Just on the other side of the Louisa line from Keswick in Dogwood Lake Estates lives a most amazing couple. I invite you as you read this article to wonder along with me what kind of world this would be if the Johnsons were just a typical American family.
On a gray morning last week, I had the privilege to meet with Erin Johnson and her seven children. You read that right. Erin, who might be a year or two past thirty, along with her husband, Philip are the proud parents of seven children. How in the world can that happen?
Two border collies and a gaggle of ducks and chickens milled about the yard but nary a child. A stray toy or two and a safety gate at the bottom of the stairs indicated the possibility of children. I stood in the drive trying to figure out the primary entrance when a handsome lad materialized on the deck. Greeting me at the top of the stairs, he fixed his soft hazel eyes on mine and said hello, shook my hand introducing himself as Eli (11.25 yrs.) and lead me into the house.
I stepped into the kitchen to find Erin fixing pizza while son Wyatt (9) made coleslaw. The two eldest boys, Denis (15) and Noah (about to be 13) worked in the corner of the sitting room. Eli circled me before introducing me to his baby sister Ella (2) who played on the floor near the pantry closet and his older sister Mariah (11.12 yrs.) when she walked into the room. It must have been the delicious smell of the pizza coming from the oven that beckoned the rest. I heard no call to gather. Each child greeted me before sitting with the patience of saints to watch as Dennis the eldest attempted to remove the pizza stuck to the bottom of the pan. No one offered up a better solution or elbowed his or her way in with a let me do it attitude. I had the sense of having walked into the inside of a clock.
While the children ate Erin and I sat on the sofa with our backs to the diners. I thought the sounds of seven children enjoying lunch would overwhelm the recording of our conversation. Erin’s soft voice came through cystal clear, as did an occasional scrap of a chair leg. The quiet conversations didn’t even register as background hum. When the meal concluded, and the table cleared all the children disappeared downstairs leaving us to speak uninterrupted for another forty-five minutes. Their mother assured me that they were being really good.
Upon becoming pregnant, she resigned from her job as an assistant to the Webmaster at Blue Ridge Mountain Sports to take care of Wesley (11.5) and then two years later Wyatt. When Wyatt was around 18 months old, friends adopted a child with a cleft palate from China. Philip and Erin went through the process of adoption with their friends and realized when the child arrived that they too wanted to adopt a child with special needs. Their age ruled out a lot of potential countries. Thirty to thirty-five is the magical age for adoption in most. Expenses also help narrow their search. The Ukraine was more affordable than the others.
The intrepid parents took out a loan from their 401-K to pay the expenses associated with Mariah’s adoption figuring that at their young age they could pay it back. What they couldn’t borrow, Erin eked out of the food budget scrimping and saving a little at a time to pay the fees associated with the adoption. Despite the daunting distance, with all the cash strapped to their bodies, the young couple boarded their maiden flight more than a little apprehensive.
Erin’s eye-opening research showed her the abysmal treatment of children with special needs in Eastern Europe and galvanized the couple’s desire to adopt. Because of the stigma associated with being born with a disability such as Down’s syndrome or cerebral palsy, children so afflicted are put in an orphanage and when older transferred to a mental institution.
Even though the social worker on their case had a constant question, “with no experience with special needs did they want to go forward?” The Johnsons’ resolve remained unshaken. With the paperwork finished, they embarked on a blind adoption–no child had been identified. As they talked with the director of orphanages the European date on Mariah’s file caught Erin’s attention because it was her son Wyatt’s birth date. The director noticed her interest and immediately asked if she wished to see the child. Not giving Erin much time to do anything but hem and haw, the woman made a call to the orphanage and got all Mariah’s information. She read the pertinent facts to them describing the child as being smart, very talkative and liked dressing up in pretty dresses. Suffering from cerebral palsy, she couldn’t walk or sit up, but she could crawl fast. With little time to take it all in the director asked if they want to see the child. After a harrowing overnight train ride, they arrived at the orphanage bleary-eyed and exhausted to meet Katya, the four-year-old child who became their daughter Mariah.
It took two years to get Mariah stable. The stabilization process included: clinic visits, therapies, obtaining a walker, braces for her legs and the family cocooned for eighteen months to ensure a secure bond. In describing this time Erin laughs and says, “It was the hardest most isolating thing I have ever done. We asked ourselves every night if we had made a mistake. But then we started thinking about all the kids that we left behind.”
