In September of 2016 I picked up a book called, Anything by Jennie Allen, not knowing that reading it would change absolutely everything about life as I knew it. Challenged to the core (as well as a little terrified), I told the Lord that I was ready for whatever assignment he had for me next; I'd say yes to anything.
To my surprise, the answer to this prayer came first with two dreams in the night. In one dream, my husband Rob and I were leading our church (he is a pastor) and were doing our work when suddenly I realized I had a little child with special needs riding on my back. He or she was so light I hadn't realized they were there. In the second dream, Rob and I were in a quiet house, full of peace, and we were doing pages and pages of paperwork. It wasn't hard, it was fun.
The following month Rob and I were at a leadership conference when both of us were so impacted by the love of the Father that we found ourselves on exactly the same page - willing to do whatever He wanted; knowing that something was up; knowing that He had more for us than we were experiencing.
He was calling us to adopt.
As soon as Rob and I made the decision to start walking this out, we knew that the only child we had faith to adopt was a child with Down Syndrome.
I had been following a website called reecesrainbow.org for years, a website that advocates for kids with diverse needs in orphanages around the world, but primarily children with Down Syndrome. I didn't know if adoption was ever going to be a part of our lives or if Rob would ever feel the same way as me, but I was gripped by the beautiful faces of these children that may never have someone to call 'mom' or 'dad', in countries that do not know their worth.
When we sat down to talk with our four children (ages 10, 8, 6, and 4 at the time) about what we felt God asking us to do, they were all on board and so excited. We realized in awe that God had equipped each of them with gifting's and inclinations that would enrich our new child in ways we couldn't do on our own. Our oldest, Ellie, was a teacher by nature. Josh had a natural gentleness, energy and love for toddlers. Micah was an adventurous, playful soul that saw no differences in any type of child. And Gloria a little nurse, enthralled with anything medical, never a typical 'youngest' - happy to defer attention to anyone else.
One of our children felt nervous about the fact that we were planning to pursue a child with special needs. We pulled up videos of kids with Down Syndrome and watched until his heart was so overwhelmed with love that he declared, "I might be a little bit afraid but with GOD we can DO this!" YES!
In January of 2017 we began the process of getting our home study done. All that paperwork that I had dreamed of began to happen in reality and it was, indeed, peaceful and even a little fun! We had several visits with a social worker to ensure our home was a safe and happy place for a little one.
Before one visit, Rob and I had a small disagreement and the social worker showed up at the door before we could work it out. One of her first questions to me was, "When is the last time you were angry?" HA! I laughed so hard as I told her, "About twenty minutes ago!?" Thankfully they are not looking for perfection, but honesty. We passed the test!
There were many days during this process where it would suddenly hit me what God had called us to, and I'd begin to cry - it didn't matter where I was - walking, driving, shopping, at church, at home - it was as though an unspeakable awe would overtake me. He was allowing me to partake in what He did first for me, adopting me as his daughter. Some days the adoption process felt so holy that I could hardly breathe.
In September 2017 the waiting began to get harder as our dossier was sent to Bulgaria for approval and the wait to be matched with a child began! (The choice to adopt from Bulgaria is a story of its own, but the sheer number of children with Down Syndrome languishing in institutions there was the number one reason.) We had no idea what to expect: while we had declared that we were open to a child of many diverse needs (particularly those that come along with the territory of Down Syndrome) that didn't mean the wait would be short. And we had no idea how scary or complicated our child's diagnosis would be at the end of the wait. But the longing in our hearts grew stronger and stronger as we realized that any day we could get that life changing phone call!
On January 3, 2018 our oldest Ellie had been spending some time alone in our homeschool room when suddenly she came out and said, "I don't know why but suddenly the word, 'LAUGHTER' just keeps coming into my mind over and over again." I encouraged her that she was likely hearing the Lord, and we should wait and see what He meant. The very next day we got our phone call!!! And oh how we laughed - and cried - and danced!
We were told by our Bulgarian agency in Ontario that we had been matched to a child but needed to wait until Manitoba processed the referral. About 24 hours later (which felt like FIVE YEARS) our phone call came - WE HAD A SON! We were told that little Petar was two-and-a-half, 17 lbs, and in an orphanage in the city of Burgas, Bulgaria. They sent us just one photo (of a very sad looking little boy) and some fairly vague information that did very little to feed my hungry heart. I stared at that photo, and fell in love with that photo, and started to get ready - because we were going to meet our little guy in just TWO WEEKS!
Two weeks later we headed to the Winnipeg airport with massive smiles glued to our faces. There wasn't an ounce of fear in my heart about what was to come. The Lord had started this journey and I knew he had picked exactly the little person that we needed, and who needed us.
As we walked up to the flight desk the attendant looked at us and said, "You guys are RADIATING JOY!" We laughed and told her why. Her whole countenance lifted as she shared that she had a forty-year-old sister with Down Syndrome whom she loved dearly!
As we went through security the guard looked up to my (I'm sure) insanely goofy face and said, "You're excited about something." So I told him, and he looked surprised as he replied, "I had a dream this week that I adopted 13 children!"
From start to finish our trip to Bulgaria was full of 'random' run-ins that felt like the Lord was laughing and singing over us - just affirming again and again that we were being led by Him, not ourselves. I've never felt so safe and covered, all while doing the riskiest thing of my life.
We had become acquainted with many people who had gone before us in this journey via Facebook, and we were well aware of what we could face when we got there. Although it's beginning to change, people with special needs are generally not valued or cared for in Bulgaria. Many of the orphanages are known to sedate, underfeed, and neglect the babies that have disabilities. Most of these children come away with trauma and many medical and emotional issues that could have been avoided. We were bracing ourselves for this reality. "Hope for the best, expect the worst" was what we were told over and over.
