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Caged In An Orphanage, 4-Year-Old Boy Finds Loving Home: One Mom’s Heartbreaking Adoption Story

by Stacey Gagnon
Stacey Gagnon is an RN raising six kids and a husband. She is traversing the world of parenting, adoption, and special needs, all while avoiding stepping on Legos barefoot. Read more from Stacey at RansomForIsrael.com.

Adoption has an ugly side. I don’t think you can see it from the outside looking in. It will absolutely change you.

It cannot enter your life and not rip, shred, and tear. It enters invited and sets up in your home and heart. Adoption will unpack a suitcase on your living room floor, your kitchen counter, your family car, your dining room table — and it’s a hot mess. It will absolutely wreck you, ruin you, and open your eyes wide. And sometimes there are days that I am a blubbery mess and want to go back to the days of blindness and naivety. But I know that I don’t really want to, and I can’t.

When I went to Eastern Europe to adopt my son Israel — who had been caged in a crib in the malformations section of an orphanage in Bulgaria from birth to adoption at age 4 — I prayed for my eyes to be opened, and they were. And my heart broke into a million pieces, and now I cannot live each day and not think “Kids are dying.” I cannot sit in church and worship, I cannot drop my kids off at school or make a run to Target without a whispered “Kids are dying.”

I sit silently and I watch people go through daily life with its BBQs, shopping trips, and soccer games and I want to yell “Kids are dying!” People look at the adoption of our kids and say “that’s cool,” but then they go on about their lives. And I want to scream, “Kids are dying.” They see the flesh and blood example of Israel and the pictures of the orphanage, and they shed a tear and walk back to their Monday morning jobs, and I sit whispering, “Kids are dying,” and no one truly hears, because if they really listened they would know and they would be weeping too. Instead they go on living, and the kids, they keep on dying.

Photo capturing one of the first times Israel was outside. Courtesy of Stacey Gagnon.

So many days, I struggle with the knowledge of children that live out their days in institutions, babies that go without medical care, and infants that learn not to cry, laugh, or smile. Kids caged in cribs, banging their heads on the bars to self-soothe, biting their fingers until they bleed, rocking endlessly and fed a convenient liquid diet.

I shoulder this burden of knowledge and when I try to unpack it with friends, family, and church, they smile and change the subject to something “not so heavy.” And still this heavy burden is making my knees buckle, my shoulders ache, and my heart break.

I unpacked a living, breathing daily reminder of what I saw in Eastern Europe, and every single day his presence whispers, “Kids are dying.”

I unpacked:

The orphanage in Bulgaria. Courtesy of Stacey Gagnon.

Daily Reminders: One year ago, I stepped out from a plane in Bulgaria and walked into a world of crushing heartache and sadness. One year ago, my eyes and heart were opened to a world outside my American, middle-class life. One year ago, I sat in a hot, airless orphanage holding a smelly, urine-soaked child with brown teeth. One year ago I left behind my ability to turn a blind eye in a hell-hole orphanage in Bulgaria.

One year ago, I left behind thousands of other orphans who are no less worthy than Israel. One year ago, I looked at my beautiful, comfortable life and felt shame and sorrow, and that day my life changed. Adoption shades every choice, decision, and step I take. And just when I’m creating a new normal, a small voice whispers, “Kids are dying.”

I fold laundry and I go to work, and I fall into bed and the small voice is whispering, “Kids are dying,” and I don’t know what to do. I am on my knees and praying because I don’t know the answer, and while in the dark I often feel so lost and ineffectual.

Israel at pickup, at left, and then seven months later, right. Courtesy of Stacey Gagnon.

Trauma: Israel suffered the most severe neglect and pain one could imagine. Every day there are moments colored by his trauma. Many of his decisions are steeped in fear and survival thinking. Interestingly, ongoing trauma actually changes the structure and chemical activity of the brain.

As he’s healed, we’ve seen him progress quickly through the developmental stages. Eight months ago we pulled Israel from an orphanage and he has gone from a size 18-24 months to a 4 toddler. He began playing with baby toys, like shape sorters and stacking blocks, and he is now playing with cars and trucks and loves anything musical. He loves church because they have a worship band and if they ever hit the road, he will sign up to be their roadie.

When we picked him up he knew just about 20 words because of his lack of exposure, and now he knows hundreds of words, can sing his ABCs, and is attending kindergarten.

Israel is my living and breathing example that I left behind thousands more, though. And almost every week, a photo is posted in one of the adoption groups of a child that has been taken off the adoption registry because he died. And I look at my son and I see his incredible potential, and I am so grateful I saw past myself to bring him home.

Inside the orphanage. Courtesy of Stacey Gagnon.

Neglect: “Worst case of medical neglect I’ve ever seen,” “shunt looks concerning,” and “I’ve never seen anything like this” are just a few of the words from specialists and doctors I’ve heard. Israel was severely malnourished, had a spine that was trying to poke through his skin, and was on a liquid diet for convenience.

What needs to be understood is that Israel was not supposed to live to the age of 5. In Eastern Europe, children with these issues die before they become such a burden, and Israel didn’t die. He was not meant to live with such impairments and this is why he was not cared for in any type of humane way.

I know it’s hard to meet him and look at him and realize what he lived through, but please look. Look past the smile and the strong body, look beyond the nice clothing and super cool wheelchair. Look past what love can do in eight short months. I want you to see that he needs to be your daily reminder as well — this little boy bears a message. Little boys and little girls just like him will not live to see their sixth birthday. They won’t be held in the arms of a mother while they die, they will be alone. And my God, I cry just typing this because I need you to look at him and know that he was picked at birth to die. He was placed in an orphanage at birth with other children and many of them that we left behind are dead, or have been transferred. And to be transferred is death, because 85 percent of these children die within a year of transfer to an institution.

A photo of Israel. Courtesy of Stacey Gagnon.

Love: Israel was born with thoracic level spina bifida, which means he has no feeling from the waist down. Placed at birth in an orphanage, he was deprived of everything but the basics to live. He had survived in this terrible setting and he was nearing the age of 4. He had all kinds of medical issues, many of which I had never even heard of. I read about him on Facebook and it should have been a moment that I said how sweet he looked and I hoped he found his forever family.

But instead, God placed his tiny face on my heart and I dreamed about him and he kept crossing my Facebook news feed. So, we decided it would be a good idea and picked him out of the millions of orphans to be our son. A child that would never run, never dance, never walk. A boy that will never be what I imagined in a son. I picked a child that had never experienced the sunshine warming his face, or wind tossing his hair.

Israel was kept in a room and never allowed outside. And now, the child I picked is sharing with me the beauty of a moment. He has taught me that real love is not conditional and character and true beauty do not lie on the surface. I look at Israel and the outside is just a shell. His heart is beautiful, strong, and full of potential. I have been so lucky to witness a boy, enslaved by circumstances, released to show his true value and beauty.

And now I go through my days and I am torn. I have picked a child. Picking and choosing means that someone else didn’t get picked. And didn’t get picked means “Kids are dying.”

Stacey and her family. Courtesy of Stacey Gagnon.

The orphan crisis is our crisis! There is never enough money, enough time, or a perfect moment to adopt. We need to wake up and answer this call. We are the ones who are meant to be supporting, praying for, advocating for, and bringing home these kids.

I need you to look at Israel and realize that he was one of the kids that is dying. This is not a nameless and faceless cause. Kids are dying… alone.

Please visit Reece’s Rainbow to see children waiting, or to help support a family in the process of adoption.

For more from Stacey Gagnon visit Ransom For Israel