Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Team Stirewalt

They dubbed themselves “Team Stirewalt”. I was humbled, honored, and in complete awe that these three former strangers last month (now friends) would want to come alongside my crazy, grieving family and serve us as frequently and expediently as they have been.

“Team Stirewalt” was their way of saying, “We’re committed to your family. We’re part of your team!” I couldn’t stop the tears from pouring (that’s pretty common these days anyway). I think part of the reason for my emotion was what kept going through my head…

This is how it’s supposed to be.

We have the most beautiful example of this from the earliest Christian church body in the book of Acts:

All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need….They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. Acts 2:44-47

Now, I’ll be the first to admit…while this is how “the church” (not the physical building, but the group of people who follow Christ Jesus) should respond to the needs of each other…it’s so hard for me to accept. I know it is, in part, a pride thing, and I have had to repent of that, and God is teaching me how to be free from that sin.

I also believe the world in which we live now is an inward-thinking world much of the time. It’s easier to look within our own circles and focus on our own people rather than “get dirty” with those in pain, from ugly places, and (whoa) those who don’t believe in our Jesus!

But friends…let me tell you…it’s these very acts of serving each other that are being watched. It’s us “being the church” that gets noticed more than our Sunday morning worship in our “church clothes”. I have beautiful, lovely non-believing friends that are watching what you’re doing for me and my family and are in awe! I keep saying “…they are simply being the hands and feet of Jesus! He is here in spirit…these people are His flesh.” They are watching.

I’ve been praying Joel’s death would not be in vain. That we would not have to lose a husband, daddy, brother, friend, uncle, and co-worker at such a young age from something so senseless unless God can be amazingly glorified through his death more than He could have been through his life. I don’t know how that’s going to “play out” just yet, but I believe with all that is in me God is using this platform to set the stage for some amazing miracles to play out before our very eyes.

Keep watching. Keep serving. And…I’ll work on being receptive to your tangible love to our family (still so hard to be on the receiving end than the giving end, though). I know Joel has the best seat in the house right now, and he is smiling at what is taking place.

I continue to have people ask how they can help our family in tangible ways. I’m going to try to create a list so that it’s all in one place. I’ll have a tab on my blog here soon (hopefully later today), and I’ll be sure to update when it’s ready to go. UPDATE: It’s ready – just click HERE.

Above all, the greatest need we have is prayer. Deep intercessory prayer for protection, wisdom, provision, and peace! Thank you friends! You are incredible!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Six Months Home

As of this past Saturday, May 21, our Bulgarian children have been on U.S. soil for six months! In some respects, it’s hard to believe it’s already been six months, but in other respects, it feels like they’ve been with us from the beginning. We’re still figuring each other out. We still have so much to learn about parenting children from hard places, and they still have so much to learn about being parented. Six months hardly touches on any of that, but take a look at just a few of the accomplishments so far:

  • Six months ago, they spoke no English. Today, they speak no Bulgarian. Yes…I’m serious! I hardly believe it myself, but it’s true. There are a couple Bulgarian words we simply like and still use (long story there), but other than those 2-3 words, it’s all English. Their vocabulary is still growing, but their use of slang is also growing…kind of funny to hear. We were told they would learn English quickly…but WOW! Josiah has not only learned to speak English, but is also reading English!
  • Six months ago, they had few boundaries. Today, they have many boundaries, and they aren’t always excited about that. Some days we feel like it’s all rules…rules…rules, but we know that by setting up the safeguards now, there will be room for even more fun and enjoyment later. Our oldest doesn’t always understand why he can’t just watch any cartoon on TV. We’ve tried to explain that cartoons don’t always mean kid-friendly (or even appropriate for me to watch, for that matter), but that’s hard to grasp when he was able to watch the same shows in Bulgaria.
  • Six months ago, Katerina was considered a child with occasional ADD-type behavior, never had any formal schooling, and struggled to manage her emotional swings. Today, she’s about to finish Kindergarten, has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), has been evaluated by a team of professionals who are working to help us obtain the right therapies for her special needs disability, and she is THRIVING!
  • Six months ago, they woke up several times during the night or before the crack of dawn. They’d be “full on” ready to play whenever they got up, with no understanding of the time of day/night it might be. Today, they sleep solidly through the night, and Benjamin still takes a nap every afternoon.
  • Six months ago, they weren’t able to sit still long enough to be read to. Today, they love books and will sit through as many books as we’re willing to read at one time.
  • Six months ago, Benjamin would throw puzzle pieces all over the house, because he truly didn’t know how to work puzzles. The kiddos destroyed many toys initially, because they simply didn’t understand how to play. Today, Benjamin loves to work puzzles…the right way. Katerina is the best little mommy to her baby dolls, and Josiah builds Legos and K’nex structures until his heart’s content.
  • Six months ago, they had a very limited selection of food they would eat. However, we’ve always asked them to try at least one bite of everything we fix, and we are so pleased to see their taste buds explode with desire for new culinary delights. While I still consider them a bit picky, they’ve come a long way from where they were when they first got home.
  • Six months ago, they had no manners or social graces. Today, they say please and thank you most of the time. They are learning to say yes/no ma’am and sir. They ask to be excused from the table following a meal. They’ve learned to apologize for wrongdoing and will even hug siblings to help make up for their naughty behavior. They want to help mommy and daddy all over the house (except for cleaning their room…ha!). And, they are so stinkin’ sweet with their little foster brother, who adores them right back!

Now, everything is not perfect in paradise. We stay exhausted, and some days we wonder why God chose us to travel this hard road. But, then we look at those little olive-skinned munchkins with deep brown eyes and know it’s all worth it! They’ve come so far…and so have we.

The day they left their orphanage...forever.

11/12/15 – The day they left their orphanage…forever.

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5/8/16 – Mother’s Day!

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!

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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.

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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.
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Roasting marshmallows for the first time.

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

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

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Goofing off with Aunt Donna on Christmas Day!

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Letting Mommy rock me to sleep.

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.

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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!

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