Knowing they couldn’t adopt again because it was so hard but they wanted to do something to help those children. A friend sent Erin a link for an orphan-hosting program. The kids got to come over for the summer and live with families for a couple of weeks. Besides getting dental and medical care, the children could experience a world outside of the orphanages and can take part in family life before they went back. To Erin this was a perfect solution, “I can do hard as long as I know there is an end date.” They signed up to host a little girl, paid all the fees to find out later that the girl couldn’t come. Given the option of waiting until Christmas for her paperwork to sort out with no more girls in the age range selected rather than wait Erin decided to host a boy–Noah.
She and her son Wesley flew to JFK to pick this seven-year-old up. Noah started sniffling and crying after he left his host group on his way to Virginia. For his stay, he was so bad, just plain naughty, spitting on walls and being so destructive that Erin couldn’t wait to send him home. Even though she understood why Noah was behaving as he was, dealing with the child was exhausting. She found herself counting down the days he had left. At JFK to join his host group, she saw him standing alone looking so little and vulnerable, she couldn’t wait to get him in back for Christmas.
When she inquired about Noah coming again in December, she was informed that he had three brothers at the orphanage. Husband, Philip, the more concerned with finances of the group, called the hosting organization and paid for Noah and his older brother Denis to visit during the holidays. Then he called his wife to tell her what he had done. When she asked him about the expense, he laughed and said, “That’s what credit cards are for.”
By this time the couple had started thinking about bringing Noah and siblings into the family. The Johnsons wanted to meet the elder brother feeling he should have a choice because of his age. Brother Denis’s nature was quieter than his younger sibling and Noah appeared much calmer on the second visit. The boys meshed with the family so much so that when it came time for them to go back, it was excruciating for all of them. Before they left the boys asked if Erin and Phillip would comeback for them.
Erin threw herself into finding another family for the boys knowing that she and Phillip didn’t have the resources to adopt all four of the boys. That was until as she puts it, “it hit us upside the head that we were the family.” In debt at the time from hosting the boys three times and no money, they couldn’t pay for the adoption, so they had to fundraise. Like everything Erin does she made it look easy. In seven months they raised $33,000 through AdoptTogether. The ease and timing reinforced her conviction that those boys “were supposed to be mine.” Before the adoption of the four children took place, the youngest brother went to another family.
When asked if she dealt with anger issues a lot she laughed and asked “mine or theirs?” Noah struggled while they were all in the Ukraine for the adoption. Torn because he wanted to be adopted but also he was leaving everything he knew. Even so, compared to the adjustment the family had with Mariah, the three boys settled in with ease. Not that there weren’t issues, none spoke English, and upon enrolling in school, some severe learning disabilities were discovered.
A little over a year after the adoption took place, Erin became pregnant. Early on in the pregnancy she was diagnosed with placenta previa and ordered to bed. The boys rallied around and took care of her until the condition resolved itself. Erin had done her fair share of rally around on her children’s behalf especially in regards to their schooling. After a year of consent battling for her children’s rights, she gave up fighting the system and has opted to homeschool the whole brood.
This past summer a fellow host in the orphan hosting community contacted Erin to ask if she would take a particularly recalcitrant boy for the remainder of his time in the US. Lesser folk would beg off citing hands full, but not this family. After running it by the members it was decided that yes, they would take the child. Vitali (8) proved to be more than a handful—“feral” came to mind as she put it. He wanted to be good but like a two year old in an eight-year-old body he spent the day poking, throwing, breaking, touching—to see how it works. The five younger males in the family complained about the havoc the newcomer created amusing the parents who asked, “Don’t you remember doing the exact same thing when you first arrived?”
Proving again the size of her heart and her patience Erin said, “It was really good for them to get to be on the other side—to be part of the hosting family.” Serendipitously, Vitali came from the same orphanage as the other boys. The odds considering multiple orphanages in every city in the Ukraine and a different hosting organization of that happening are astronomical and by now we know, it didn’t escape this amazing mother’s attention.
The hosting orgainztion left the Johnson family with the impression that their guest he was going to be foster care, while the child thought his grandmother was coming for him. Recently older kids from the orphanage found Erin on FaceBook. For what ever reason Vitali was not in foster care and was available to come again at Christmas. Again despite all of the reasons to say no, the household will be hosting the little boy this holiday and Erin is once again mounting another fund raising campaign to make it happen. If you would like to donate go to: http://bit.ly/2xETbZI
From the looks of things, it’s hard to know who got the better end of this deal, four Ukraine orphans or a loving, open-hearted couple from Louisa. And then there’s Vitali. I, for one, am happy they found one another and grateful for the chance to spend a few moments in such a happy, loving household. If this were a story of an everyday American household can you imagine what a wonderful world this would be?