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Leverett family adopting special needs children from Bulgaria

  • Nate and Kim Schildbach are preparing to add two special needs children from Bulgaria to their family. With them in the kitchen of their Leverett home are their biological children, from left, Olive Ann, Jericho, Gaelan and Lucas.<br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Nate and Kim Schildbach are preparing to add two special needs children from Bulgaria to their family. With them in the kitchen of their Leverett home are their biological children, from left, Olive Ann, Jericho, Gaelan and Lucas.
    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Nellie, who has lived in the orphanage since birth, is blind and has other developmental delays.

    Nellie, who has lived in the orphanage since birth, is blind and has other developmental delays. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Marin, 8, who lives in an orphanage in Bulgaria, has numerous physical problems.

    Marin, 8, who lives in an orphanage in Bulgaria, has numerous physical problems. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Lucas, 17, left, and Gaelan Schildbach, 13, right, play dress up with their sister Olive Ann, 1, center, in their Leverett home on Thursday, January 31, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Lucas, 17, left, and Gaelan Schildbach, 13, right, play dress up with their sister Olive Ann, 1, center, in their Leverett home on Thursday, January 31, 2013.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Lucas Schildbach, 17, hangs his brother Jericho, 6, upside down to keep him from getting into trouble at their Leverett home on Thursday, January 31, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Lucas Schildbach, 17, hangs his brother Jericho, 6, upside down to keep him from getting into trouble at their Leverett home on Thursday, January 31, 2013.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Nate Schildbach, left, tries to catch his son Jericho, 6, at their Leverett home on Thursday, January 31, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Nate Schildbach, left, tries to catch his son Jericho, 6, at their Leverett home on Thursday, January 31, 2013.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Nate Schildbach, right, plays with his daughter Olive Ann, 1, in their Leverett home on Thursday, January 31, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Nate Schildbach, right, plays with his daughter Olive Ann, 1, in their Leverett home on Thursday, January 31, 2013.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Gaelan Schildbach, 13, right, plays with his sister Olive Ann,1, in their Leverett home on Thursday, January 31, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Gaelan Schildbach, 13, right, plays with his sister Olive Ann,1, in their Leverett home on Thursday, January 31, 2013.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Gaelan Schildbach, 13, right, looks out the window with his sister Olive Ann, 1, in their Leverett home on Thursday, January 31, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Gaelan Schildbach, 13, right, looks out the window with his sister Olive Ann, 1, in their Leverett home on Thursday, January 31, 2013.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Gaelan Schildbach, 13, right, plays dress up with his sister Olive Ann, 1, in their Leverett home on Thursday, January 31, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Gaelan Schildbach, 13, right, plays dress up with his sister Olive Ann, 1, in their Leverett home on Thursday, January 31, 2013.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Kim Schildbach, left, holds Olive Ann, 1, and laughs hysterically at her son Gaelan's, 13, attempt to amuse his family by playing dress up at their Leverett home on Thursday, January 31, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Kim Schildbach, left, holds Olive Ann, 1, and laughs hysterically at her son Gaelan's, 13, attempt to amuse his family by playing dress up at their Leverett home on Thursday, January 31, 2013.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Nate Schildbach, right, listens while his son Jericho, 6, reads to him in their Leverett home on Thursday, January 31, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Nate Schildbach, right, listens while his son Jericho, 6, reads to him in their Leverett home on Thursday, January 31, 2013.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jericho Schildbach , 6, lays on his bedroom floor and listens to an audio story at his Leverett home on Thursday, January 31, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Jericho Schildbach , 6, lays on his bedroom floor and listens to an audio story at his Leverett home on Thursday, January 31, 2013.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Nate and Kim Schildbach are preparing to add two special needs children from Bulgaria to their family. With them in the kitchen of their Leverett home are their biological children, from left, Olive Ann, Jericho, Gaelan and Lucas.<br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Nellie, who has lived in the orphanage since birth, is blind and has other developmental delays.
  • Marin, 8, who lives in an orphanage in Bulgaria, has numerous physical problems.
  • Lucas, 17, left, and Gaelan Schildbach, 13, right, play dress up with their sister Olive Ann, 1, center, in their Leverett home on Thursday, January 31, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Lucas Schildbach, 17, hangs his brother Jericho, 6, upside down to keep him from getting into trouble at their Leverett home on Thursday, January 31, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Nate Schildbach, left, tries to catch his son Jericho, 6, at their Leverett home on Thursday, January 31, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Nate Schildbach, right, plays with his daughter Olive Ann, 1, in their Leverett home on Thursday, January 31, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Gaelan Schildbach, 13, right, plays with his sister Olive Ann,1, in their Leverett home on Thursday, January 31, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Gaelan Schildbach, 13, right, looks out the window with his sister Olive Ann, 1, in their Leverett home on Thursday, January 31, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Gaelan Schildbach, 13, right, plays dress up with his sister Olive Ann, 1, in their Leverett home on Thursday, January 31, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Kim Schildbach, left, holds Olive Ann, 1, and laughs hysterically at her son Gaelan's, 13, attempt to amuse his family by playing dress up at their Leverett home on Thursday, January 31, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Nate Schildbach, right, listens while his son Jericho, 6, reads to him in their Leverett home on Thursday, January 31, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Jericho Schildbach , 6, lays on his bedroom floor and listens to an audio story at his Leverett home on Thursday, January 31, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

