Friday, February 26, 2016

The Nightmarish Trip

BG2-2You’ve seen a glimpse of our three newest children. Yes…they are adorable. Yes…they are loads of fun. Yes…we are very blessed to be their parents. BUT…

You knew I would have to go there someday.

BUT…it’s not all peaches and cream.

While we didn’t become parents overnight, and between the two of us, we’ve been parenting children for over a decade, I can honestly say there was no amount of education and preparation we could have received to prepare us for the ten days we spent in Bulgaria for our “pick up trip”.

I have experienced many difficult things in life. I lost a spouse to a heartbreaking divorce and another one to suicide. My parents divorced when I was fourteen, and I lived through a very dysfunctional childhood. Even so…our “pick up trip” ranks in the top 3 of the hardest things I’ve ever had to endure. Seriously.

When we traveled to Bulgaria last July to actually meet our children for the first time, we had some “down time”, which was definitely needed at the end of each day…for us and them. It was a lot to take in and absorb, especially for their precious hearts. Their world was about to turn upside-down, and while they couldn’t fully grasp it at that time, they knew it was coming, and they’d witnessed their friends leaving the orphanage to go to their new homes. They fully welcomed being adopted and were thrilled to finally have a family of their very own. During trip one, we would spend the days together, but they would go back to their friends by dinnertime and would sleep in their own beds at night. We had the hotel room to go back to, but we could process the events of the day with each other and do a little sight-seeing on the side too.

Our November trip looked nothing like the one in July. We arrived after two days of travel and “took custody” of our children the very next day. They were excited and anxious, as we were. The four hour trip back to the capital of Sofia produced tired children ready to get out of the car and explore everything new around them…which was literally…everything! They had no social graces. Manners were non-existent. They knew nothing of personal space, and they laughed in the face of danger. They were very obedient whenever the translator/driver was around, but as soon as he offered his goodbyes, the “Mr. Hyde” children surfaced. Now, don’t get me wrong, we love our children to pieces and don’t regret becoming their mommy and daddy for one minute, however I want to be real about some of our experiences. It was all perfectly “normal”, but normal or not…it was grueling.

We found out rather quickly we had to stay close by the apartment we were housed in, because it was simply too hard to take them most places. We also learned right off the bat we were outnumbered. Yes…we’re adults and bigger than they are, but even so…we were outnumbered 3-2. If we had to do it over again, we would have had a third person with us to help balance things out.

Most of our meals were takeout style, in which Joel or I would venture out for food to bring back to the apartment to eat. If we did go out to eat with them, it was either to McDonald’s, a pizza place, or food from a street vendor. There were two occasions where we took them to a nice sit-down meal, because we were craving it, and we really wanted to make some fun memories with them too. It happened towards the end of the trip and resulted from a little behavior bribery (yes…true that).

Just a snippet of the things we experienced during the pickup trip:

  • One child picked up a piece of chewed up gum from underneath a table at McDonald’s and proceeded to chew it further. Blech!
  • A different child thought cigarette butts picked up on the street were mighty tasty. Even bigger BLECH!
  • A third child thought it would be okay to steal some items from the pizza place we ate at a couple times. This child quickly learned that wouldn’t be tolerated when we took them back to apologize to the owner and return the stolen goods.
  • After being told by zoo staff to not tap on the glass of the reptiles, one child decided to test that theory and continued banging the glass container as loud as possible until we ended up leaving the zoo out of fear of being kicked out.
  • One child thought it would be fun to run away from a certain parent in the park (all in an effort to make said parent begin a chase).
  • On our souvenir shopping day near the time we were to return home, we took a cab to a part of town we hadn’t yet ventured to before. We took turns shopping and watching the children, because we were still uneasy about the little thief in our presence. During my time with the kids outside, we were all supposed to be sitting on a bench quietly waiting on daddy. One child decided that didn’t seem like much fun and pushed a sibling off the bench onto the concrete below only to create a little more excitement. And it did…blood, sweat, and many tears!

