Iowa Family Adopts Young Ukrainian Boy With Down Syndrome

WEST BURLINGTON, Iowa -- The first time Melissa DeLlanos laid eyes on her newly adopted son Timothy, she broke into tears. All the months of waiting, anticipation and a six-week stay in the Ukraine finally had paid off. Melissa found a missing piece of her heart in the form of a 4-year-old boy.

"I'm a baby. I cried. I was shocked and surprised by how little he was," she said. "I just wanted to touch him to make sure he was real."

Melissa and her husband, John, officially adopted the little Ukrainian boy in December, and Timothy arrived at his new home in West Burlington just a few weeks ago.

"Coming home with him was kind of surreal. When you're there (Ukraine), you're still doing things on their terms," Melissa said.

DeLlanos had never met or spoken with Timothy until she made the 23-hour plane ride to Ukraine with her husband. But she already knew she loved him.

Timothy was born with Down syndrome and had lived his entire life in a Ukrainian orphanage. After turning 5 in February, he would have been sent away to a mental institution where his chances of survival would plummet.

"Because they have birth defects, they are undesirable in Ukraine. People don't want them," Melissa said. "Ninety percent of kids from orphanages don't make it past the first year after being transferred."

Melissa and John, who were able to visit Timothy several hours a day prior to the official adoption, described his living conditions as barely acceptable.

"It wasn't horrible, but he was in a group with 12 other children, and the room they were in was his basic home," Melissa said. "Off of the main room, there were 13 little toddler-sized orphan beds. They were all made the same. There were no pillows."

The DeLlanos family adopted Timothy through the Maryland-based Reece's Rainbow organization. Started in 2004 as an outreach program for families with Down syndrome babies, the organization expanded to include promoting the international adoption of children with Down syndrome in 2006.

Melissa came across Timothy's picture on Facebook through a friend of a friend who was advocating his adoption, and it was love at first sight. It took a bit more time to convince her husband, but once he understood what the adoption entailed, he was on board.

"It was shocking at first. I misunderstood her the first time. All I saw was an amount, and I thought they were selling the kid," John said. "It took a little bit more time for me to accept this ordeal. But as time went by, I fell more in love with him."

Both Melissa and John are deeply spiritual and met in Florida at a seminary training school for the Salvation Army.

They were Salvation Army officers in Alabama until 10 years ago when they moved to Burlington to take care of Melissa's parents. They also have three children of their own, ranging in age from 3 to 14, and their oldest son, Joey, is autistic.

"With an autistic child, the ministry was not conducive, because they moved us every couple of years, and autistic children don't do well with change," Melissa said.

Melissa runs a home day care service that takes care of up to 10 children, so Timothy has moved into a pretty busy household. John is an emergency medical services worker, firefighter and chaplain at the West Burlington Fire Department. He also is taking nursing classes at Southeastern Community College.

The DeLlanos family had to raise more than $26,000 to adopt Timothy, which included money paid to the adoption agency, the Ukrainian government, a translator, motel stays and plane tickets. Some of the money came from a large yard sale, and the rest came from donations by local residents.

What really made the trip possible was a large donation from a Fort Madison woman who wanted to remain anonymous. She even drove Melissa and John to the airport.

Abandoned at 3 months by a Ukrainian couple with a 16-year-old child, Timothy never knew life outside the orphanage until he moved to Iowa.

Needless to say, his new parents didn't know much about Ukraine until they set foot in the town of Dnipropetrovsk, which has a population of more than a million people. John would spend the next 2 1/2 weeks there until their adoption court hearing, and Melissa would stay another six weeks, until she could bring Timothy home.

"We met with the orphanage officials and the doctor and the social worker and our translator, and they told us a little bit about his medical history," Melissa said. "We didn't know much about him then."

Weighing only 28 pounds, Timothy is unusually small for his age - the size of a typical 2-year-old. The clothes Melissa bought for him were much too large, though her church group helped with extra clothes.

Before Melissa and John saw Timothy, they had to make a promise to the adoption agency.

"As soon as we came into the room, we had to say if we were going to accept him," Melissa said.

The answer was obvious to the DeLlanoses, but not to Timothy. The little boy had seen parents come and go over the years, and orphanage officials weren't allowed to explain who Melissa and John were until they decided to accept him.

After a couple of visits, Timothy was calling Melissa "mommy."

"It was kind of funny, because when we went there to take him out, I had to give them my passport. It was like checking him out," Melissa said.

Melissa and John were allowed to visit Timothy from 9 a.m. to noon and from 4 to 6 p.m. daily, and quickly fell into a routine.

