus throughout my life. I was adopted as an infant and raised in a Christian home where I was loved and accepted. Later, during my college years, I became interested in learning more about foster care, specifically foster programs that would hopefully lead to adoption. I completed a year of social work training at an adoption agency and after working with so many precious children, I thought that I might be interested in adopting a child one day.

Life moved forward and after being married 17 years, and having three biological children, God moved through an amazing series of events to give our family the opportunity to adopt. In 2009 through our refugee ministry at Richmond’s First Baptist Church, I became friends with a Burmese man, Kasim, and his two young sons. They knew no English at the time and were struggling with their adjustment to life in Richmond. I worked with them for several years, helping them make appointments, shop and invited them to do things with my family. Then in 2015, the boys’ father became too ill to take care of them.

From an unlikely friendship with a Muslim refugee, God provided a place for Kasim’s boys. They were first placed in foster care in our home, and once their care plan goals turned to adoption, we knew that they were meant to be part of our family. The adoption of Thomas and Jason was finalized in December 2017.

I’ll admit that there have been adjustments for all of us, including our three biological children. We face challenges, as all parents do, but I hope that we are teaching our children the importance of love, family, sacrifice and acceptance of others. Recently, I asked Thomas what adoption meant to him. He told me “I don’t know. I guess it’s just like having another family who cares for you. It’s not losing your parents; it’s just gaining new ones who love you more.”

Journey of Love: Stories of Adoption

Steve’s Story

In 2001, my wife Susan and I began seriously considering the prospect of adoption. At the time, we had no children and the thought of adoption was something we both embraced. We did our homework and finally decided we would like to adopt a child from China. We began the process with mountains of paperwork and procedures, correspondence with home and foreign adoption agencies, and lots of travel to meet with various adoption services. Finally, after about 16 months, we received news of our placement along with a picture of our new child who was not yet a year old. We were absolutely thrilled and totally filled with joy.

In 2004, we traveled to China, along with nine other families from around the U.S., to meet our daughter, Molly. The friendships we formed during our trip have endured ever since. And in 2007, those friends led and supported us in adopting our second daughter, Menley, who was 13 months old at the time.

Just like many other parents, we endured sleepless nights, changed a ton of diapers and heard our share of tantrums while, at the same time, we have embraced their first steps, watched as they amazed us with their creativity, and stood broken hearted as they struggled when they first entered school. But trust me, the joys have far, far, outweighed the difficulties. We even considered adopting a third child, but overseas adoptions began to close.

Our extended families have totally embraced our children. Molly and Menley quickly became grandchildren, cousins, and nieces. They have asked questions about their biological parents, mostly out of curiosity, and we have always been as open as possible with them about their heritage and their culture. We were even able to return to China in 2018 to visit the cities where they were born.

The amazing thing is that they are truly sisters, even though we adopted them at different times and from different parts of China. They love each other and love us as their parents. I cannot imagine life without them. They are our true joy and I am so proud of them for the young women they are becoming. I realize our experience of adoption is not unique, as we have many friends who have traveled down the same path. I know that every process is not always easy but I sincerely believe that every kid deserves a chance to grow into the individual God wants them to be with a family who loves them. All that to say, I am a truly blessed man.

Journey of Love: Stories of Adoption

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