When you get a baker's dozen you get thirteen. You get twelve plus a bonus. A surprise bonus. Most people think of doughnuts and bagels when they think of a baker's dozen, but our baker's dozen is children, and our lucky 13 is a little girl in China.
Lillian Pamela Xuan is two years old and living in China. She is paralyzed from the waist down after being born with severe spina bifida and hydrocephalus. We think she is perfect. The rest of the Henderson baker's dozen consists of our three biological sons, one daughter from Vietnam, one daughter from South Korea, one son from the United States, two daughters from the United States, three sons from Ethiopia and one daughter from Ethiopia. Our kids range in age from 2-20 years, and all of our adoptions besides our first, were either special needs or older children.
I know that thirteen kids sounds a little crazy, but it is a beautiful, happy, wonderful kind of crazy that works for us, and I would not change a thing. Yes, my hands are full, as are our house, our van, our hearts, and our lives (and as our fridge and check book often are not). Many look at us and see that we have "taken on" a lot, but we see it as we have been blessed with a lot. We are not rich, we do not have outside help, and there is not anything extra special about us. We just love being parents and have big hearts for adoption.
Josh and I never set out to have a large family. In fact from the time we completed our very first adoption we proclaimed emphatically that we were DONE. Now people just laugh when we suggest that we are "really done". With our first adoption, it was all about what we wanted. We had three kids and could not have any more, and we wanted another child. We had three sons and we wanted a daughter. We wanted a baby.
Then I traveled to Vietnam to pick up our beautiful baby, and things changed for me. I saw in the orphanage just how many kids there were without parents, or families, or hope. I saw babies. I saw toddlers. I saw older kids. I saw kids with obvious disabilities. I knew I was just seeing one orphanage in one city in one country. A piece of my heart broke.
Although we thought our family would be complete once our Maggie was home, I could not shake the thought of all of those children. Along with that, I loved being a mom and I felt it was something I was put on this earth to do. I knew we could parent more children, and we had a deep desire to do so. Vietnam had closed to adoptions so I started researching other options. My search brought the to Rainbowkids, and that is where I found our Amanda Mee Yeon, waiting in South Korea.
Amanda had quite a list of special needs. In fact, she was about to be deemed "unadoptable" because they had not been able to find a family for her. We had no experience at that point with special needs adoption, but we researched and we prayed. It wasn't that we ignored the list of medical concerns and conditions. We moved forward with our eyes wide open. But we saw the little girl behind all those big words and knew she was so much more than her diagnosis's. And we knew she needed a family, and we wanted to be it.
Today Amanda is a healthy, thriving 14 year-old who runs cross country and earns straight A's. She has checkups every few years with cardiology and is small for her age, but her special needs that seemed so intimidating years ago are a non-issue.
A year later a domestic newborn adoption brought us into the world of high special needs and I quickly became an expert on feeding tubes, oxygen, monitors, medications, advocating for my kids with doctors and therapists, etc. Marcus grew into a happy, healthy, typical preschooler and we had been able to balance his care and needs while still raising the rest of our kids. Special needs didn't seem like a scary thing any more at all.
When the idea of adoption touched our hearts again, we were drawn to Ethiopia, and specifically a 5-year-old little boy who would become our son, Benjamin. During our travel to adopt our son, we chose to deliver donations and medical supplies that had been donated to AHOPE, an orphanage for HIV+ children. It was while I was sitting on the floor of an orphanage in 2006, that a shy little girl came and sat down in my lap. I knew nothing about HIV at that point. I knew nothing about the adoption process for HIV+ children. But I knew she was our daughter. As i educated myself about parenting an HIV+ child and on how to get through the adoption process for an HIV+ child, I began advocating for other HIV+ children. Eventually I was hired by an agency and worked as the coordinator for adoptions for children with HIV and special needs. What was once unheard of now is quite common and hundreds of HIV+ children have been adopted from Ethiopia and other countries. My two HIV+ children are in excellent health and have normal life expectancies. They take medication twice a day and that is the only sign that they are any different than any of the other kids.
Our youngest son came to us at nine months old after his first adoptive family chose to disrupt his adoption due to not being prepared for a child with significant medical needs. Noah's prognosis was grim, and with epilepsy, brain damage, cerebral palsy, vision impairment and feeding disorder, we were given little hope of him making much developmental progress. We brought Noah into our family with the same love, hope, faith, and joy that we brought our other children home with. We were realistic about his challenges but still hopeful, and we dedicated ourselves to helping him reach whatever his full potential in this life is. All of my earlier experience with feeding tubes, monitors, medications, doctors, therapists, etc. came in very handy!
Noah is now six years old. He walks, he says quite a few words, and he understands almost everything. He goes to school for a few hours each day and has friends of all ages. He makes progress every day at his own pace. He plays and laughs and learns and loves. He can work an IPAD better than many adults. He has an awesome sense of humor. He is still tube fed and still has significant delays, but every day he amazes us and brings us so much joy.
After Noah we really thought our family was complete. Then our two oldest kids moved out. I started eyeing babies and feeling that longing and that empty space in my heart again. I had no idea where we would or could adopt from. I did a little bit of research here and there. Then one day I was on Rainbowkids and I saw our Lillian, and I just knew. Josh looked at her and he knew too.
Yes, we know there will be challenges bringing home a child that is paralyzed and incontinent, and yes, hydrocephalus is a little scary. But we know from experience that these kids are so much more than big medical terms and bleak diagnosis's. We know the joy, the happiness, the laughter,and the blessings that will come. And we know that the biggest special needs these kids have are the same that we all have - the need for love, the need for family, the need for home, and the need for hope.
Erin Henderson is a mom to 13, competitive marathoner, adoption advocate, and certified running coach who does it all with the love and support of her husband Josh. She lives in the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming after being born and raised in New York. Erin and Josh have adopted children from the United States, Vietnam, South Korea, and Ethiopia and are now bringing home a daughter from China.
Erin worked in adoption for five years as the coordinator of an HIV+ and special needs adoption program, and has been an advocate for adoption for many years. Her heart is very much with all orphans and children in need, but especially those with special needs. Erin is excited to be joining the RainbowKids team as the Special Needs Outreach Coordinator, working with both adoption specific and non-adoption advocacy groups for children with medical and developmental special needs.
When she is not changing diapers, cooking large amounts of food, doing laundry, braiding hair, helping with homework, or driving around kids, Erin can often be found running in the early hours of the morning, training for marathons. She blogs about her life and adventures at http://seemomrunfar.blogspot.com