Streetsboro — After a 10-month odyssey including two journeys to the Ukraine, Dr. Sam and Laura Lewis welcomed a new member to their family in October — an 8-year-old girl named Marina.
“When people say she’s lucky, we say the same thing because we’re lucky to have her in our family,” Laura said.
“It’s like we took our niece into our house to live,” Sam said. “It’s really been a smooth transition. It’s been pretty doggone good.”
They are eager to spend their first Thanksgiving with their new child.
“I’ve been explaining Thanksgiving to her,” Laura said.
“It’s a really exciting time for us,” Sam agreed.
The Lewis family already had five children, ranging in age from 3 to 15.
However, last December, Laura came across Reece’s Rainbow, an adoption advocacy group, on the Internet.
“I’ve always had an interest in adoption, but I never really pursued it,” Laura said. “We weren’t seriously thinking about it, but when I found this website, it planted a seed.
“I learned about the plight of kids with disabilities in Eastern Europe,” she said. “Most of those kids are institutionalized from the beginning. I started following some of the families’ blogs.”
Marina has cerebral palsy, which affects her ability to walk. The Lewis family knew about that in advance.
“I was trying to be realistic with our lives,” she said. “What can we handle? The countries in Eastern Europe don’t have the funding and the facilities in place in their culture [for developmentally delayed children]. The kids don’t get what they need. Some kids get moved to institutions when they’re 18.
“These kids are so vulnerable, and there’s no future for them,” she said. “Sam and I felt we had the ability to open up our home, and we could do it. Why not? Why wouldn’t we? Hopefully, we are following God’s plan for what He wants us to do.”
DECISIONS TO MAKE
Sam was on board with the decision to adopt a child.
“We already had five kids, so having another kid was no big deal,” he said. “And we already have one special needs child, so having another is no big deal, either.”
Their oldest child, Connor, 15, is cognitively and physically disabled.
“Connor is a blessing to our family,” Laura said. “He gives us opportunities to grow and do things we never would have done. This [adoption] is just another chance to do the same kind of thing.”
Laura said because Connor is non-verbal, Sam’s request with the adoption was for a verbal child, which Marina is.
“She is very bright,” Laura said. “She speaks Russian, and she is picking up English real fast.”
Their other four children are Rafe, 12; Gabrielle, 8 (four months older than Marina); Michael, 6; and Gianna, 3.
All six Lewis children are home-schooled at the “Lewis Family Academy,” Laura said.
As they became intrigued by the possibility of an adoption, Laura said she and Sam were able to view pictures of children along with some information about them.
“We identified the child ahead of time,” she said. “We didn’t pick the country first. We picked the child first. But the referrals aren’t official until you’re in the country.”
Families must spend lengthy periods of time in the foreign country — sometimes up to six weeks — but it can be split into two parts.
For Sam, a Streetsboro chiropractor, the biggest hurdle was, “How do I leave my practice for three weeks?”
That problem was solved when three of his colleagues — Thad Bosman, Jennifer Gilliam and Jessica Eckman — volunteered to fill in for him.
Their five children stayed home with Laura’s mother, Terri Moore, a retired nurse; Sam’s mom, Mary Lewis; and Laura’s sister-in-law, Alicia Moore.
“We have a really strong support system at home,” Laura said. “We knew the kids were in really good hands.”
There were hurdles with the adoption.
“We knew there was a possibility that once we got to the Ukraine, Marina may not be available,” Laura said. “We prayed about this. You never know. It’s always a crap shoot.”
Laura talked to a family who had been to the Ukraine and who had met Marina, and she was even more convinced to go forward.
In early April, the process began.
“We weren’t sure how long the first trip would take. It turned out to be three weeks,” she said. “We went to the capital, Kiev, and got an official referral. Then we took a 10-hour overnight train ride to the region where she was and met her. She lived at an orphanage for children.”
Laura and Sam spent much of the rest of the time on their first trip waiting for a court date.
“We did a lot of walking,” Sam said. “We would go to the orphanage every day during the week. We’d walk to the open air market. When we got home in the late afternoon, we’d clean up and catch our breath and walk to a restaurant to eat dinner.”
Laura said because of the red tape in the Ukraine, there was a time when she was not sure if the adoption would go through.
“There was a point when we didn’t know if we could come home with her,” she said.
“There were so many documents that had to be signed before we could move on to the next step,” Sam said.
After the court date, there was a mandatory 10-day waiting period. During that time, Laura and Sam took a train back to Kiev and flew home the next day.
After a week, with the adoption in place, Laura flew back to the Ukraine with a friend, Pam Danner, to pick up Marina, while Sam returned to work. The second trip lasted 1 1/2 weeks.
“In the Ukraine, the process was fast,” Laura said. “The whole thing took us about six months. You don’t have to wait 1 1/2 or two years [like with some adoption agencies].”
Marina arrived at her new home on Oct. 3.
Sam said the language barrier has not been a big deal.
“I knew kids pick up languages fast, but she has been amazing,” Sam said.
“She started calling us ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa’ the first day, and she sees her brothers and sisters as her family,” said Laura.
“She is not walking independently yet, but we are hoping with physical therapy, she will be,” Laura said.
Sam said their son, Rafe, has been “extremely helpful.”
“If she needs to be carried, Rafe willingly carries her,” Sam said.
Rafe said he is glad to be able to help out.
“Usually, when you get a new sibling, it’s a baby, so it took a little adjusting to,” Rafe said. “But she has accepted us.”
Sam said, “As with our son, Connor, when you have a child with special needs, you learn to accept that child for what he or she is. I don’t think we’d have adopted a child with special needs if we didn’t have one already.”
Marina enjoys anything that a typical 8-year-old does including singing, coloring, swinging and playing with chalk along with riding an adaptive bicycle and hanging out with the family’s two Labrador retrievers — Daisy and Naoko, a service dog for Connor. On Halloween, Marina dressed up as a princess.
On Nov. 11, she was baptized at St. Joan of Arc Church.
“Marina is so loving and attached to all of us,” Laura said. “She is such a testament to the human spirit. She hasn’t had a very easy early life. For her to come through with such a good spirit is amazing.”