On January 21, 2018 we were led into an office in a large, clean orphanage, our hearts pounding out of our chests. There were many people speaking Bulgarian and we had no idea what they were saying, so when someone suddenly walked into the room with what looked like a tiny little baby boy, I didn't realize he was our son!
They quickly decided we should meet him in another room so we followed the lady down hallways and up stairs until she brought us to a small room full of toys, and plopped little "Petar" down on the floor and left. I don't know if there are words to describe that moment. He was so much cuter than his picture. So tiny. So shy. I knew I couldn't swoop in and squish-hug him but it took all my strength not to.
We pulled out the toys we had brought to play with and after a little while we began to see little bits of our son's personality emerge. We quickly learned he loved music, and lights, and throwing toys on the floor. After about an hour we discovered he had the best, most contagious belly laugh in the world. Oh yes - what was that word Ellie heard? Laughter!
For five days we visited "Petar" two times a day. Everything blew my expectations out of the water. He started saying 'mama' and 'dada' and 'ball'. He was brave and cuddly and smart. He had a sparkle in his eye. He was perfect.
During this visit we went to the Notary and signed papers to give our boy a new name, to signify a new beginning in his life. We felt that the Lord had given us the name Timothy, who in the Bible is "like a son" to Paul, and part of two cultures - both a Greek and Jew. We wanted to keep his given name Petar to remember where he had come from. And to honour Rob's biological dad and his spiritual dad, both named David, we gave him 'David' as a third name. Timothy Petar David Balfour: adopted, belonging, important, loved.
The biggest surprise on this trip was that our son had not been placed in a horrific wing reserved for children with special needs. No, despite his diagnosis of Trisomy 21 he had been placed in a well-kept, cheerful looking room with about 12 typically developing children who were approximately 15 months old - his size, and his developmental 'age'.
On the last day of our visit we were brought to a separate room for 'art' therapy, which he received once a week. The woman who did this clearly loved Timmy. Through our translator she explained that she had been trained in Italy to work with people who had Down Syndrome and she showed us all the things she did with him to prepare him to one day be part of a family - like rocking him on a rocking horse so he wouldn't be afraid of the motion of a car. I wept and wept through that visit as I realized how cared for my baby had been, and the favour that had been placed on his little life.
And then, just like that, we had to leave Timothy behind until the Bulgarian courts decided he was ours and gave us travel dates. I managed to hold it together when I said goodbye, knowing he was being cared for. I managed to hold it together when we met a little boy with Down Syndrome in the Bulgarian airport. But I totally and completely lost it when we landed on Canadian soil and my baby boy wasn't in my arms.
I determined then to spend the next months of waiting working my tail off to get everything in order for the last lag of this journey. During this time, we felt so loved and supported by our families, church family, and the community of Steinbach. The generosity of those around us was overwhelming.
On May 28th, 2018 (our son Micah's birthday) we found ourselves back in Bulgaria, welcoming Timothy into our arms forever. He didn't remember us, and we could see that he was terrified. But like on our first visit, Timothy was easy to win over, and within a couple hours we were seeing some of his characteristic eye-sparkle and hearing his oh-so-wonderful giggle.
We went through all the emotions as we discovered that he was an adorable thumb sucker as he slept, but that in order to get to sleep he needed to vigorously rock himself for comfort. We were overjoyed to discover he was willing to try new foods and solids, and shocked and fearful as we saw his only response to pain was a strange, out-of-place laugh. By the time we brought him home he'd received several large bruises and bumps because of his unsteady gate, resistance to pain, and a general not-knowing of what to do with 'free space' after having been confined to one small area his whole life. There was much to learn for all of us!
After having Timothy in our loud and crazy house for over four months. The shy little boy was already very different from the one we brought home. His legs no longer looked emaciated. He cried appropriately when he got hurt, and absolutely expected a hug when he signed 'owie'. He no longer reached for strangers (but loves to blow them kisses) and he knows who he belongs to. He is a whiz at sign language and has learned to ask for 'help' when he needs it, 'more' food when he's hungry, and even started to scowl and protest like a normal child when I don't let him have his way. His imagination has took off and he was often found carrying a pot of 'soup' around and pretend eating from it. He enjoyed hiding in his room and babbling to himself as he 'read' books. Instead of staring at me in fear and lying perfectly still at bedtime, he often laughed and somersaulted himself to sleep. He has four siblings who adore him and who are so proud of him they could explode. In so many ways he is like that light little child on my back - he just FITS. He belongs.
The truth is, there are days where that prayer feels like it costs a lot. Days where I am so exhausted that I start crying for no reason at the dinner table. There are days where Timmy retreats back into his 'shell' and we need to work to earn his trust again. There are days where he tests every boundary - sometimes out of curiosity, sometimes to see if he can push this lady called 'Mama' away.
There are days where I find myself wondering how on earth we decided to add a very busy toddler to the mix of our crazy lives. But then the Lord quickly reminds me that it was His idea, not mine. He reminds me that Timothy is the gift He knew I needed to shape me into the daughter He's called me to be. He's the gift we all needed. He reminds me that a life of dying is actually far more joyful than selfish living. He reminds me that, like in my dream, Timothy is meant to be a 'light load' by His grace. He reminds me to laugh.
And oh, there is laughter!
About the Author:
Jacki Balfour is married to her best friend and pastor, and spends most of her time juggling the schedules of her five highly-entertaining kids. Iced Capps, roast chicken, good books and deep soul-level conversations make her insanely happy. Jacki’s shopping trips and errands take far too long as she delights in making new friends wherever she goes. The kids’ piano and tuba practicing, Timmy’s noise-making toys and a barking chihuahua currently provide the theme music for her life.
If you would like to send Jacki a message, email firstname.lastname@example.org and put "Jacki” in the subject line.