Friday, December 11, 2015

The Parent Trip: Julie and Derek Ramsey of Aston

 (standing on beach, left to right): Derek, Avery, Lulu, Julie, Logan and Addie. (Photos by Derek Ramsey)
(standing on beach, left to right): Derek, Avery, Lulu, Julie, Logan and Addie. (Photos by Derek Ramsey)

Julie and Derek saw Addie for the first time in a 15-second video clip: a stunned-looking toddler in a McDonald's T-shirt, with a paper sign bearing her name in Chinese characters. She had a club foot and was missing five fingers.

Derek pictured his grandmother, whose dominant hand had fingers ending at the first knuckle, deftly chopping vegetables. Julie, an occupational therapist, was already planning the exercises that would help Addie learn to walk.

But neither wavered: This child, living in a foster home 8,000 miles away, was their daughter. "It's tough to turn down a child who needs a family," Derek says. "At that point, the doubts just wash away."

Earlier, he'd had a mountain of uncertainties - not about Julie, whom he would have married in high school, if she'd been willing, but about fatherhood. The two were good friends at Lancaster Mennonite High School, then began long-distance dating as college sophomores.

More coverage
  • Along with anxieties, he has something else to offer his son
  • When Julie took a term abroad in Ecuador, where she worked in an orphanage, lived with a family, and honed her Spanish, the two wrote letters that took a month to arrive. They married before graduation.

    Julie envisioned having three or four children; Derek could imagine himself content with none, or possibly one. But at 21, they had plenty of time. Over the next years, they traveled: first, Denver, where they took buses and stayed in youth hostels to stretch their $500 travel budget; then Mexico, Alaska, and Puerto Rico.

    By 2008, they'd finished their master's theses, bought a house and watched friends from back home start families. Having a baby - just one, mind you - seemed inevitable, Derek says.

    The pregnancy was easy; Julie ran and did aerobics while Derek worried about how a newborn would jar his schedule. He predicted - accurately, it turned out - that the baby would be born with a full head of hair.

    Derek loved holding Avery while he slept. But he wasn't crazy about diaper changes, or sleepless nights, or crying jags. Julie, on the other hand, wanted children who would be 18 months apart, just like her and her sister.

    Once again, Derek agreed. The pregnancy was uneventful, Logan's birth was smooth, and, except for the one time he swatted at the baby, Avery adjusted well to big-brotherhood.

    But the family wasn't finished - at least, not in Julie's eyes. Ever since middle school, she'd worked with kids who had disabilities - cerebral palsy, autism, orthopedic issues. Her aunt and uncle had adopted a daughter from China, and another uncle had married a Chinese woman. When she and Derek globe-hopped, they thought of themselves as travelers, not tourists - people more invested in culture than glitz.

    Why not adopt a child from China who had special needs? Julie and Derek agreed they could handle a child with a missing limb, one who might need surgery, prostheses, or physical therapy.

    They applied for FBI background checks and criminal-history clearances; they provided notarized copies of their birth certificates and marriage license. A caseworker visited their home. And then, they waited.

    The weekend after Labor Day 2012, the agency called with a referral: a 15-month-old girl with missing fingers and a club foot. It took a few more days - until they were home, with Internet access - before they saw the brief video. By then, they already thought of themselves as Addie's parents.

    When they met her for the first time in Nanning - March 23, her "gotcha" day - she clung, legs wrapped around Julie's waist, and sobbed. "It took a long time for her to get over her fear that you were going to drop her," Derek recalls.

    For the next two weeks, they soaked up China - sampling eel, duck, and fish eyes in local restaurants while teaching Addie the sign language for "eat," "all done," "sleep," and "play."

    "She's very bright; she caught on to that quickly," Julie says. Once home with her garrulous older brothers, Addie sponged up English. Serial casting on her foot, along with a brace she wears at night, enabled her to walk; even with her missing fingers, she's stubborn and dexterous enough to unwrap a Band-Aid and replace it on her pinkie.

    But by 3, she was aware of her differences - not in ability, but in culture. "Like Addie?" she'd say, pointing to an Asian stranger. "Like me?"

    This time, Derek and Julie were equally resolved: Addie needed a sibling from her own country. They found the child - a girl about Addie's age, with bilateral fibular hemimelia, a congenital disorder that causes short, deformed legs - on a website that featured adoption-ready special-needs kids in China.

    This time, they took Avery with them. When they met Lulu in the lobby of their hotel - a tiny girl, waving from a sofa - the kids bonded immediately, paging through a photo album of family members and saying their names aloud.

    When Lulu became tearful, "Avery was right there, talking to her. We went up to the room, and by the time we got to the elevator, she calmed down," Julie recalls.

    Now they are six - a long way from the one-child family Derek once pictured - and he marvels at the change, not only in his circumstances, but in himself. "I'm less selfish now," he says. "It's not about me. I grew up."

    Julie relishes having children so close in age: Kids who play superheroes instead of watching TV. Kids who - despite the fact that Lulu can walk only on her knees and Addie isn't able to palm a softball - entertain one another for hours.

    Kids who cheered when she recently unpacked a fourth PlasmaCar, a pedalless riding toy that's wildly popular in China. "Lulu lit up," Julie recalls. "She can kind of move it herself."

    Avery, Logan, Addie, and Lulu - siblings who had been kin for only two weeks - raced their cars down the driveway, following wobbly chalk-drawn paths, shrieking and grinning, all the way to the finish.


    For The Inquirer
    Latest Videos:
    Also on
    letter icon Newsletter