Now after reading this,  you probably think we adopted a bunch of little hellions. At the time, we did too. Ha! However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. They really are sweet children who were testing us to the nth degree while we were still on their turf. They didn’t know us well enough to trust us yet. Their whole world had been completely turned upside-down, and while we knew what was coming was better, they had no way of knowing that just yet.

They’ve been home 3 months, and I can truthfully say they are drastically different children. Honestly, the change started the moment they stepped foot on US soil. They still have a lot to learn, as do we all, but they are doing it and working really hard at everything we’re teaching them. And, we praise God for allowing us to be their parents!

As an aside, you might be wondering how we even survived our pick-up trip. PRAYER. Lots of prayer! We sent out multiple requests from friends and other families who have walked similar paths. We know it was the prayer of those standing in the gap for us that allowed us to make it through those very difficult days!


Monday, February 22, 2016

Benjamin – The Charmer

If we’ve heard it once, we’ve heard it dozens of times, “What a little charmer!” This is in reference to the youngest of our Bulgarian adopted children – Benjamin. And…I would have to concur. I don’t know if it’s all the hugs and high-fives he likes to give or that endearing smile that lights up his face, but anybody who has spent event a smidgen of time with Benjamin will talk about his charm!

Much like his siblings, he was initially quiet and shy upon our first meeting last July, but it took very little time before he snuggled with his new mommy quite content to be held for as long as time would allow.


Similar to Katerina, Benjamin had to be taught how to be held. He wanted me to pick him up and carry him everywhere during that first time we spent together in Bulgaria. However, he would always keep his legs stiff where his knees wouldn’t be able to bend and naturally curl up around my waist. We worked on it, and over time, he has settled into a “normal hold”. It’s amazing how we so easily take for granted the simplest of things, because it’s what we’ve always known. But for an orphan…especially this little guy who entered the orphanage when he was only 1-month-old…that kind of “normal” doesn’t exist. The love that comes from a mommy and daddy and family simply isn’t known…until there actually is one!

While he might be the youngest of the three, Benjamin can certainly hold his own with his siblings. He’s very bossy and loves to give orders. Depending on who he’s trying to order around, he may or may not be successful. Most of the time, his older two siblings ignore his demands, although Katerina is typically the most compliant. Our foster son just tells him “no” if it’s not something he’s interested in. So, Benjamin is probably more like a “middle child” now and is having to learn that role in a different way than he might be accustomed.

Many orphans who have lived in institutional environments any length of time typically have physical habits indicative of that. For Josiah and Katerina, surprisingly, they got over these types of habits rather quickly. For Benjamin, it hasn’t happened quite as quickly. He still rocks himself (self-soothing) and will sometimes still “head-bang” against his pillow to go to sleep. He’s almost given up the head-banging, but the rocking still happens quite frequently, and we’ve learned from other adoptive families that could last a really long time (ex. some children still rock after being home 3 or more years). We just have to continue to hold him and love him, and pray he’ll feel soothed outside of having to do so for himself.

As for his name, I first suggested the name Benjamin to Joel, because he reminded me so much of another Benjamin I knew. Joel liked the name too, but we had to dig a little deeper for his middle name. Interestingly, we loved the name Levi, and it means “attached or pledged; joined”. We thought that was very fitting considering we have attached/pledged ourselves to Benjamin as his parents, and he has joined our family through adoption.

Some fun facts about Benjamin:

  • He LOVES to dance!
  • He has many faces and is very expression-filled!
  • He would prefer to listen to music over watching anything on TV.
  • He sleeps with a stuffed dog but is a little timid over real ones.
  • He is our pickiest eater of the three and is quick to say “Benjamin no like ________” even before trying something. Although, he has gotten much better at trying those foods he claims to not like and has (on occasion) changed his mind.
  • He shares the same birthday with his older sister, Anna.
  • He loves to help empty the dishwasher and truthfully anything else we’re willing to let him help with. He’ll frequently say, “Benjamin I got it” if it’s something he wants to do unassisted (i.e. sweep the floor, hold a door open).
  • Bath time is a favorite time for Benjamin!
  • While he loves being in a swimming pool, Benjamin and Josiah both have a healthy fear of it.
  • He still takes a nap each day and never gives us a fit about it.
  • Pizza and macaroni are his favorite foods. He calls pizza “peacha” (or at least that how it sounds).
  • Our granddaughter, Noelle, is one of his favorite friends. He adores her and can’t wait to play with her again.

