Early Passion For Disabilities
“When I was a little girl, I loved everything about dolls. Every birthday, every Christmas, and every special event was a good one if it meant receiving a new doll. In my little girl mind, each of these dolls was an orphan that desperately needed a home, and I was the very lucky one to be able to provide that!
Looking back on that season, I now smile because of one little detail: nearly every doll I received – though new – was not perfect. I have no idea how this happened.
One doll developed spots all over her skin (the measles, I reasoned). Another doll had a crooked leg (Cerebral palsy). No problem. One came with green-tinged skin (liver failure). One actually lost all her hair (from Chemo, I assumed). These things made me love them even more.
Little did I know that all these things were creating a space in my heart for something I could never have planned. For someone I wouldn’t meet until 30 years later.
Deciding To Adopt
Fast forward to September 2016. My husband Rob and I had been married for fourteen years, and we had four beautiful healthy children. He was employed as the pastor of our wonderful little church, and I was thoroughly enjoying homeschooling three of the kids.
During this season, I picked up a book from the thrift store called ‘Anything’ by Jennie Allen, not knowing that reading it would change everything about life as I knew it.
After reading it, I was ready for whatever life had for me next; I’d say yes to anything.
To my surprise, the answer to my prayers came with two dreams in the night. In one dream, Rob and I were leading our church and doing our work when suddenly I realized I had a tiny child with special needs riding on my back. He or she was so light I hadn’t realized they were there.
In the second dream, Rob and I were in a quiet house, full of peace, and we were doing pages upon pages of paperwork. It wasn’t hard, it was fun.
The following month Rob and I were at a leadership conference when we found ourselves on exactly the same page. Something was up; God was calling us to adopt.
As soon as Rob and I made the decision to start walking this out, we both knew deep in our hearts that we were being called to adopt a child with Down Syndrome. Since I had nannied a girl with Down Syndrome in 2001, my heart had been forever changed.
Since then I had been following a website called reecesrainbow.org, a website that advocates for kids with diverse needs in orphanages around the world, but primarily children with Down Syndrome.
I didn’t know if adoption was ever going to be a part of our lives or if Rob would ever feel the same way as me, but I was gripped by the beautiful faces of these children that may never have someone to call ‘mom’ or ‘dad’, in countries their worth is not acknowledged.
When we sat down to talk with our children (ages 10, 8, 6, and 4 at the time) about what we felt God was asking us to do, they were all on board and so excited. We realized in awe that God had equipped each of them with giftings and inclinations that would enrich our new family member in ways we couldn’t have made up on our own.
Our oldest, Ellie, was a teacher by nature. Josh had a natural gentleness, energy, and love for toddlers. Micah was an adventurous, playful soul who saw no differences in any child. Gloria, a little nurse, was enthralled with anything medical and happy to defer attention to anyone else.
In January 2017, we began the process of getting our home study done. My grandparents had given us a small inheritance a few years previously. We used that money as our springboard into this process, not at all knowing how we would end up having the $35,000 needed to complete this journey.
But we were full of faith. All that paperwork I had dreamt of began to happen in reality and it was, indeed, peaceful and even a little fun!
The home study included several visits with a social worker to ensure our home was a safe and happy place for a little one. Before one visit Rob and I had a small disagreement, and the social worker showed up at the door before we could work it out.
One of her first questions to me was, ‘When is the last time you were angry?’ HA! I laughed so hard as I told her, ‘About twenty minutes ago!?’ Thankfully they are not looking for perfection, but honesty. We passed the test!
There were many days during this process when it would suddenly hit me what God had called us to, and I’d begin to cry. It didn’t matter where I was – walking, driving, shopping, at church, at home – it was as though an unspeakable awe would overtake me.
Some days the adoption process felt so holy that I could hardly breathe.
In September 2017, the waiting began to get harder as our dossier was sent to Bulgaria for approval and the wait to be matched with a child began! We had no idea what to expect.
While we had declared we were open to a child of many diverse needs (particularly those that come along with the territory of Down Syndrome), that didn’t mean the wait would be short. We had no idea how scary or complicated our child’s diagnosis would be at the end of the wait.
The longing in our hearts grew stronger and stronger as we realized that any day we could get that life-changing phone call!
Getting The Call
On January 3, 2018, our oldest daughter Ellie had been spending some time alone in our homeschool room when suddenly she came out and said, ‘I don’t know why but suddenly the word LAUGHTER just keeps coming into my mind over and over again.’
The very next day we got our phone call!!! And oh how we laughed, cried, and danced! We were told by our Bulgarian agency in Ontario that we had been matched to a child but needed to wait until Manitoba processed the referral.
