Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Richard Here: Day Ten - So Long, For Now...

First I wanted to give myself a pat on the back. Apparently I am now worthy of having my blog posts trolled and I received the honor of having someone leave me a nasty comment including a variety of four-letter words and other slang for human anatomy that we won't discuss. Among other things I was accused of being a child collector... so I'll address that and then move on.

If adopting children lacking a family to love them, care for them and provide for their temporal and emotional needs makes me a child collector, then I guess that's what I am.

If setting my own personal pursuits aside and focusing on the needs of my children makes me a child collector then I guess that's what I am.

If having a strong moral foundation upon which I live my life and attempt to teach my children to do the same makes me a child collector, then I guess that's what I am.

If overcoming my own fears, concerns and hesitations to find a place in my heart for children that are not born of my own flesh makes me a child collector, then I guess that's what I am.

So, from your neighborhood child collector here is today's melancholy update:

Today was the day I have had mixed feeling about since I arrived in Stara Zagora. After packing up last night and getting up early since my presence was "required" by Eli at 0900 sharp we arrived to find Eli and Jesse waiting for us at the gate. First, we hung out on a bench and talked about their latest question assignment (I asked them to write a few questions each as a way to help them open up.) I recorded the questions and then we went upstairs to their bedroom.  I had put together a large bag of miscellaneous items that I did not want to carry home (drinks, snacks, candy, spare change, etc.) so I went through the items and gave them to the boys for them to enjoy.

We then went outside and while the boys played with Nerf guns I met once again with the director and the psychologist who have both been very supportive and helpful throughout the week. We discussed plans for the boys but mainly lamented about the slow adoption process due to government bureaucracy on both sides of the ocean. After our discussion we went back outside and I sat with the boys on the front steps as they played with some of the other kids.

I really didn't want to leave because I knew it would be hard on the boys. Ultimately the time came and we said our goodbyes. It's difficult to think about them being on their own for now, but I know that Jesse and Eli will be able to rely upon their common bond to help them get through the waiting period.

As a quick aside - we have been able to identify four other boys who were at the SZ baby house with our daughters and our boys as well as other children who have been adopted in the states. We hope to put together a longer list and see what can be done for those "left behind" during the past few years.

We then drove to Sofia and not wanting to sit down and write yet, I hit the streets and went wandering around Sofia to clear my head and do some last-minute shopping for my lovely wife and the kids back home. Shopping is done and aside from dinner and re-packing, I'm ready to go for a 0400 cab pickup and a 0630 flight from Sofia to Munich. Following my first flight I have a long (5 hour) layover in Munich before flying to Charlotte and then ultimately to Dayton - arriving home around 2130 in Dayton.

Pictures for today:
A Goodbye Note Written to Jesse and Eli From Another Child

Goodbye Picture

Goodbye Stara Zagora

Hello Sofia - Good to See You Again

Ignore the minibar selections - this is all the chocolate I'm bringing home.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Richard Here: Day Nine - Tears and Fears

During these adoption visits you tend to hit a plateau. The initial andreinalin for both the child and the parent starts to run out and you really start to get to see the true personality of the child (and the parent) come through to the surface during your interactions. My days have become more and more hectic as the boys have been both enthusiastic (and demanding) when it comes to what time I show up and how long I spend with them. Don't get me wrong - I love spending time with them, but as I've said before, it is emotionally and physically exhausting. From the time I get up in the morning I'm going full-tilt until I hit the sack each evening. Any spare time during the day is spent uploading photos, publishing videos, drafting blog posts, emailing audio recordings, answering emails and skyping with my family. Occasionally I run to Billa to buy more chocolate or exchange more money. Today was probably the longest day given that I was up early and just walked in the door at 9:30pm and am just now starting my blog for the day.