Roasting marshmallows for the first time.


They may fight like cats and dogs, but they really do love each other.


Pulling off the junior GQ look after his first haircut in America!


Goofing off with Aunt Donna on Christmas Day!


Letting Mommy rock me to sleep.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Podcast – Adoption Update!

Thanks for the wonderful support on my children’s introduction posts this past week. Now that you’ve met Josiah and Katerina a little more deeply, stay tuned for one more on Benjamin. That post will be up next week.

Today, however, I’d love to share the podcast interview we participated in with the Surviving the Mire ministry team. We had the privilege of being interviewed last May before we ever had our children home and long before all the funds had come in. This is an “post-adoption” update. I would love for you to check it out! Our part of the podcast begins around the half-way mark, if you’re short on time. Otherwise, I’d encourage you to listen along to the whole thing for a few laughs to incorporate into your day as well!

Blessings on your weekend!

Leah and Joel Stirewalt – Adoption Update!

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Katerina – Pure Joy

The referral picture we received of Katerina only gave us a little hint of the constantly smiling little girl with an infectious laugh we’ve come to adore.


Like her brothers, when we first met our daughter in July of last year, she was a wee bit timid. However, in less than 10 minutes, she was begging her new daddy to pick her up and hold her. Happily, he was more than willing to take “Miss K” into his arms.

Interesting to note…with Katerina (and her younger brother too), she had to be “taught” how to be held. As strange as it sounds, she wouldn’t even bend her knees in order to wrap her legs around her daddy. She was as stiff as a plank of wood with legs straight down, a clear indicator of a lack of that intimate TLC from a parent. But if you could see her now…a totally different child!

As the middle sibling of the three, and the only girl, Katerina might appear to have a disadvantage, but this girl can hold her own with her brothers. While they fight like normal siblings, she is very protective of them and vice versa. She’s always the first to say “I love you” and offer hugs to her brothers. As for her little foster brother, she adores him and thinks of him as her very own baby doll. Anytime our little guy does something Katerina finds adorable, she’s say “Mama…look at dat…awww…” in her cute little big sissy voice.

When we chose her name…Katerina Abigail…we chose a popular name in her part of the world (Ekaterina) with a more western spelling. It was after we chose her name, we looked up the meaning…Pure! A broken little girl with a highly fragmented first few years of life, a name meaning of “pure” seemed to fit. I’ve always loved the name Abigail, and I suggested it to Joel. He loved it too. We then looked up the meaning to make sure it was acceptable as well…JOY! Our little Katerina Abigail = Pure Joy! And that she has been to us and to so many that cross her path!

Some fun facts about Katerina:

  • She has the best “please” and “thank you” manners out of all our little ones.
  • Music and dancing are two of her favorite things. Anytime a song comes on…Katerina starts to move and will show anybody in her line of sight.
  • She loves BIG! One of the most authentically caring and tender hearts I know.
  • While she never stops moving, she can play with blocks for hours – sorting and stacking.
  • She cries the least (and sometimes never) at the doctor’s office – even after getting immunizations.
  • She cries the most whenever she gets even the smallest of boo boos at home, especially if her brothers are involved.
  • She likes washing her own hair and is better at it than all of our other littles.
  • This girl LOVES her fruit – especially bananas!
  • She is a mini-mommy. Whether it’s her foster brother or her baby dolls, she is very caring and nurturing.
  • She is a daddy’s girl!
  • She loves to play with basketballs (any bouncing balls for that matter) and can be entertained for hours.
  • She is quite popular among her classmates – the little girls dote all over her and are very protective of her.

