Lutheran Social Services of Illinois:
(847) 390-1446, www.LSSI.org
Easter Seals of DuPage and Fox Valley
(630) 620-4433, www.EasterSealsDFVR.org
Dave Thomas Foundation:
(800) ASK-DTFA (800-275-3832), www.davethomasfoundation.org
Adoptive Families of America:
(800) 372-3300, www.adoptivefam.org
North American Council on Adoptable
(800) 470-6665, www.nacac.org
Caroline O'Hara wrapped her tiny arms around her adoptive
mother, instantly locking eyes with the woman who rescued her three
"Do you want me to hold you?" asks Anne O'Hara, wiping a wayward
strand of hair from her 4-year-old's face.
Caroline smiled and said yes using sign language, one of about
400 signs she has mastered in her young and challenging life. Then
she cuddled up in O'Hara's bosom and beamed contentment.
"She loves to be held, and I'm meant to hold her," O'Hara
When O'Hara found Caroline in 2006, in a Chinese orphanage for
children with special needs, the baby girl weighed just 19 pounds,
showed few signs of liveliness and was on death's door.
"All I knew is that she had a cleft lip-palate, but I was drawn
to her sweet face and I just knew she was my daughter," says the
single mother from Clarendon Hills and vice president of human
resources at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.
Caroline was abandoned by her biological mother at the gates of
the crowded orphanage. There she wasn't held enough, which helps
explain her sensory integration problems and constant need for
hugs, cuddling and affection.
O'Hara spent about $25,000 to bring Caroline into her life, but
it's a drop in the bucket compared to Caroline's worth in her life,
"I couldn't imagine my life without her," O'Hara says as
Caroline hops off her lap and reaches for her mother's phone.
Caroline has obvious communication problems, but she's smart as
a whip and a recent MRI shows no neurological abnormalities. Her
first word was "mama," which tickled O'Hara, but it took her a
while to be physically able to say "mommy."
She attends the Early Childhood Education program through her
school district, followed by care and therapy at the Easter Seals
DuPage and Fox Valley Region.
"I have been profoundly touched by our experience at Easter
Seals," O'Hara says. "I haven't met one parent who would trade in
their situation for anything else."
Caroline is happiest when playing in something messy, like
shaving cream, but she also enjoys acting out scenes from her
favorite movies, "Elf," "Monster, Inc." and "Wall-E."
"Despite the communication issues, you can see her compassion,
joy for life, loving nature and sweetness," O'Hara insists. "She
has a lot to say and offer the world."
This is the credo behind O'Hara's adoption of Caroline, and also
for most adoptive parents of kids with special needs. For some,
it's a calling. For others, it's a mission. For O'Hara, it's the
focal point of her existence.
Many people have since asked her, "Do you know what you're
getting into?" She tells them she signed up to be Caroline's
mother, with all that comes with it, just like any parent.
"Parents need to be open to whatever comes along, and if they
feel in their heart they can take this journey, then they should,"
she says. "Not everyone can or wants to, so those of us who want to
have to reach out to the kids who need us."
However, O'Hara quickly points out, there are many challenges to
adopting a child with special needs and it's crucial to be
prepared, organized and supported by others. Insurance issues alone
can be a full-time job, let alone learning to navigate the local
educational system, where to apply for assistance and endless
For instance, O'Hara regularly deals with a dentist,
endocrinologist, neurologist, geneticist, dietitian, dermatologist,
speech language pathologist, occupational therapist, physical
therapist and a surgeon.
Two months after Caroline arrived here, she had cleft palate
surgery. She has since had five more surgeries for various problems
and another one is scheduled in July to re-repair her palate.
"I've had to learn to be an advocate for her. The central point
of her life is me and that can be very scary."
It can also be joyous, such as when Caroline first sipped
through a straw or switched her vowels from "Nemo" to "Mommy," or
learned how to sign "I love you."
"She has brought more into my life than I could ever bring into
hers," O'Hara says, looking into Caroline's eyes.
Is adoption for you?
Adopting a child with special needs is a life-changing
experience, filled with daily challenges, frustrating obstacles and
joyous surprises, parents and advocates say.
"It's harder to find parents for special needs children, but
most children waiting for adoption have some sort of special need,"
says Rita Soronen, executive director of the nonprofit Dave Thomas
Foundation for Adoption.
Today, there are roughly 130,000 U.S. children in foster care
and about 20 percent of them are waiting to be adopted. In the
Chicago area, there are 16,000 waiting children, many of them with
Although today's dire economy is a factor in the number of
adoptions, experts such as Soronen say there are many support
mechanisms in place to aid potential parents.
"You need to learn, learn, learn as much as possible before
getting into it," Soronen says. "But once you do, jump into it with
your eyes-and your heart-wide open. It's a true leap of faith."
Questions to ask yourself before adopting
If you are considering adoption of a child with special needs,
here are a few questions to first ask yourself, your spouse and
• Do I have the physical, mental and financial resources to
• Do I have the support I need from my family, friends and
• Exactly which disabilities am I prepared to handle on a
• Have I done my homework about insurance issues, medical
problems and local support agencies?
Jerry Davich is a freelance writer and Chicago area dad of
Jerry Davich is a freelance writer and father of two living in the Chicago area.
See more of Jerry's stories here.
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