Kim Schildbach is at the kitchen table in her Leverett home with her 6-year-old son Jericho on her lap. They are watching a video of a 5-year-old Romani girl living in an orphanage in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Nellie is small for her age. She has short black hair, olive skin and big black eyes that look up unfocused at the camera. She is blind and cannot walk without assistance. Wearing a diaper, she sits in a plastic baby chair rocking back and forth, a behavior Schildbach says is common in children who grow up in orphanages.

“It’s a way of dealing with the lack of stimulation,” she says.

At the end of the video, a social worker takes Nellie’s hand and forces her to walk around the room. The child begins to cry and Schildbach sighs. “You aren’t supposed to drag blind children around like that,” she says. “It’s very frightening for them.”

Jericho interjects that the orphanage is mean, adding that he will teach Nellie to whistle when she comes to his house.

“I just can’t wait to kiss those cheeks,” says Schildbach, as the child’s image fades from the screen. “And do something about that prison haircut.”

Two children coming

Schildbach and her husband, Nate, who already have four children ranging in age from 1 to 17, are in the process of adopting Nellie and Marin, 8, two special-needs children, through About a Child, an Iowa agency that handles international adoptions.

They are working to raise $30,000 to cover the fees and a flight to Bulgaria to pick the children up by Christmas. On Saturday they will be holding a silent auction at the Newman Center at the University of Massachusetts as part of this effort.

“We’ve been talking about adoption for a long time,” said Schildbach. “It’s been on the back burner for maybe 20 years. I don’t know why we thought we’d just have $30,000 lying around.”

The Schildbachs began working toward adopting a year ago, after Kim Schildbach started reading success stories on the Internet and the couple watched the BBC documentary “Bulgaria’s Abandoned Children.”

They saw Nellie’s picture on Reece’s Rainbow, an online listing service for special needs adoption, in December.

In February, they decided to adopt Marin, too, when they learned it would only cost an additional $5,000 to take a second child if they did both adoptions at once.

“We took a leap of faith,” said Nate Schildbach. “We discussed adopting another child in a few years, but the process is grueling and the expense is so great to do them separately, that we decided it was better to do it now.” Adopting a second child later on would cost an additional $25,000. The couple was also concerned that Marin would “age out” and not be able to be adopted in a few years.

“We think it will be nice for Nellie to have another Bulgarian-speaking person in our house,” said Nate Schildbach. “Even though she isn’t speaking yet, she must understand Bulgarian.”

The video About a Child sent of Marin shows a thin, smiling boy dressed in a blue sailor shirt and shorts. He has only three fingers on his left hand, was born without a bone in his arm, has scoliosis, a curvature of his spine, and a mild heart condition. He holds his deformed arm at a slight angle as the social worker instructs him to walk up and down the walkway outside the orphanage. He is asked to walk back and forth several times on the walkway outside the orphanage, then hop on one leg.

Kim Schildbach said that the adoption agencies make these videos to prove the children can walk, and to make them look appealing to potential adoptive families.

“You never know with adoptive kids,” she said. “They may have other problems that you have to cope with.

In order to complete the adoption process, the Schildbachs must compile a dossier to be sent to Bulgaria, and complete a home study — a series of background checks and interviews used to assess the family — with an adoption agency in Massachusetts. A Red Thread Adoption Services in Norwood is doing theirs.

“It’s an intense process,” said Nate Schildbach.

After the home study is finished, one of the Schildbachs will fly to Bulgaria to meet the children and the orphanage staff. The Schildbachs say it will likely be Nate for financial reasons. He is hoping to go in June if the home study is done.

After that the only way the adoption will fall through is if the family can’t raise enough money or a relative of one of the children comes forward. For Nellie that seems unlikely, said Nate, since she’s been institutionalized since birth. The couple says it is even less likely with Marin.

“Older kids, especially boys, and then boys with special needs, are seldom adopted,” he said. “The older he gets, the closer he gets to aging out of being able to be adopted.

Welcoming home

“The purpose of the home study is to make sure people understand the needs of the children and that they have access to community resources to help,” said Leah O’Leary, the social worker conducting one for the Schildbachs. O’Leary, the executive director of A Red Thread Adoption Services, has worked with children and families for 40 years.

“In the case of this family, they are uniquely qualified to care for children with special needs,” she said.