Today was a great day. As I promised yesterday I picked up ice cream for the entire orphanage on the way to the visit this morning (8 boxes of ice-cream sandwiches) but it was $20 USD well spent to see smiles on the kids' faces after their lunch break - this is why some of them are walking up to me and saying "blogodaria" (thanks) in my videos today. Along with my ice cream I brought balloon rockets (great buy, valerie!) and I played with Jesse, Eli and the rest of the kids while we waited for the director to arrive and give us directions to the local photo lab. Once we got directions we headed down to the photo lab and took visa photos for the boys. I also took this opportunity to get a photo with the boys and we came away with the ugliest glamour-shot background in Bulgaria, complete with bright colors and pretty font. It's that bad. I swear that there's something about orphanage kids that requires them to be in the least flattering photos possible... but who knows.

We had some time to blow so I took the opportunity to resolve another problem: Jesse and Eli's shoe situation.  Both of them wore girls shoes - in Jesse's case it was an oversized pair of women's slip-ons, something a nurse would wear. Upon first mention that I liked his girly shoes he proudly excaimed "They were only 6 leva!" I bet they were kid, I bet they were. Eli had a similarly girly pair of sandals that featured neon green and pink trip and were easily one or two sizes too small. We wandered over to an outdoor bazaar and walked around until we found a shop that had shoes that would satisfy their needs (Jesse needs a shoe that will accomodate his prosthetic foot that is MUCH larger than his "real" foot, and Eli's feet are two different sizes due to his CP). Once we found a good selection, both boys found a new and satisfactorily male-styled pair of shoes. I played the full-on dad role by making them walk up and down the aisle, checking out how they walked in them.

Next we stopped by a fruit stand and I bought each of us a nectarine. We then walked to a nearby park and enjoyed our delicious treats. While seated on our benches a little girl came up to say hello to us, and then things just got crazy for me. She accused Eli of being a boy that beat her up recently. Given that neither Yavor nor I believed that Eli is even capable of such an action we asked her what Eli's name was... she didn't know. Then we asked a few more questions, after which she decided that it wasn't Eli that beat her up after all, but a boy that looked like him. I suggested that the next time she was being beaten she should get the name of her attacker, or at least a better look at him so she could more readily identify her attacker correctly. This incident didn't seem to deter her affection for the boys, nor theirs for her, so they all played together while Yavor went to get the photos we had ordered. I took some video and laughed to myself as that was all I could do in light of the experience.

When we got back to the orphanage we hung out for a while talking to the caretakers and other kids while Elder Kingsley entertained the kids with his drawing and magic tricks (see videos). After lunch the kids came back out and enjoyed their ice cream. At this point Yavor and I went with the missionaries to a chinese restaraunt and enjoyed a nice chinese lunch complete with enough leftovers to feed the missionaries for a week.

Needing to be back at the orphanage at 3:00pm we husteled back to the hotel where I quickly uploaded photos, videos, etc. and then skyped with Valerie to line up our plans for the afternoon. 

Promptly at 3:00pm we rolled up to the orphanage loaded for combat... with nerf guns. And who doesn't love nerf guns? No one, that's who. So I set the boys up to shoot plastic bottles with nerf guns while the missionaries and I met with the director to discuss logistics for the boys attending english classes at the nearby church building. That discussion went well and I think that connection along with the opportunity to learn some english will really help the boys. After our discussion we headed downtown to our favorite dinner spot to eat and skype with everyone at home. Unfortunately the elders of the internet were in a pissy mood and the internet was not working there, so we ate quick and headed over to the church and sat outside so the boys could Skype to everyone back home. During our Skyping, the sister missionaries who are going to be teaching the classes showed up and I was very happy to be able to introduce the boys to them before I left town so they could have that connection in place before I leave.

Finally, we headed home to the orphanage - on the way home Eli got very emotional and was talking about having a hard time with crying and knowing he was going to miss me and his family until we come back for them. He cried quite a bit, but not a meltdown, just a good, normal batch of tears from a young man who is having to deal with emotions that have previously gone untapped. I encouraged him to go ahead and cry if he needed to and when we got back to the orphanage I took the time to sit down with him and talk through his fears. Jesse was also supportive and after a few minutes Eli decided he was ready to go see the other kids. All in all, I call that a success.  I know tomorrow will be hard for him, but not as hard as tht random Tuesday four months from now when he is questioning whether he has been forgotten - but I think I have enough of a support system in place locally that we'll be able to maintain a close connection with the boys throughout the next few months.

