The Road to Recovery: A Leverett Family, One Year After Adopting Two Special Needs Bulgarian Orphans

Eyes barely open, 7-year-old Anelia “Nellie” Schildbach stood at the piano the other day, listening intently as her fingers explored the keyboard. She rocked her head back and forth as her hands moved fluidly across the flat white and protruding black keys: middle C, F sharp and B flat, E and A. Notes played together and alone. Chord combinations both minor and major. Her choices appeared random, and yet somehow blended together. Occasionally, she hummed along while her mother, Kimberly Schildbach, watched.

After a while, Kim put her arms around Anelia, who is blind, and gently led her to the toy kitchen a few feet away. But as soon as she let go, Anelia crawled across the floor, back to the piano, stood up at it once more, and continued to pound the keys.

“She would play all day if we let her,” Kim said, smiling. “She’s a piano-crazy girl.”

Anelia, who is also developmentally delayed, came to the six-member Schildbach family a year ago from an orphanage in Sophia, Bulgaria. Non verbal and withdrawn, she was unable to even walk up or down stairs when she joined Kim and Nathanael and their four biological children: Lucas, 19, Gaelan, 16, Jericho, 8, and Olive Ann, 3.

Today, she has become part of the family, and with her love of music and the attention of four siblings, she has begun to emerge from her shell.

Kim noted that her love for her biological children was much stronger than her feelings for her adopted daughter at first, but that has changed. “Now it’s more even,” she said. “It took about a year.”

Rocky start

But it hasn’t been easy, even for a couple who say they love parenting and have wanted to adopt for years.

Anelia arrived in the Schildbach home with another Bulgarian orphan, Marin, now 10.

When people heard of their plans to adopt two special needs children from Bulgaria, according to Kim, they said the couple was nuts.

“We are nuts,” Nate said. “That’s why we did it.”

Kim said their lives were chaotic for the first few months.

“It was like a blur,” Nate said.

“When Nellie first arrived, she was checked out,” said Kim. “Like an infant.”

Her hair was shaved, and her face was ashen. She exhibited the sort of “learned helplessness” common in children from orphanages, Kim said.

“The other kids were like, what do we do with her? They tried to find moments of connection each day, but they definitely struggled with it.”

With Marin, the challenges were even harder, though Nate and Kim decline to elaborate beyond saying his behavior was “unsafe.”

“I just kept telling Nate it would get better,” Kim said.

While it did for Anelia, it did not for Marin. After six months, the Schildbachs decided he had to leave their home. They found a family for him in Georgia where he is the youngest child. He is now healthy and happy, they say.

“That is part of adoption,” Kim said. “They have this whole life before us.”

When things go wrong

In order for an American family to adopt a Bulgarian child, an adoption agency in each country need to work together, said Shelley Bedford, the case manager for Bulgarian adoptions at the Iowa-based About A Child. Bedford facilitated the Schildbach’s adoption of Anelia and Marin by helping with the necessary paperwork and working with Family National Association, the licensed adoption agency in Bulgaria, she said in a telephone interview.

Adoptive families undergo a two-year “post-placement monitoring period,” Bedford said, in which a social worker conducts home visits every six months. Those four reports are sent to About A Child, which in turn sends the report to Family National Association.

When a match doesn’t work out, as was the case with Marin, an adoption agency in the United States is obligated to notify the corresponding agency in Bulgaria, and the follow-up reports continue.

Bedford said that when an adoption encounters serious problems, About A Child helps a family find local and state resources, such as counseling or a support group. During this time the adopted child might be placed in “respite care” with another family. Bedford said certain families are regularly used by states in these situations.

If the issues cannot be resolved, she said, custody of the child may be transferred to another adoptive family, as Marin’s was.

The Schildbachs, however, will not discuss the process they went through with Marin, saying the experience was too painful.

They are now focused on Anelia.

Continual motion

The Schildbach home is a busy one. There is perpetual motion: children heading this way or that. The sound of the pounding piano — Anelia at the keyboard — is nearly constant. Toys are strewn about, and the clanking of them hitting the wood floor during vigorous play adds to the cacophony.

Outside, chickens run unencumbered around a large trampoline in the Schildbach’s fenced-in yard.

Kim, a state-licensed mental health counselor with a masters degree in multicultural education, is a stay-at-home mother who has homeschooled all of her children, now including Anelia. Nate works in university relations at the University of Massachusetts, and has done volunteer work with adults with developmental disabilities.

Next to the kitchen table, a brailler — a sort of typewriter that writes in braille — is set up against the wall. Kim and Nate are both learning to use it.

One hour a week, Anelia gets help with her cane skills from a teacher provided by the Leverett school system who specializes in assisting the visually impaired, Kim said. Anelia also has had some physical therapy. But given the child’s severe developmental delays, Kim said, the family is focused on bonding with her for now.

“Trauma and adopted kids isn’t really understood yet, but we knew she needed a secure attachment to do anything else in life,” Kim said. “It’s the basis of everything. She really just needed to heal and love this whole year.”

Determined to adopt

The Schildbachs say they had wanted to adopt for a long time, so had had many discussions with their children about it.

