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When it comes to raising internationally adopted children, the old adage rings true: It takes a village. For some adoptive families, the village is small and may be limited to family, friends, teachers, neighbors. For others, the village is extensive, and may include speech and language pathologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, medical specialists, nutritionists, audiologists, educational remediators, tutors, psychiatrists, psychologists, behavioralists, and perhaps more.

A fairly large village has helped raise both my children. A lengthy list of specialists has worked with my younger son, whom we adopted from Russia in 2001. Each person in our village has contributed immensely to my children's physical and mental well-being and helped them be as successful as they can be. However, the most important members of my village by far have been other adoptive parents.

Within months of adopting our son, he began to present unexpected challenges. I had no one to turn to. Surfing the Internet late at night, I came across an organization called Families for Russian and Ukrainian Adoption (FRUA), www.frua.org. I paid a small fee to join and hoped to find the connectedness I sought.

At first, my participation in FRUA was limited to receiving the quarterly membership newsletter. Then, I began submitting articles and doing writing assignments for the newsletter. Eventually, I joined FRUA's national board of directors as the newsletter editor. Four years later, I became the organization's national chairperson.

Over the past 7 years, my connection with FRUA has made all the difference in the world. I am connected to thousands of parents who formed their families through adoption. I go to picnics at which almost every child is adopted; the kids play while the parents share adoption stories and resource information. I attend annual conferences at which I meet adoptive parents and we share experiences to support each other. Most importantly, I have made lifelong friends to whom I can turn when I need help, support, advice, a word of encouragement, or just a hug.

When I consider my village and the role FRUA has played, I am compelled to recommend that all adoptive parents connect to other adoptive parents. As you build your family and, hence, your village, be sure you include other adoptive parents. They can make all the difference in helping to raise your children to be happy, healthy, successful adults. They can keep you sane during the tough times, celebrate the good times, and provide lifelong support for you and your child. Hope, help, and community - it's what I got from FRUA.
 
Playing in the pool is a beautiful child. Lush, long lashes frame inquisitive hazel eyes, fine brown hair curls slightly above his ears, and squeals of delight burst from his full lips. To a casual observer, he looks like any other perfectly normal ten-year old. But he's not.

Meet my son Connor. Adopted in 2001 from Moscow, Russia, Connor arrived in our family grossly malnourished and dehydrated. Like most orphanage-reared children, he suffered from developmental delays. But he seemed to present no problems that a nutritious diet, lots of stimulation, and constant love and affection couldn't resolve.

Like most adoptive parents, we knew the risks inherent in adopting a child from a country where prenatal care was iffy, premature births were the norm, alcohol abuse was rampant, and orphanage diets were insufficient to meet children's nutritional needs. When we first met our son, we were shocked at his lethargy and lack of muscle tone. We were prepared for him to be malnourished, but the extent of his nutritional deficit and dehydration was horrifying. At 17 months, he weighed barely 17 pounds, and his skin was so dry it flaked off when touched. That first night back at the hotel, reality hit home. My husband and I had a long, difficult conversation about the very real possibility of serious developmental problems and future learning disabilities, and about the impact these might have on our marriage, our family, and our older son. With some trepidation, we proceeded with the adoption.

Once Connor came home, he blossomed. He gained 10 pounds in the first few months. A short time back on the bottle with fortified formula and his skin took on a healthy glow. Eating difficulties soon emerged, however. Connor was unable to manage foods that were not pureed; any texture at all caused him to gag and often vomit what he'd just eaten. We fed him jar baby food designed for infants new to solids. Slowly, slowly, we increased the texture – feeding Connor a jar of food with any lumps could take over an hour. When we mentioned this apparent eating disorder to our pediatrician, he suggested we withhold food in an effort to force him to eat lumpy food. We never went to that pediatrician again! I could see Connor had trouble moving food around his mouth with his tongue and I knew in my heart there was more to this situation. 

Although his physical development was astounding, Connor's language skills did not develop apace. He quickly learned to say 'ma,' but no other sounds nor distinguishable words were spoken. Because we lived overseas in the Middle East, where special needs services are nearly non-existent, there were no specialists to evaluate him. And all my friends had a story about child who hadn't uttered a word until some late age and then starting speaking in sentences. "Relax," people told me, "He'll speak when he's ready." I felt sure they were wrong, but there was no one to offer an objective evaluation and wishful thinking exerted a strong pull. I hoped he would just start talking as so many people suggested he would.

We returned to the States and Connor underwent a battery of tests to evaluate his speech delay. He was diagnosed with childhood apraxia of speech, which is a neurological impairment affecting oral-motor function, resulting in impaired speech development. It took more than a year of fits and starts to get Connor into intensive speech therapy. Eventually, I took on the role of primary speech therapist, which was exceptionally challenging. Later, I taught myself and Connor sign language so he could express himself rather than rely on grunting and pointing. Then came the enormous temper tantrums when Connor couldn't get me to understand something. Once, it took me 2 hours and buckets of tears – mine and his – to figure out that he wanted a piece of chewing gum! Even with intensive therapy, however, there was no certainty that Connor would ever speak normally, or even be able to say his own name.

As Connor's speech slowly improved, it became apparent that he had significant cognitive challenges, as well. He was eventually diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) and pervasive development disorder (PDD). He is profoundly dyslexic and struggles to read at the kindergarten level, even though he's a fourth grader with five years of intensive reading support under his belt. He has real difficulty with learning and comprehension. Even with extensive special education support at school, he may never read beyond the early elementary level. 

For a child with so much going against him from birth, Connor has made remarkable progress. While some sounds and letter combinations are still difficult, Connor never stops talking! If you listen carefully, you can tell his speech is impaired. But years of speech therapy have paid off – he sasses his mother, fights with his brother, and orders his own Happy Meal at McDonald's. Despite its inherent difficulty, school is a haven for Connor. He loves his teachers, enjoys the classroom, and is surrounded by adults and children who are kind and inclusive. Many parents of special needs children would kill to have the school support my family has!

Connor's amazing progress was not without its challenges and heartaches. Accepting that our son is disabled was a difficult emotional hurdle, especially absent physical clues to his impairment. In the early years, tension between my husband and me over sharing responsibility for Connor's at-home therapy put a severe strain on my marriage. Helping my older son understand and accept Connor's limitations remains a daily challenge. And the fear that my parenting skills were insufficient to meet Connor's needs keeps me awake in the dead of night more times that I care to admit.

Despite it all, I have no second thoughts about Connor or international adoption. I have learned that intellectually accepting risks, as one does at the beginning of the adoption process, is different from emotionally accepting them. That acceptance comes with time and love. Every adoption, like every pregnancy and birth, has risks and we accept and love our children as they come, warts and all. Despite our struggles, my family made it through those dark early years. And now, my beautiful son can splash in the pool without my having to worry as much as I used to. Will his cognitive challenges continue to thwart his educational achievement? Of course. Will he be able to live an independent and productive life? I frankly don't know. For Connor's future, I strive for the best and plan for the worse. And in the meantime, I will delight in each accomplishment, cry over each set-back, and love my child beyond measure.
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