In parenting, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence. Sure, there are those picture-perfect families who seem to have it all together, but there are also families who have very real struggles, those whose children have health problems or special needs, whose everyday lives practically beg us to say, “I could never do that.”
There’s one type of family that gets that response more often than most: Families who have a child with special needs who then decide to adopt another child with special needs. To most of us, it seems heroic, superhuman, even. But to them, it’s just what they were supposed to do.
“We’re not saints,” says Josh Burick, who has two sons with Down syndrome. “We’re still going about parenting in the same way.”
But how do they really do it? We talked to three local families to find out how they’re changing the world, one child at a time.
Down syndrome doesn’t scare us
When her son Syrus was two months old, Corbett Burick saw a picture online that changed their family forever. That picture was of a 2-year-old boy in Ukraine, born with Down syndrome, just like Syrus.
“I remember … thinking, ‘If we lived in another country, we would have been counseled to give him up,’” Corbett says. “I was looking at [Syrus] laying there, and I just couldn’t imagine that being his story.”
At that point, it was hard for Corbett and her husband, Josh, to imagine being parents to one child with special needs, let alone two. But a couple of years later, the West Chicago couple saw a picture of the boy again and began to think that he was meant to be their child.
In Ukraine, as well as many other Eastern European countries, children with Down syndrome are transferred to adult mental institutions when they’re 4. The boy, Vlad, was approaching that crucial age, and the Buricks decided they needed to do something.
“It was like a hit-over-the-head moment, where I was like, ‘Oh, this is our son,’” Corbett says. “We felt like God was saying, ‘Here he is. Go get him.’”
The adoption came at the end of a dark period for the family, following a miscarriage, the deaths of Corbett’s parents and Syrus’ unexpected diagnosis of Down syndrome. But after a period of grieving over their son’s disabilities, they realized that they were well-suited to parenting a child with special needs.
“He became just the little sunny spot in our lives,” Corbett says. “It was like, ‘Oh, he has Down syndrome. Down syndrome doesn’t scare us.’ We were like, we can do this.”
They were soon surprised to find out that Corbett was pregnant, but decided to continue with the adoption and traveled to Ukraine in April 2011 to pick up their son, a “very tiny and very afraid” 4-year-old.
A month after arriving back in the United States, Corbett gave birth to their third son, Whitman.
“It’s a blur,” Josh says of those days shortly after their family grew from three members to five. “It was almost like having twins.”
The transition wasn’t easy. “Those first six months were the hardest part,” Corbett says. “We tried to keep him near us as much as possible so that he started to understand this is what it means to have a mom and dad.”
Vlad looked to Syrus for cues on where to go and what to do, eventually settling into a greater sense of security with his new family. He still struggles with self-esteem, confidence and trust.
“There’s this romanticized idea that you’re going to travel to Ukraine and adopt this child, and he’s going to come running to you with open arms and then life is a fairytale after that,” Corbett says. “But it’s challenging.”
It helps that the four children in the house — daughter Ani was born in 2013 — each have a “partner in crime,” though their parents agree that pretty much the only thing Syrus and Vlad have in common is their diagnosis. Plus, every day is an opportunity to model inclusion, as their typical children play side-by-side with the ones who have special needs.
But this idea that adopting Vlad made the Buricks some sort of superfamily? They would have to disagree (with a laugh).
“We’re a normal family with somewhat extraordinary circumstances,” Josh says.
In fact, Corbett thinks the real thing that makes their family unique is the little boy who first opened their eyes to the plight of children with Down syndrome around the world.
“Our story is that much richer because it’s woven in with his.”
The girl in the yellow pajamas
Deanna Sader never planned to be a mother. In fact, she says she didn’t have “a maternal bone in her body.” So it’s all the more surprising that Deanna and her husband Rob, of St. Charles, are parents to not one, but two, girls with Down syndrome.
Deanna was 36 when she found out she was expecting a baby. At 18 weeks gestation, however, she found the child she was carrying had Down syndrome.