Only time will tell, but I am optimistic. When a child has waited 13 years for a family, how do you tell him to wait another 5 months?

Pictures for today:
Jesse's Prosthesis - It is a work of art. Pure magic. He runs at full speed, stops on a dime, and you would never know he wears it unless you look at the ankle. Unbelievable - truly magnificent work.

Eli and the girl from the park. Fast friends despite their interesting encounter.

Elder Kingsley showing the boys how to draw

Eli and one of his close friends

Our daily photo

Here in 'merica we teach em to shoot quick

This is just wrong on so many levels. But it will be a great memory.

Hanging out with the kids

Monday, August 18, 2014

Richard Here: Fundraiser Challenge - Who Loves Chocolate?


Ok folks... this is something I rarely do... I'm going to ask for your help.  Adoption is expensive. Very Expensive. I don't buy new cars, I buy kids. I work hard and have a good job, but for us an adoption is an extra above-the-line expense that we cannot easily complete without fundraisers. Our current adoption will cost around $30,000 when all is said and done. As a family we work hard to raise funds, and many people we know (and many we don't know) have contributed very generously to our current effort. To those who are joining us on this adventure by watching our videos, reading the blog and stalking us on Facebook, I'm asking for your help.

But wait, there's more...

You can make me miserable, and get chocolate... both at the same time. Who doesn't love that?

Screw the ice bucket challenge... I'm going to do the "backpack-full-of-chocolate" challenge.

Between now and Tuesday, August 19th at midnight for every person who commits to contribute a minimum of $100 to our adoption fund (either tax-deductible or non, we can take both) I will personally procure and carry home in my backpack 5 bars of the best Milka that you cannot easily get in the US. Once home, I'll ship it to you.

If ten people commit, that's 50 bars of chocolate I'll be carrying home. And that's a lot of weight. Make me miserable as I fly from Sofia back home. I beg you.

How can you commit? Contact Valerie by email, facebook or comment on this post and purchase enough boxes from our box fundraiser  to be equal to or greater than $100. All of the other giveaway prizes still apply.

Don't make yourself miserable. Make me miserable. Give now... I know so many of you would love to see me suffer. Maybe I'll even take pictures.

Don't be the one to lose out on this fabulous opportunity! Here are some of the flavors to chose from: (I'll make the BEST effort to get the flavors you pick)
All Milka:
White Chocolate
Rasin & Hazlenut
Extra Cocoa (Dark)
Alpine Milk
Milk-Filled "Milkinis"
Strawberry Yogurt Filled
Pretzel Loves Chocolate
Bubbly (Pseudo-Cake Filled)
Whole Hazlenuts
Bubbly (White Cake Filled)
Corn & Choco Forever
Rice is Choco's Best Friend (Rice Crispie Filled)

Richard Here: Day Eight - Back To School

This morning I woke up nice and early so I could Skype with Valerie before she had to go to bed. She filled me in on the days activities and we talked about the boys and our visits. After saying goodnight I got ready for the day and took off on another long walk. This walk was devoid of many pictures because I was focused on timing the walk from the orphanage to the LDS building where the boys will take english classes one night a week. In order to do this, I had to first walk up to the orphanage (SZ is on the side of a hill that runs from south to north so east to west is flat but south to north is straight up the hill.) In the end, the walk takes about 25 minutes but it is an easy route and mostly devoid of cross-traffic.

This morning's visit was first dedicated to time with each boy individually, first Eli and then Jesse. Because I'm married to a brilliant woman, I came to SZ with a bag full of activities and I've been bringing one to each visit to help engage the boys and pass the time. This morning was LEGO day, and it was a hit.

Eli did well with LEGO time and we built a indy-style race car. He did very well at the building process and utilized skills including counting, color recognition, spacial awareness and receiving instructions. He was slower but more methodical in working with the pieces and it was a good opportunity to compare his fine motor skills between his left and right hands. He did not get overly frustrated and ultimately did a great job of assembling the car (see videos).