O’Leary said both Kim and Nate Schildbach have experience working with special needs individuals. Kim is a stay-at-home mother and licensed mental health counselor in the state of Massachusetts. She has a master’s degree in multicultural education and homeschools the couple’s four children. She has worked with autistic children in New York and disabled individuals through ServiceNet in Northampton. Nate is a marketing manager within University Relations at UMass and has done volunteer work with adults with developmental disabilities.

“I think they are a wonderful family,” said O’Leary.

Looking around the Schildbachs’ home, set on a wooded street, it’s easy to see how O’Leary came to that conclusion.

On a recent Thursday, Lucas 17, was off at the library and Nate wasn’t home from work yet, but the house was filled with energy. Jericho wrestled with the family dog, Tubby, Olive Ann, 1, played with her toys on the floor while Gaelan, 12, washed dishes. Jericho suddenly dashed up the stairs and slid down the banister, only to be scooped up by his mother, who settled him down with a coloring book.

The house is open and light, with big windows. There are Legos scattered about and coloring books and crayons on the table. The family’s three cats wander about the rooms.

From the window you can see a big fenced-in yard full of toys. There’s a playground and a sandbox, and in the corner there is a coop where the Schildbachs keep chickens and ducks. In the spring, the children tend the newly hatched chicks.

“That’s what we’ll be doing with Nellie the first year,” said Kim Schildbach, “letting her touch a chicken, play in the sand. And then saying, this is a chicken, this is what sand is.” Schildbach expects that Nellie will need a lot of pre-literacy work when she arrives.

Marin is more advanced and will require a different approach.

“We are hoping to find a Bulgarian student to work with him, possibly from UMass,” said Schildbach.

The children are involved in the preparations for their new siblings; the whole family is learning Braille through the Hadley School for the Blind.

Gaelan says that he is excited to meet them.

“I always heard my mom talk about adoption, and I think it’s a nice thing to do to help kids,” he said.

Lucas has approached the subject with some trepidation.

“I was like, you guys are crazy,” he said of his reaction to the news that two children were coming. “It’s interesting. It’s a big step.”

Nate said that Jericho talks about Nellie as if she were already there, and as for Olive Ann, “She likes snuggling with strangers, so I think we are all set on that one.”

The Schildbachs have moved a bed for Marin into Gaelan and Jericho’s room and a second bed into the master bedroom for Nellie. She will sleep with Kim and Nate in the beginning, so they can tend to her needs at night.

“We have a huge room,” said Kim, pointing around the couple’s bedroom. “She’ll sleep here in the beginning and then maybe move in with Olive. There’s lots of flexibility. We can switch things around and see what works.

Community help

Kim Schildbach pulls Jericho off Nellie’s bed, where he is jumping up and down, and opens her closet. Its full of items that have been donated to the silent auction.

“I think every business in the area has donated,” she says. Schildbach takes out chocolates, paintings, a dentist’s gift basket and a snowboard. Other donations include a trip to the Magic Wings butterfly conservatory in South Deerfield, haircuts from Supercuts in Amherst, mini-golf at the Hadley Golf Center and a tour and tasting at Amherst Brewing Company.

The Schildbachs’ basement is also full of items for tag sales that will take place after the auction.

The couple has been fundraising since December and has already collected $5,000.

“I have been truly impressed by the support they have received from the community, both emotionally and financially,” said O’Leary, the social worker. She said such support is important for children raised in orphanages.

“The activities they are doing to raise the money are really celebratory in nature,” she said. “It’s not just about money, it’s a community coming together to celebrate this family’s endeavor to adopt these kids. It really takes a community to raise a child.”

Schildbach said that the cost of the process can deter U.S. parents considering international adoption. “It’s not the paperwork, it’s having the fee that’s needed,” she said.

According to statistics provided by the U.S. Department of State, the number of international adoptions into the United States has decreased steadily since the start of the recession in 2008. They reached an all-time high in 2004, with 22,991 inter-country adoptions. In 2011, only 9,319 children were adopted into the United States from other countries.

But the Schildbachs believe international adoption is still a possibility for ordinary families and want to serve as an example.

“We want people to see that special needs adoption is something people can do,” said Kim Schildbach. “We’re an average family, with an average income. It’s about leaving the world a better place, doing something important. Anyone can do that. They can adopt, they can support adoption through donations.”

The Schildbachs’ silent auction will take place Saturday from 1 to 3 p.m. in the UMass Newman Center, the Schildbachs’ church. The auction will feature a performance by the HaHa’s, an improv comedy group based in the Pioneer Valley.

For more information on how to donate to the Schildbachs’ adoption fund, visit their donation blog at http://www.gofundme.com/bringnhome. To see pictures of Nellie and Marin, visit their adoption blog at http://www.bringingnhome.blogspot.com/.

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