American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Convention Issue 2015 PRESENTATIONS AND WORKSHOPS
by Merry-Noel Chamberlain
From the Editor: A growing number of families involved with the NFB and the NOPBC have adopted blind children, most of them from overseas. On the evening of July 8, as part of the NOPBC conference, Merry-Noel Chamberlain of Nebraska gave a presentation based on her family's adoption story.
I was a single divorced mother when I met Marty and fell in love. We got married when my daughter, Royene, was thirteen years old. She was at a difficult age to open her heart to a new stepdad, and it was also challenging for a childless man to become the instant father of a teenager. But through many ups and downs, trials and errors--often with me in the middle--the two of them worked hard to build a positive relationship.
Eventually Royene grew up and moved out, and Marty and I found ourselves with an empty nest. We wanted to have a grandchild or to raise a child together. Since it didn't look like we were going to become grandparents any time soon, we decided to become foster parents.
I guess it is time for me to mention that Marty has cerebral palsy. It really has not hindered him much. Cerebral palsy is to Marty what blindness is to us, simply an inconvenience. He got this philosophy from his parents, who treated him the same way they treated his four siblings. He was expected to wash the dishes, take out the trash, make his bed, and keep his grades up. He was expected to participate in school functions, too. Marty was on his school wrestling team and won the Rams Spirit award. If he came to a hurdle in the road, he would look for alternative techniques to solve the problem.
When I met Marty I was considered to be sighted. Now I am legally blind. We didn't know about my decreasing vision when we got married.
After Royene moved out on her own, Marty and I decided to become foster parents. We had plenty of room in our house for another person or two. In addition, we felt we had a great deal to offer a child with a visual impairment, as I am a teacher of students with visual impairments (TVI) and an orientation and mobility (O&M) instructor. Besides, everyone in our family was familiar with being around people with disabilities in general. There was no pity syndrome in our home. Everyone was held to the same high expectations.
In Iowa, where we lived at that time, a person had to complete a six-week course through the local college in order to qualify as a foster parent. The class really got to the core of foster parenting. It dug down into our souls to make sure we had what it takes to bring a foster child into our home.
After we got our licenses, I began to search the websites for children who needed homes. I soon learned it was almost impossible to find an older child who had a visual impairment with no other physical disabilities. We needed an older child with no physical limitations because of Marty's inability to pick up and carry a child.
So I began to search. First, I looked in Iowa, and then I looked out of state. The process went something like this. I would search and eventually find a child who touched my heart. Often, this child did not have any visual impairment. I would tell Marty about the child, and he would check out the website. We would have a lengthy discussion and, when we were ready to move forward, I would send an email to the child's caseworker. Sometimes we never heard back, and other times we would get an email from the caseworker with a list of requirements for us to submit. Often we were asked to write a two-page essay explaining why we felt we could provide the best home for the child. After laying out our hearts on paper, we sent off the essay, along with the other required items. Then we would wait and wait . . . and wait . . . never to hear back. A couple of times, we received a note asking questions about my blindness. I would answer . . . then wait . . . and hear nothing more. Needless to say, it was very disappointing.
In the meantime, Marty and I provided respite foster care. We would care for a child or two over the weekend to give their regular foster parents a break. We had a couple of foster siblings that we really enjoyed, and we concluded we had what it took to care for more than one child at a time. We decided to expand our hearts and our home, possibly to adopt siblings. Sibling groups are harder to place than a single adoptee. Perhaps we would have a better chance of expanding our family that way.
In 2006, we submitted the requirements for a sibling group of three just before I left for the National Federation of the Blind National Convention in Dallas, Texas. At convention I reconnected with John Fritz from Wisconsin. Marty and I had met him and his wife, Heather, while I attended Louisiana Tech in Ruston, Louisiana. John brought to this convention their newly adopted daughter, Katie, who came from China. Up to this point, Marty and I hadn't given much thought to adopting from China, although we had other friends who had done so. But there she was, little Katie. She was exactly what we were looking for, an older child who was blind.
I remember standing in the back of the room during General Session, mustering the courage to walk up to John and ask him about adopting through China. It was easy to find him, because I knew where he would be sitting. He was the president of the Wisconsin affiliate, so he would be sitting right next to the pole with the Wisconsin sign. Finally I walked up the aisle to the Wisconsin delegation, thinking to myself that my life was about to change. I felt it deep in my gut.
Just as I thought, there was John. I went up to him and said, "Tell me about adopting through China." He answered, "Better yet, I can give you the name of the adoption agency and their email address." He also informed me that there were grants available to assist with the adoption fees. I walked away with all the information I needed.