Jesse went second and also enjoyed LEGO time. He had worked with them before in the previous orphanage and he quickly got to work, grabbing the pieces and going to town. He was much faster, but he tended to skip the instructions more than Eli did. This opened the door for a brief discussion about his work in school and he admitted that he occasionally has to do work over again because he rushes through it (so he's pretty normal in that sense!) Jesse recognized pieces by shape and size alone and generally did not have to "count" the piece in order to ensure it was correct. This gave me a great change to take a look at his abilities with his right hand (he is missing most of his pointer and middle finger and part of the ring finger). He has learned to compensate very well and despite his limitation has good grip strength and tactile abilities even with his "stubs". Eli interrupted a few times because he was impatiently waiting for us to finish up.

After LEGO time the boys went upstairs to change so we could go on a walk and the psychologist asked us to go meet with the director. In our meeting the psychologist recommended that we no longer needed to be "escorted" on our visits with the boys so for the remaining visits we are on our own to do whatever we want to do (within reason :-P). We also discussed arrangements for English lessons and I will be inviting the missionaries to meet the director tomorrow so they can exchange contact information and work out details for when to meet, etc.

Once the boys got changed back into their favorite superhero shirts, we took off on a walk to see their school (school is not in session until 15 Sept.) which is only 200 meters from the orphanage. It was a plain grey building (most buildings are plain and grey) and you wouldn't know it was a school unless you walk around to the back of it (which is the front?) and see the sign for it. We played soccer and pretty much hung out until it was time to go (there's a funny video in which I try to tell them it's time to go eat lunch). On the walk back, the boys asked if they were allowed to share some candy I gave them and I told them they were welcome to, but if they wanted to share I'd be happy to go get something for everyone - they asked for cookies and I suggested ice cream - so we'll see what I come up with for tomorrow's lunch.

My time here in SZ is quickly running out but I'm enjoying the time with the boys. It's strange to feel like I've known them for so long yet they've only just begun to know me. Both Jesse and Eli are enthusiastic about their future but are also impatient about the paperwork that must be completed. Jesse is more understanding and seems to go with the flow but Eli seems to be more focused on knowing what's going on and is less patient. The fact that they are together and that we will have continued contact with them throughout the waiting period will certainly make it easier for them. Between weekly English lessons, school and Skype sessions with us I hope the time goes quickly for them. I know it will take far too long for me.

Here are more pictures for the day:
The Boys and I At The Orphanage

The Boys, Jesse (L) and Eli (R)

The Courtyard At The School

The Boys With a Caretaker

The School

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Richard Here: Day Seven - Hangin' At The Mall

My quest for a good night of rest was ushered in quickly last night when I accidentally ate some candy that was full of crushed peanuts (D'oh!). Since I'm allergic to peanuts my only option was to drink a ton of water, take some benadryl and go to sleep before my symptoms got too bad. Fortunately this worked and I woke up this morning feeling fine.

Valerie would be proud of my breakfast, Bulgarian yogurt with granola and bananna slices - yum!  At 0945 I husteled my way through the rain to the local LDS building a few blocks from my hotel. I beat everyone there except for the missionaries and a few younger kids that were eager to impress me with their english, learned from the cartoon network. The congregation was small but I enjoyed listening to the talks in Bulgarian without translation which meant I caught about half of what was said.  Following the meeting I talked to the missionaries about how to allow the boys to be able to attend English classes which are held each week at the building in downtown Stara Zagora. It sounds like the boys will be escorted to and from the meeting by the male missionaried and the female missionaries will be teaching the classes.

At noon, Yavor and I drove up to the orphanage (only getting lost in the Roma ghetto once). I gave the boys some shirts I had bought them (fyi, Val - they need a youth LARGE) and they eagerly put them on and gave me a tour of their room (see videos). From there we drove to the local mall which was really nice and clean. We ate at the McDonalds in the food court (blech) and they loved it. After that we wandered a bit and played air hockey (no, I didn't let them win, I crushed them equally.) Finally, we drove back to the orphanage and hung out for while where I talked with the psychologist about the boys, their orphanage experience and the routines and rules of the facility (see more videos).