“It was like the furthest thing I would have ever thought of,” Deanna says. “I was just shocked.”
Her astonishment and grief began to recede, however, when she met another mom of a child with Down syndrome, who smiled, gave her a big hug and said, “Congratulations! You’re having a baby!”
“It just hit me like a ton of bricks. I’m losing sight of the fact that I’m having a baby,” Deanna says. “I’ll never forget it because I just stopped crying instantly.”
Several months later, Ragen was born, an “amazing” little girl who immediately activated Deanna’s maternal side. She began to learn more about Down syndrome and came across Reece’s Rainbow, a website listing children with Down syndrome available for adoption in other countries. One day she saw a picture of an unsmiling little girl wearing yellow pajamas.
“It wasn’t necessarily a really cute picture,” Deanna says. “But for some reason it just imprinted in my head.”
A few months later, unable to get the girl in the yellow pajamas out of their thoughts, Deanna and Rob decided to adopt her. In less than a year, they traveled to Ukraine to pick up their daughter, Lucy.
The whole experience, they say, was a dream. Lucy immediately bonded with her mother, and though it took time for Ragen to adjust to another person in the house, the two girls are now best buddies.
Rob says he thinks parenting two children with special needs—Ragen also has a diagnosis of autism—is uniquely suited to him and his wife. In fact, he tells friends he wouldn’t know how to parent typical children, with their mood swings and complaining and angst.
“This is what we know, and it’s very comfortable for us to take care of children who have Down syndrome,” he says. “If you put us with a typical child right now, I’d probably pull my hair out.”
In fact, they’re so comfortable having kids with special needs that they started to adopt a third child from Ukraine, but ultimately decided the girl’s personality was not a good fit for their home.
“We believe in doors,” Rob says. “When you see a door, you test it, and if it opens up a little bit, you keep walking through. … And as soon as a door slams in your face, then you stop.”
They say their family is complete now, though they’re committed to helping other families expand through adoption.
“Not everybody’s meant to do it,” says the woman who never even planned to be a mother. “I’m surprised I am.”
Starting the chain
Cathie and Jim Thomson believe in the power of a good example. Perhaps that’s because their own adoption journey began after their good friends decided to adopt a child with Down syndrome from Eastern Europe.
The Thomsons’ youngest child, Ian, was diagnosed with Down syndrome at birth. Although they had a bit of familiarity with Down syndrome (and Cathie experienced what she calls “little signs” throughout her pregnancy), they still had a lot to learn in terms of parenting a child with special needs. They also started meeting other families of children with Down syndrome.
Although the couple, who live in Batavia, had discussed adopting someday, it never occurred to them to adopt a child with special needs—until they watched Deanna and Rob Sader adopt Lucy and began to think that it might be a good option for their family.
“I was like, ‘We know Down syndrome, and it’s not scary,’” Cathie says. “If we’re too scared to do it, why would we expect somebody else to not be scared to do it?”
So they decided to look beyond their fear and welcome another child into their family—Eliana, who was 2 when they adopted her from Bulgaria.
“I knew the moment I saw her. She was the one,” Cathie says.
They immediately fell in love with her big, blue eyes—and her silliness and independence once she started to warm up to them. And though there was an adjustment period—Ian, like most siblings, had a hard time learning to share—the two are pretty inseparable nowadays.
In fact, when they’re out and about, people often mistake Ian, 7, and Eliana, 4, for twins. But their parents hope that interest, and the subsequent chance to share their story of successful adoption, leads to more children being adopted out of Bulgaria and other places like it.
“We adopted one, and then we tell people what a wonderful experience it is, and then hopefully someone else will look at them and decide to do something themselves,” Jim says. “If you get that chain going, you can take a big problem worldwide, and you can solve it.”
But Cathie says she wants people to understand that they didn’t adopt Eliana out of purely altruistic motives. The little girl who loves Frozen, animal crackers and singing “Row, row, row your boat” brings so much joy to their lives.