"We kind of compared it to the movie 'Groundhog Day.' You know it's going to be the same, every day," Melissa said.

Melissa and John had to wait more than two weeks until they officially became Timothy's parents, and their temporary home was a seedy motel room.

"It wasn't nice. It was kind of like a pay-by-the-hour establishment. The walls were very thin," Melissa said. "Over there, there is no such thing as a non-smoking room. They smoke everywhere. That was uncomfortable."

Everything they needed was within walking distance, though they constantly had to buy water at the grocery store because the water in town was not potable. They often ate at a food court McDonald's that had employees with limited English capabilities and cooked meals at the motel.

"They don't have any preservatives, so everything you make is from scratch. If you want spaghetti, you're starting with tomatoes," Melissa said.

John used his iPod as a limited translator and currency convertor, and a high-speed Internet connection allowed both of them to talk to their children through the Internet phone service Skype.

"It's a Third World(-like) country, but there are pockets of technology," John said.

Surprisingly, the culture shock wasn't as big as they thought it would be. The lack of a public intoxication law meant there was plenty of drinking on the streets, but there also was a Sam's Club superstore. The weather was comparable to Iowa, though the reactions they saw to it certainly weren't.

"As soon as the temperature gets below 70, they are bundled up like snowmen," Melissa said.

After John and Melissa appeared in court to adopt Timothy, John had to rush home to take care of family business. Melissa spent her last couple of weeks in an apartment with another American couple adopting from the orphanage.

After a 10-day waiting period, it was time for Melissa to bring Timothy home, but there was one problem: Melissa didn't have the necessary paperwork to get a visa for Timothy.

"John should have gone to the embassy before he left, but because of complications and how late court was, he had to leave and come straight home," Melissa said. "They told him he could sign the papers here (in Iowa), and then overnight to me. We had three weeks until were supposed to need the papers, and he sent them delivery express."

But the visa paperwork never came. John scanned it and e-mailed it to his wife, but officials at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev told her she had to have the original copy. Melissa and Timothy were scheduled to fly out that Saturday morning, and it was Thursday. Without the paperwork, they couldn't go home.

Melissa managed to compose herself inside the embassy, but her emotions got the best of her when she left.

"When I went outside, I just lost it, because we had been through all of this, and they're telling me that I can't come home," she said.

No outside electronic devices are allowed inside the embassy, so when Melissa's cell phone was returned, she discovered the orphanage facilitator had been trying to call her with good news.

"The paperwork arrived that morning," Melissa said. "We were sweating bullets."

An exhausted Melissa DeLlanos and her new son arrived home Nov. 20. It didn't take long for the rest of the children to accept Timothy as one of their own, and the new family shared a quiet Thanksgiving dinner just a few days later.

Timothy doesn't speak yet, but Melissa believes he'll pick up English easily due to his age.

"I don't see why he couldn't start kindergarten next year," she said.

The $26,000 the DeLlanos family used to retrieve Timothy didn't come from their family budget, but the trip had a negative impact on Melissa's day care business. Though her mother took over during her absence, her mother wasn't able to legally watch over all the children. Many of the children were moved to different day cares by their parents.

"I was hoping things would be back to normal, but losing families has made it financially difficult," Melissa said.

But now, most of John and Melissa's focus is on little Timothy. They discover new things about him every day. He hates meat, loves breads and anything with carbohydrates, and has fallen in love with McDonald's chicken nuggets.

"Some days he will eat one thing, and then he never wants to eat it again," Melissa said.

There seems to be no limit to Timothy's energy, though it often takes the form of screaming and throwing things across the room. It's a problem Melissa and John already have started working on.

Timothy knows the meaning of "no" and "stop."

"He's still nonverbal, but I know he understands what we're talking about," Melissa said.

One thing Timothy won't have to worry about is self-sufficiency. He's not only potty trained, but he also knows how to brush his own teeth. Timothy even dresses himself.

"As little as he is, you want to baby him," Melissa said.

Timothy's new parents kept his first Christmas fairly simple. He didn't even have to leave his new home.

"Everyone comes here. I know grandma will be here early, and for him, I kept it simple. I got him a few learning toys. He loves anything musical or noisy," Melissa said. "I don't know if he understands the excitement of going to bed on Christmas eve."

But if he didn't know, he does now. Timothy is an American. And he's about to embark on the biggest journey of his short life.

"It's just awesome that he's here," Melissa said. "Starting from seeing his face on the Internet to tucking him at night, it's been a long journey. And hard. But the reward is unbelievable."

Source: AP