Unfortunately there was only time for one visit today since I couldn't be there till noon, but we ended up being together for nearly four hours and we had a great time. The boys handled going out in public very well and they adapted well to changing situations. The only bad news is I'm pretty sure both of them will experience GI-distress because of eating a burger, fries and a big coke which I'm sure is rare for them. 

The plans for tomorrow will be a bit different in that I'll meet with each of them seperately during the morning and then in the afternoon we are going to as a group on a field trip (perhaps the zoo?)  We are interested in seeing how Eli handles being away from Jesse as it is apparent that he depends on Jesse heavily to help him communicate and is less likely to speak up when Jesse's around. But at the same time, Eli will stick up for himself; today I asked how well he could read and he responded by writing out the entire alphabet for me... in my face, I guess.

I'm so happy to know that Eli and Jesse won't have to worry about becoming separated through adoption because as I spend more time with them I can see how traumatic separation would be for both boys. Eli would likely be devastated and would probably suffer long-term trauma since he and Jesse are so close and depend on each other so much.

Tomorrow's Monday and it's tough to acknowledge that I'll be leaving them behind in only three more days. Paperwork cannot move quickly enough.

Also a quick update on Gabe... he is doing well and his FM took him to English classes yesterday. Aside from being worried that he was going to the doctor, he did well and I believe they will continue to go in an effort to help him transition. I will include an old picture his FM sent me below the pictures from today:

Caretaker, Jesse, Eli, Psychologist

Jesse, Eli (Spider-Man is Jesse's favorite superhero - since I picked out the shirts that makes me awesome.)

The Boys and I

Eli's Silly Face

I don't know what's worse, McDonalds or.... well nevermind, nothing's worse. The boys liked it and that's what matters.

The boys in their room.

The Orphanage Grounds

Gabe with a Therapist from August 2013.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Richard Here: Day Six - New Day, New Hotel, New Sons

Well - it's a new day here in Stara Zagora. My unhappiness with the hotel we were in didn't stop with the poor internet but continued with banging noises late in the night from the kitchen below, a constant chirping by the A/C unit in the room anytime it was running and loud talking in the hallways. So before I even went to bed last night I wandered the streets until I found an open hot spot and researched hotels in our area until I found one I liked - I walked to one that looked good and talked to the girl at the desk and reserved two rooms for the next day.  So long story short we're in a new hotel that was only slightly more expensive but MUCH nicer (I'll post pictures of my room later.) That's the end of my spoiled American paragraph. (Hey Toni, don't ever use the Ezeroto again - go with Hotel La Roka - only 7lv more but SOOOOOO much better.)

But who cares about me?! Let's talk about Jesse and Eli!

At 1000 we drove up to the orphanage - as always it was a bit weird because the other kids are somewhat reserved at first. Knowing exactly what the boys look like, I did not see either of them in the group that was sitting around out front.  The orphanage director arrived and he walked us into the building and his office where we spent about 20 minutes going over a list of questions that Valerie had sent me (you know, critical mom stuff that dads would forget to ask about.) I also recorded that conversation so Valerie could listen in on it as I've done for many others. Ultimately, we wrapped up our discussion and the director went to get the boys.

A bit of a back-story to reinforce here - I met them both several years ago when we were visiting Alexis in the orphanage. I knew their faces and I knew their voices as if it had been only a week ago. Before they even came into the room I had set up my tablet (once again, can't say enough good things about the nexus 7) to get a video recording of our first interactions. I'm so glad that I got video of it, because it was a wonderful experience to be the first one to tell them that not only were they going home to a family, but that they were going to be reunited with their former siblings from the orphanage. Join the super-secret group on facebook if you want to see the video for yourself. Even I'm a pretty stoic guy and watching it really (almost) makes my heart melt.

