The Ultimate Gift

Christmas always makes me think about gifts. What am I going to give everyone? Often, it is challenging to find the perfect present for the person with disabilities. But then I realize that during the holidays and all year, the real gift is about creating and sharing memories, and being  part of a family.  This is the ultimate gift.

Families who have opened their hearts and doors to children with disabilities know a great deal about this joy.  Angela Redd was working at the Blythedale Children’s Hospital in Valhalla, N.Y. when she fell in love with a sweet baby, with multiple challenges. He was not expected to live to his second birthday and looked different with his webbed legs, fingers and tubes running into his body. Despite Saliman’s physical deformities, caused by a rare genetic condition, Angela knew she wanted to raise him.  Saliman’s biological parents were unable to care for him. (People Magazine, Dec. 16)

So Angela took him home, cleaned his feeding and breathing tubes. She and her husband Rashid stood by him, despite dozens of operations, including the amputation of his two legs. At age 13, Saliman is a rambunctious teenager whose  spirit is infectious.

 “Saliman has taught us so much. When he puts on those prosthetics and goes to school, it makes me feel like I can do anything,” Angela Redd says.

This story reminds me of Jessica Long, who I wrote about in the post “The Unstoppables.” Jessica was born without legs, but her parents adopted her and her special needs brother from an orphanage in Siberia.  Today she is a record holding Para-Olympic athlete, poised to grab more swimming medals.

Of course, not all parents who give their homes and open their families to kids with special needs are going to raise Olympic athletes. Families who adopt children with disabilities usually have reasons that differ from parents who adopt nondisabled children. Many of the mothers and fathers who adopt children with disabilities perceive themselves to be emotionally successful adults who have a unique set of skills required to parent a child with a disability. They often have prior experience working as health care providers, like Angela, or have worked in the school system.  They have a level of awareness about how to advocate for a child with a form of disability. www.Disabledworld, “Adoption of Children with Disabilities, by Thomas C. Weiss.  Jan.13, 2011.

Parents who have adopted children with a form of developmental disability speak of the incredible amount of joy that the children have brought into their lives.  This is different from what recent studies reveal about parenting overall.  Most parents acknowledge that having children does not bring happiness, but does bring more meaning to their lives.  But now parents of children with disabilities talk about the level of enrichment brought into their families, in ways they never imagined.  These parents find huge satisfaction in helping their child gain little victories in life and reach for accomplishments. Together, they know the real cause for celebrations.

But the statistics are anything but celebratory:

  • In the U.S., it’s estimated that 60,000 children with disabilities are waiting for adoption and real homes
  • In the United Kingdom, forty percent of all children waiting to be adopted have a disability
  • Worldwide, seven million children are living in institutions, many of them with disabilities

When I was filming the documentary, “Not Home,” we met a mother who adopted a young boy with cerebral palsy.  For the first six years of his life, Qualeigh had lived his entire life in an institution. He never went outdoors; never felt the gentle caress of a fresh breeze on his face.  Today, he is living in a real home, learning how to use a walker and going to school.  His mother is ecstatic that she’s played a role in giving him a family, and better quality of life.

At first, parenting a child with special needs can be overwhelming and stressful. But then the struggles lead to triumphs, and the parents explode with joy, much like Angela and her husband, Rashid Redd.   The couple delight in their son’s unbreakable spirit.

“My parents, “ Saliman says,” have taught me to go forward, never stop and never give up.”