Soon after Katerina arrived home, we noticed her documented developmental delays appeared to be a little more profound. After several doctor appointments, our little girl is suspected of having Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. While disappointing to learn, we know God still has HUGE things planned for her life, and we thank Him for allowing us to be part of that plan. She will be having some significant testing done on March 31 to confirm the diagnosis. Praying friends – we welcome your prayers on behalf of our family in this regard especially. Please pray that if the diagnosis is confirmed…

  1. Katerina has a mild case (we already know it’s not severe) and is able to overcome many of her disabilities.
  2. We are able to find and put the proper supports in place to give her the fullest and most productive life possible.
  3. That God equips us to handle such a diagnosis and all that it might entail.

Thank you for your love and support as we navigate this amazing life as adoptive and foster parents of the little four in addition to our older five bio children! You are an encouragement and blessing to us!






Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Josiah – Our Little King

JTS1 When we received our referral, Josiah was noted as being the caretaker of his siblings. Having spent just under three years with his biological parents, the next four years of his young life required a forced maturity, so to speak.

Children in orphanages often resort to survival techniques to simply make it through the daily grind. For Josiah, he took that upon himself for his younger two siblings as well. While still very much a young child, to Katerina and Benjamin he became a parental figure, someone to look up to, a leader, and in many respects – someone to be revered.

In July 2015 – we made our first trip to Bulgaria to meet the three little ones for whom we had already committed to love and make our own. I’ll never forget the first glimpses of Josiah. He appeared in the play room, his arms around the shoulders of his siblings – in a protective manner. He had a “pleasant” look on his face, but I wouldn’t call it a smile, as he was a bit hesitant. While Katerina and Benjamin were much quicker to express delight in these people who would soon become their mommy and daddy, Josiah was old enough to know disappoint could still come.

Would these people follow through on their promise?

Would they really take us home to become part of their family?

Will they be like others we’ve seen come through these orphanage doors…”play nice” only to never return again?

He eventually opened up more during our first visit to meet him and his siblings, but it really took each of the visits that week to gain more confidence from our little king. It wasn’t until we arrived for our “pick up trip” in November that we saw a different version of Josiah. When all three of our children saw us walk through the door of their orphanage on November 12…they screamed with delight, and very soon sounds of “Mama…Tatko (Daddy)” filled the room. They came running up to us with arms open wide, ready for hugs. They covered our faces with kisses. And…right in the midst of the excitement was our little Josiah…as happy as you could imagine.

I need to take a moment here to explain briefly that Josiah was named, in part, after King Josiah of Judah in the Old Testament. He was one of the youngest kings on record, and took over the throne at the age of eight. Such responsibility for such a little guy, and yet he grew to be a very loved and godly king.

In much the same way, our Josiah held great responsibility at a very young age, not by choice…rather by default (similar to King Josiah). However, we are honored to now lift some of that off of his shoulders and allow him to be the little boy trapped inside the body of a young man. We long to see him develop peer relationships / friendships, to be able to love his siblings as an older brother and not as a parental figure and to not feel such responsibility for when his brother and sister make mistakes. It’s time for Josiah to finally live life as a child.

Some fun facts about Josiah:

  • He’ll try any food you put in front of him, and (for the most part) he’s not a very picky eater.
  • He was responsible for many kitchen prep items while in Bulgaria. His favorite? Cutting tomatoes.
  • He has a very loud laugh…more like a cackle.
  • He loves to tease and tries to pull fast ones over on you but is quick to reveal his secret…a great sense of humor.
  • He loves to wear “fancy” clothes (button-up shirts, khakis, etc.). They make him feel special.
  • He’s the only one of the three that likes watching TV or movies.
  • His favorite color is red.
  • He loves math and is really good at it.
  • He’s the mediator between his two younger siblings. We often catch him making them shake hands and apologize after an argument.
  • He speaks English now about 99% of the time…even with his siblings. He’s quick to correct his sister (“English please”), especially, when she reverts back to her native Bulgarian.
  • He loves to lead the mealtime prayer and makes sure we’re all holding hands and have our eyes closed.
  • He loves to help us with anything we might possibly need and thrives on praise (as they all do).
  • He adores his little foster brother, and the feeling is mutual. They became buddies from the beginning.
  • He has a very soft heart and while he rarely cries, when he does, it breaks us.

We can’t wait to see the life unfold God has called Josiah to, and we’re entrusting our little king completely to Him.