When I got home from convention, I told Marty about Katie, and I sent an email to the adoption agency, La Vida. I said that I am legally blind and a teacher of blind children, and that my husband and I wanted to adopt a blind child. The email I received back said it just so happened that they were going to put a child with a visual impairment on their website by the end of the week.
I checked every day, and a little girl appeared. As we had done before, Marty and I had a lengthy discussion that included the increased fees to adopt a child from China. Finally we decided to move forward. After all, the worst they could do was to deny us, as everyone else had done so far.
A couple of days later, I had a telephone interview with La Vida. At the end of the interview, the caseworker commented, "I think we've found the perfect home for this little girl."
After sixteen more months of preparations and paperwork, it was almost time for us to travel to China to get our new daughter. In talking to Heather Fritz, I learned that we should bring some clothes for her, but we had no idea of her size. The paperwork was not up-to-date, so we had to guess at her current weight and height, buying clothes based on those guesses. We figured we could wait until we got to China to purchase underclothes and any other necessities. We brought some adjustable clothing such as dresses with shoulder straps and waist ties, elastic or adjustable button waisted shorts, and an oversized children's t-shirt for her to sleep in. We brought a bundle of safety pins for making additional adjustments, as needed. We also brought our daughter a toothbrush and some children's toothpaste. Other items we brought along were a children's book full of short stories Marty could read to her in the evenings and some activities for us to do in the hotel. We brought a special fun bag for the long plane trip back to the United States, but our daughter ended up sleeping most of the way home.
While Federationists were attending the 2007 national convention, we went to China to pick up our new daughter, Ashleah, who was seven years old. Her first words to us on the phone and later, in China, were, "Hi, Mom and Dad." She had been learning English from her foster mother, Elizabeth, prior to the adoption, so she spoke the Queen's British when we got her. She referred to a trashcan as a bin and called an elevator a lift. I was quite pleased, because my father was British and my family lived in England when I was a child. I have dual citizenship with England and the United States.
We were lucky in the sense that we didn't have to deal with a language barrier when Ashleah came to us. She knew enough English to ask about terms she didn't understand. If we used a word she didn't know, she would repeat it, followed by "What's that?"
Before we went to China, we watched a video of Ashleah with Elizabeth and some La Vida staff. Ashleah held onto Elizabeth's hands the entire time, aside from when she demonstrated her ability to run around the courtyard of the orphanage. In the video, we noticed that she stopped running when she approached a shadow on the sidewalk. We wondered if we should bring a cane to China for Ashleah, but we decided against it after talking to Heather Fritz about her experience. She explained that many people in China look down upon others with disabilities. The cane would make Ashleah's disability more visible. We figured she could learn about the cane once we got home.
Upon our arrival at the first airport, Marty and I had to change planes. We were both carrying small suitcases and walking down stairs. I had my long white cane, and Marty had his support cane. Two young women passed us on the stairs and stopped at the lower landing. The first woman turned to the other, said something in Chinese, and handed over her bag. Then she came back up to us and offered to assist Marty by taking his bag. He graciously accepted. The women helped Marty all the way onto the plane and even had the flight attendant translate to us that they would help us when we got off the plane, too.
When we arrived in Chongqing on the evening of July 8, we were met at the airport by two men holding a large sign with our names on it. They took us to the Holiday Inn and helped us settle in. Some adoption agencies arrange for several families to travel together when going to China to pick up their children. However, when it comes to children with special needs, La Vida often arranges for a family to go with a single guide. In our case, La Vida provided us with two guides. For the most part, one served as the driver and the other served as our interpreter. The guides informed us that La Vida felt we needed two guides due to my visual impairment and Marty's cerebral palsy. Basically, China wants adoptive families to spend at least ten days in the country to learn about Chinese culture.
After a wonderful buffet breakfast the next morning, which was included with our hotel fees, we went to the market to purchase bottled water; we were strongly advised by La Vida and by our guides not to drink tap water. Then we went to the Children's Welfare Office, where we met Ashleah and Elizabeth. After our picture and fingerprints were taken, all the T's crossed and the I's dotted, Ashleah was ours!
We spent the next few days touring Chongqing and sampling its foods. We learned that Chongqing means "the joining of two rivers," and we visited the place for which the city is named. We requested to go to a bookstore to purchase Chinese music and stories on CDs for Ashleah to listen to and to help her maintain her Chinese language skills. The bookstore was filled with children sitting on the floor to read in the aisles. We were amazed by their longing for education. Outside the bookstore, many people stood with large signs offering their services as teachers of various subjects.
We requested and received permission to make a day trip to Fuling to meet the people at the orphanage and to see Elizabeth again. Although Ashleah had lived with Elizabeth for the past two years, we learned that she had to move back to the orphanage a week before our arrival as part of the adoption process. Ashleah told us they took her shopping for underwear and a couple of new outfits during that week.
