Greetings from Max and Family!
Max is a robust 27-year-old. He has not always been so healthy. We brought Max to his forever home from Cheboksary, Russia when he was about three and one-half years old. He weighed less than 18 pounds and looked more like he might be 18 months old. When our adoption odyssey started, we were thinking about a healthy little boy that looked like us, fair hair, and fair complexion. We fell in love with the little boy in a grainy black and white photocopied picture.
We were aware that he was undersized, and he was in an orphanage several hours, by train, east of Moscow. The International Adoption process takes a few months, even after all the paperwork is started. Based on recent adoptions we thought we might be approved to travel to Russia by August 1996. Once there we would be able to complete the adoption and bring Max home.
In late June we received THE CALL. But it was not what we expected or wanted to hear. Instead of news that our travel date was a step nearer, we were told that Max had been transported to the Children’s Hospital in Cheboksary in critical condition. Max’s temperature was over 104oF, his blood pressure had been so high that his retinas had been bleeding, and kidney functions were off. He was diagnosed with Hepatitis B. They were not sure he would survive. But he did. Slowly.
God led us to a Russian born doctor, Katya, who was doing research at Vanderbilt. Katya was able to reach Max’s doctor and obtain regular, reliably translated updates. Through their coordination, though Max was very weak, he was approved for travel. When we arrived, the legal proceedings were concluded and we became Max’s legal parents. A day and a half later we were flying home.
Max was soon eating everything he was given. He was getting acquainted with his three –much older– siblings and the family dog. The bright lights, colors, and sounds of our life here were often too much for him, having spent about three years with little stimulation. Soon, symptoms of autism were becoming apparent, and we slowly realized that so much stimulation was not good for him.
Having heard only Russian language spoken for his first 3-1/2 years, communication was difficult, but his Mom is a teacher! Working tirelessly, Max started to learn our language. But he would only whisper those words. We were told he also suffered with a sensory integration disorder. All the sights, sounds, and touch that we grow up with were difficult for him to handle. So, we tried to slowly introduce those sensations, and we saw some improvement.
Socialization also came slow. Our older kids were not age-appropriate playmates. Play Dates did not work out as we hoped because kids his age were interested in age-appropriate activities that Max was not ready for. Although he was now half a world away from the orphanage, he was now living in an autistic, isolated world.
Then, through a friend, we learned of Empower Me Day Camp in 2002. Max was 8 years old. That was 19 years ago. The staff at Empower Me embraced Max. New things are often difficult for autistic children but Empower Me was ready. They came equipped with loving hearts and open arms. They understood the challenges that exist for kids like Max.
With love, and care, and cookies, they slowly won Max over. Max started to accept, then to join in the activities. We increased the number of visits to Empower Me, and Max began to ask about upcoming activities. When we remind him of the scheduled visits, he literally jumps for joy!
Thinking back, it is amazing to imagine that scrawny little boy craving to see his Empower Me friends and counselors. Just imagine, a kid once so sensitive to touch, lights, and sounds, now enjoying playing in mounds of bubbles, running through sprinklers, or standing still while someone sprays him with water. He loves the activities and sings songs to us that he learned there. When he gets home, he likes to answer our questions when we ask about those activities.
As he has grown, Empower Me, has grown with him. More activities. More dates. More dreams. The dream of dedicated facilities and, eventually, a residential facility is huge for us, and will be huge for Max when it becomes a need. A place to live where he is known and loved by the people who first dared to dream and who continue to grow the dream, growing with Max.
The best thing is that he loves the people who truly love him, an activity filled place, and now an adult program, the Day Dreamers, that he loves and anticipates with unbridled joy.