Parenting “really floats our boat,” said Kim. “I mean, our kids are ages 19 down to 3. If it weren’t for biology, I probably wouldn’t stop.”

After watching the BBC documentary “Bulgaria’s Abandoned Children” a few years ago, the couple decided to act.

“There were all these kids over there wasting away, while we were waiting,” Kim said. “Being blind or having Down syndrome in Bulgaria is like having a death sentence.”

The Schildbachs said they knew they wanted a special needs child, someone whose problems were obvious up front.

They began to routinely check the website of the Maryland-based adoption grant foundation Reece’s Rainbows (www.reecesrainbow.org), which lists children needing permanent homes.

Kim remembers the day she knew they would adopt Anelia. She was nursing Olive Ann to sleep, she said, sending photos of children listed at Reece’s Rainbows to Nate, but feeling discouraged because they couldn’t agree on one.

“I was feeling adoption inadequate,” Kim said, “like maybe this wasn’t our time to adopt, because I had heard other parents who just knew when they saw their kid.

“And then God just spoke loudly and clearly — which is nice: ‘You will adopt a daughter older than Olive and younger than Jericho.’ And that just made sense, I felt such peace.”

The next day Anelia’s picture was at the top of the newly listed children on the Reece’s Rainbow website.

“Those cheeks. Those eyes. That lonely stance,” Kim said. “I just wanted to scoop her right up. I sent it to Nate hoping, praying he would see her and see what I saw. And he did. Our daughter.”

The Schildbachs then set out to raise the $30,000 necessary to cover adoption fees and flights to Bulgaria. When they realized they could adopt a second child for just $5,000 more, they made plans to add Marin to their family as well.

People donated money, they held a silent auction at The Newman Catholic Center at UMass, and another auction online, Kim said. They sold some belongings on eBay, held yard sales and amassed about $10,000 in grants.

In October 2013, Nate flew to Bulgaria to meet Marin and Anelia. Then last April, he traveled to Bulgaria once more, and brought the children back with him.

“I was nervous until I met the kids and they were as advertised,” he said. “On the second trip, I just wanted to get through all of the bureaucratic stuff and get home. That’s where the healing could take place.”

A year’s growth

Though things did not work out with Marin, Nate said that Anelia’s growth over the past year has been remarkable.

“She’s gone from a kid who flipped out when they made her walk down stairs in the orphanage and who wanted to suck her thumb and sit in her safety chair, to a kid who likes to explore her world, who loves to go to the Boston Museum of Science, who gets angry — not when she can’t sit down, but when she can’t roam free and explore and touch stuff,” Nate said.

A report by the Bulgarian social worker said that Anelia’s problems were not organic, but due to neglect. “That seems more true with every passing day,” Nate said.

Kim has reached out to other parents of visually impaired children. A few months ago, she joined the board of the Massachusetts Association of Parents of the Visually Impaired (MAVPI) after writing two blog posts for the website WonderBaby.org, a project funded by the Watertown, Massachusetts-based Perkins School for the Blind. Amber Bobnar, who is both the founder of WonderBaby and the president of MAVPI, urged Kim to join.

Earlier this month, Kim organized a MAVPI event at UMass for visually impaired children, their siblings and caregivers. The children got to “pet” the various instruments used in the Minuteman Marching Band. Meg Robertson of the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind discussed orientation and mobility for various skill levels.

“Anelia liked the brass and the drums. Now when I tell her she is screaming as loud as a tuba, she can understand what I mean,” Kim said. “It was incredibly satisfying to watch all the kids explore the instruments and even guess at which instrument was playing.” She said her son Gaelan, blindfolded, tried using a cane to help get around. “It’s not as easy as it looks.”

The Schildbachs say they are learning a lot from their adopted daughter.

“People like to project their own fears about blindness onto Anelia,” Kim said, “like ‘she must be so scared.’ She isn’t. She is courageous. Blind people — although horribly discriminated against, about 64 percent are unemployed — live rich and wonderful lives.”

For Anelia, blindness is not the hardest thing in her life, Kim said. “For her, being an orphan was horrible. Now she has love, life, a family. She can’t see but the brain is an equal opportunity sense organ. So, what else is on the table?”

Sibling bonding

A few minutes into Anelia’s second mini-piano concert that recent day, 8-year-old Jericho Schildbach put his arms around his sister and walked with her to the area rug in the living room. He helped her sit cross-legged on a spinner toy, and began to twirl her about. A broad smile appeared on her face. Olive Ann, 3, who was also playing with some toys on the rug, scooted over and gave Anelia a hug. Then 16-year-old Gaelan came over, sat beside her and tickled her. Anelia laughed gleefully.

As the sun settled lower over the Schildbach’s yard, Nate and Kim shepherded the children to the dinner table. Nate brought over dishes of chicken, rice and brussels sprouts. Kim helped Anelia onto the bench seat next to Olive Ann and began feeding her spoonfuls of supper.

Another marathon day was coming to a close for the Schildbachs.

“It’s all so complicated,” Kim said. “But at the same time, it’s not.”

(Originally appeared in the Hampshire Gazette.)

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