While we were in China, Marty and I noticed that many people were not very accepting toward people with disabilities. Ashleah and I received some negative looks from the public. On one occasion we were exploring as two men were standing by. Ashleah said, "Let's go, Mommy." When we were away from the men, I asked her what they had been talking about. She said in a sad voice, "My eyes." At one small shop, we saw a gentleman with Down syndrome who appeared to spend his time picking up cigarette butts off the sidewalk.
Ashleah was fascinated with my cane. At the hotel I let her use it to get from the elevator to our room. Outside the hotel she enjoyed putting her hand on my cane as I used it. I explained to her that it was my tool, and that a cane was waiting for her at her new home. She was very excited! She asked about her cane as soon as she stepped into her new home. As an O&M instructor, I had a few recycled children's canes at my disposal. I had an assortment of sizes on hand, and we selected one based on Ashleah's height. This approach worked very well. By the time we got home, Ashleah really wanted her first cane.
One of the activities we brought for Ashleah to experience at the hotel was a simple children's card game, Dora Uno. I had Brailled the cards to give her an introduction to Braille. Ashleah played by holding the cards about an inch from her good eye. We also brought a large teddy bear in bright primary colors, thinking it would help us introduce color vocabulary. However, we learned that Ashleah had already learned those terms from Elizabeth.
From Chongqing we traveled via plane to Guangzhou, where the US embassy is located. Visiting the embassy was one of the steps in the adoption process. Again, all of the arrangements were made by La Vida. Two women met us at the airport, again with a sign with our name on it. A driver was waiting for us with a van with white curtains. Everything was white. We were a little worried that we were going to some hospital, but we ended up at a hotel called White Swan, hence all the whiteness.
In Guangzhou, we met with another guide, who helped us with the next steps in the adoption process. This time the guide also served two additional families. Ashleah and the other children, both babies, had to have physical examinations and go to the American embassy to be sworn in. Luckily she didn't need to get a passport. Elizabeth had already obtained one for her in order to take her out of the country to have her eyes looked at for second opinions. If Ashleah hadn't had a passport, she would have gotten one in Guangzhou.
We had more freedom to explore on our own in Guangzhou than we had in Chongqing. Nearby we found a park with a playground, a small grocery store, and several shops. A super nice brunch buffet came with our hotel at no extra charge, so we took advantage of that every morning. There was also a restaurant within walking distance that served American food such as good old hamburgers. By this time we were longing for American food!
By the way, we paid for all of our travel expenses, such as sightseeing, hotels, and planes, before we left for China. We were told to bring crisp bills for tips for the guides. We also were told to bring a gift for the orphanage, preferably something made in the United States. In addition, we brought a gift for Elizabeth.
Elizabeth truly made our adoption experience unique. I wish every child adopted from overseas had a foster parent like Elizabeth to help with transition and education. We keep in touch with Elizabeth to this day, and we pray she will come to the United States to attend Ashleah's high school graduation, college graduation, and eventually her wedding. We think of Elizabeth as a member of our family. We refer to her as Aunt Elizabeth, and we are ever so grateful for all she did for Ashleah.
Shortly after we arrived back at home in the middle of July 2007, Ashleah asked when she would start school. She was sad to learn that school didn't start for another month. She also asked about Braille. I got out a slate and stylus, and she began learning. Ashleah learned uncontracted Braille in just two weeks. She could tell you all the dot numbers and write the letters with the slate and stylus and on the Perkins. Since she did not attend typical school in China, she had a lot of catching up to do. Based on her age and my elementary education degree, I decided to place her in second grade. This put her slightly behind her same-age peers, but it was still acceptable. In addition, she received some assistance in an English Language Learners (ELL) group, although she could not take the assessment, which was only available in print.
That first year Ashleah worked very hard to learn Braille and catch up academically. The next summer she received the Jennifer Baker Award through the Braille Readers are Leaders contest. The award was given to a child who overcame unusual challenges in order to master Braille. With this award, Ashleah won a trip to the National Federation of the Blind National Convention. Coincidentally, the convention was held in Dallas at the same hotel where I had approached John Fritz about adoption through China.
We feel very fortunate to have Ashleah in our lives. Tomorrow, July 9, is her eighth "gotcha birthday," the anniversary of the day we met her. Ashleah is now sixteen, and she just completed her freshman year of high school. Recently we learned she is one of the top students in her class. This year she received the Academic Excellence Award for maintaining a 4.0 GPA, with such subjects as algebra and biology. She loves being a younger sister and now the aunt of two nieces and a nephew. We have enjoyed immensely raising our second "only" child.
We are thankful to be here this evening to share our story with our NFB family. Ashleah truly has been a blessing to us all.