About 24 hours later (which felt like FIVE YEARS), our next phone call came. WE HAD A SON!
We were told that little Petar was two and a half, 17 lbs, and in an orphanage in the city of Burgas, Bulgaria. An amazing little detail that we could never make up? His name was the same as my Grandpa’s (the one who gave us the inheritance). His birthday was the same as my Grandma’s (his wife).
We received just one photo of a very sad-looking little boy and some fairly vague information that did very little to feed my hungry heart. I stared at that photo, fell in love with that photo, and started to get ready. We were going to meet our little guy in just TWO WEEKS!
Meeting Our Son With Down Syndrome
Two weeks later, we headed into the Winnipeg airport with massive smiles glued to our faces. There wasn’t an ounce of fear in my heart about what was to come. I knew God had picked exactly the little person that we needed, and who needed us.
As we walked up to the flight desk the attendant looked at us and said, ‘You guys are RADIATING JOY!’ We laughed and told her why.
Her whole countenance lifted as she shared that she had a forty-year-old sister with Down Syndrome whom she loved dearly! As we went through security the guard looked up at my goofy smiling face and said, ‘You’re excited about something.’
So I told him, and he looked surprised as he replied, ‘I had a dream this week that I adopted 13 children!’ From start to finish our trip to Bulgaria was full of ‘random’ run-ins that felt like God was laughing and singing over us, just affirming again and again that we were being led by him.
I’ve never felt so safe and covered, all while doing one of the riskiest things of my life.
We had become acquainted with many people who had gone before us on this journey via Facebook and Instagram, and we were well aware of what we could face when we got there.
Although it’s beginning to change, people with special needs have generally not been valued or cared for in Bulgaria. Some of the orphanages have been known to sedate, underfeed, and neglect babies that have disabilities.
These children come away with massive trauma and many medical and emotional issues that could have been avoided. We were bracing ourselves for this reality. ‘Hope for the best, expect the worst,’ was what we were told over and over.
On January 21, 2018, we were led into an office in a large, clean orphanage, our hearts pounding out of our chests. There were many people speaking Bulgarian and we had no idea what they were saying, so when someone suddenly walked into the room with what looked like a tiny little baby boy, I didn’t realize he was our son!
They quickly decided we should meet him in another room so we followed the lady down hallways and upstairs until she brought us to a small room full of toys. She plopped little ‘Petar’ down on the floor, and left. I don’t know if there are words to describe that moment.
It felt exactly as profound as every time I had first laid eyes on any of my biological babies. He was so much cuter than his picture. So tiny. So shy. I knew I would terrify him if I swooped in and squish hug him but it took all my strength not to.
We pulled out the toys we had brought to play with and after a little while, we began to see little bits of our son’s personality emerge. We quickly learned he loved music, lights, and throwing toys on the floor.
After about an hour we discovered he had the best, most contagious belly laugh in the world. Oh yes – what was that word Ellie heard? Laughter!
For five days we visited ‘Petar’ two times a day. Everything about him blew my expectations out of the water. He started saying ‘mama’ and ‘dada’ and ‘ball.’ He was brave and cuddly and smart. He had a sparkle in his eye. He was perfect.
We had tried calling ‘Petar’ by his given name during these visits and he gave us no visible response, so when we went to the Notary to sign more paperwork, we chose to give him a new name, for a new beginning.
We were so drawn to the name Timothy, from the Bible. Not only is Timothy described as an ‘adopted son’ to Paul, but he was also part of two cultures – both Greek and Jewish.
Our Timmy would now be a Bulgarian and a Canadian. We kept Timmy’s given name (Petar) as a middle name to remember where he had come from. To honor Rob’s biological dad and the fact that Timmy was now a Balfour, we gave him ‘David’ as a third name.
Timothy Petar David Balfour: adopted, belonging, important, loved.
The biggest surprise on this trip was that our son had not been placed in a horrific wing reserved for children with special needs. No, despite his diagnosis of Trisomy 21 he had been placed in a well-kept, cheerful-looking room with about 12 typically developing children who were approximately 15 months old, his size, and his developmental ‘age.’
On the last day of our visit, we were brought to a separate room for ‘art’ therapy, which he received once a week. The woman who did this clearly loved Timmy.
Through our translator, she explained that she had been trained in Italy to work with people who had Down Syndrome and she showed us all the things she did with him to prepare him to one day be part of a family – like rocking him on a rocking horse so he wouldn’t be afraid of the motion of a car.
I wept and wept through that visit as I realized how cared for my baby had been, and the love that had been placed on his little life.
And then just like that, we had to leave Timothy behind, until the Bulgarian courts decided he was ours and gave us our next travel dates. I managed to hold it together when I said goodbye, knowing he was being cared for in our absence.
I managed to hold it together when we met a little boy with Down Syndrome at the Bulgarian airport, but I totally and completely lost it when we landed on Canadian soil and my baby boy wasn’t in my arms.
I was determined to spend the next months of waiting working my tail off to get everything in order for the last part of this journey. During this time we felt so loved and supported by our families, church family, and the community of Steinbach.
The generosity of those around us was overwhelming. Every single penny of the adoption was covered.
Bringing Our Son Home
Four months later, on May 28th (our son Micah’s birthday), we found ourselves back in Bulgaria, welcoming Timothy into our arms forever. He didn’t remember us, and we could see that he was absolutely terrified.
But as we discovered on our first visit, Timmy was easy to win over, and within a couple of hours, we were seeing some of his characteristic eye-sparkles and hearing his oh-so-wonderful giggle.
We went through all the emotions as we discovered that he was an adorable thumb sucker as he slept, but that in order to get to sleep he needed to vigorously rock himself for comfort.
We were overjoyed to discover he was willing to try new foods and solids, and shocked and fearful as we saw his only response to pain was a strange, out-of-place laugh. By the time we brought him home, he’d received several large bruises and bumps because of his unsteady gate, resistance to pain, and a general not-knowing of what to do with ‘free space’ after having been confined to one small area his whole life.
There was much to learn for all of us!
I will never forget the moment we rode down the escalator with a sleeping Timmy in our arms, landing on Canadian soil, with our four other kiddos waiting at the bottom on the airport ‘hug rug’ just GIDDY with excitement over meeting their new brother.
I can honestly say that for them it was love at first sight. That love was deep and full at that moment, and it’s only grown deeper and fuller since then. It only took days for Timmy to realize that he was now living with his biggest fan club.
He had moments where he’d wake up afraid and lost, and times where we could see grief on his face…but he absolutely took to his role of being the center of the universe.
Life With Timothy
Within a few months, the little boy we brought home had changed before our very eyes. His legs no longer look emaciated. He began to cry appropriately when he got hurt, and absolutely expected a hug when he signed ‘owie.’
He stopped reaching for strangers (but learned to blow them kisses) and he knew who he belonged to. He became a whiz at sign language and learned to ask for ‘help’ when he needed it, ‘more’ food when he was hungry, and even to scowl and protest like a normal three-year-old when I didn’t let him have his way.
His imagination took off and he was often found carrying a pot of ‘soup’ around, pretending to eat from it. Instead of staring at me in fear and lying perfectly still at bedtime, he began to receive and enjoy cuddles. He has now been rocked to sleep in my arms for four glorious years.
In so many ways Timmy was exactly like that light little child on my back; he just FIT. He was ours, through and through.
The Gift Of Down Syndrome
The truth is, there were many days on this journey where that prayer felt like it cost a lot. Days where I was so exhausted that I started crying for no reason at the dinner table.
There were days when Timmy retreated back into his ‘shell’ and we needed to work to earn his trust again. There were days where he tested every boundary – sometimes out of curiosity, sometimes to see if he could push this lady called ‘Mama’ away.
There were days when I found myself wondering how on earth we decided to add a very busy toddler to the mix of our very busy lives. Parenting a child with a disability was vastly different from parenting our first four children. There were many days that were just plain HARD.
I would quickly be reminded that this was God’s brilliant idea, not mine.
I would be reminded of the fact that I not only received – but delighted in – dolls with disabilities.
I would be reminded of the sweet little girl I nannied that awakened my heart to this gift called Down Syndrome.
I would be reminded of how impossibly Timmy’s name and birthday were the same as my Grandparents’.
I would be reminded of how incredibly Timmy was spared a worse orphanage experience. I would be reminded that somehow, he looks like us, acts like us, and is goofy like us.
I would be reminded that Timmy is a ‘light’ load, that he just fits. I would be reminded that every day I am living a miracle. And I would be reminded to laugh.
And oh, there is laughter.
Today Timmy is seven years old and in second grade at school. He is so incredibly loved by his teachers and friends. He has the softest heart and the gentlest soul. The soundtrack of our lives is his toddler tunes, the music in our souls is his contagious laughter.
He has a special and unique connection with each sibling. He eats noodles every day and each time acts as though it’s the first and best time! He is smart, affectionate, and winsome.
It seems like favor just goes before him and paves the way for him to have the world at his fingertips. There isn’t a week that goes by without someone in our house having a moment of awe-filled gratitude for the gift that is Timmy.
We could have missed this, but we didn’t. Because we said yes to anything.”
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