We spent time asking questions of them and they asked us some questions. We talked about our meetings and discussed a schedule. I gave them an assignment too: I agreed to take them to McDonalds (blech) tomorrow if they would do me a favor: Write down five questions about their new life, their new family, or whatever - on a piece of paper so that I can give it to Valerie and she can respond to them. Hopefully that works out - I think it will. But now a little more about them:

Jesse - He is more extroverted and communicated very well with others. He is animated in his responses and conveys his feelings clearly. He thinks of himself as Eli's protector and the two of them have a bond that is essentially that of twin brothers. Jesse is intelligent and enjoys computer games. If I recall correctly, he enjoys physical education and does not like Math (Eli likes math so I told Jesse Eli would help him.) In the grand scheme of things, his physical special needs are quite minor (in terms of our family) but he has orthopedic special needs that will be addressed either in Dayton or in Philadelphia at Shriner's.

Eli- He is quiet and can be described as introverted. He does not communicate as effectively, but obviously knows what he wants to say - but he has trouble getting the words out. He often communicates through Jesse and they often complete each other's sentences.  He quickly showed an eagerness to learn things like how to spell his new name. His special need is quite narrow but has a larger impact on him. He is hearing impaired, but not seriously. This impacts the sound of his voice, the volume of his voice and his willingness to "speak up" when in a conversation. It's very possible that all he needs is basic treatment or hearing aids, but I'll get a better idea of where he stands over the next few days. Often, Jesse will repeat what others have said to Eli, but more loudly and by enunciating more clearly. Eli's pronunciation is actually pretty good considering his situation, and his tendency to talk quietly is equal to the loud volume of his voice at other times.

So this afternoon we're going to visit again at 4pm then after dinner I'm going to hang out with the missionaries some more before I call it a night. I've heard there is an open-air market here in SZ and I'm anxious to find it so I can look for some gifts for those back home.  Not to mention my never-ending quest for CHOCOLATE!

Pictures for today: (in case you didn't already know, there are TONS of pictures on Facebook if you are friends with Valerie or I.)

Me with Eli (L) and Jesse (R)

Jesse (L) and Eli (R)

Yavor (L), Jesse (C) and Eli (R)

Orphanage and Grounds

Orphanage Grounds

Friday, August 15, 2014

Richard Here: Day Five - From Ruse to Stara Zagora, With Love

First, let me be a whiny American for a second. The Internet at our hotel stinks (figuratively speaking, not literally). Seriously, it stinks. Download speeds of under 3Mbps and Uploads under 500Kbps - when it WORKS which is only half of the time (so no videos tonight unless I find an open hotspot from my room). That being said, we will probably switch hotels tomorrow. (Valerie had the same issue when she was here.) I'm writing this blog just hoping that the electrons don't get lost, which shouldn't happen considering Bulgaria is one of the best-connected countries in the world and good Internet is dirt cheap. But I digress (badly).

But on to the awesomeness that was yesterday evening and today.

Yesterday afternoon we had a brief visit with Gabe and his mother. She showed us how he uses a walked and I was quite impressed with how well he does with it, but along with this came a sad story.  Gabe doesn't like to use his walked because when he does, other children in the park ask their parents why he uses it... the parents quite often respond that his is "sick" and so he needs the walker. Having learned this sad lesson the hard way he has told his FM in the past that he does not want to be sick anymore so he does not want to use his walker. How's that for unfortunate cultural perspectives and negative stigma? The reality is that he actually uses his walker quite well, but his FM gets quite a workout when she functions as his walker every day when she takes him walking in the park. It makes me happy to know that hopefully in time he will learn to embrace his assistive devices as he sees other children in our home use them for their own benefit.

Following our visit (which of course included swing time) we said our goodbyes a little early so that Gabe could get home. Gabe's FM knows some basic English but as part of her efforts to help Gabe get ready for his transition she has expressed an interest in learning more. One of the ways our church provides service to local populations is by providing no-cost English lessons to all who desire to attend, regardless of religious affiliation. I invited her to attend the lesson in Ruse and we met in the town center which is very close to the church building in Sofia. I sat like a stuffed scarecrow while a room full of pleasant Bulgarians enjoyed their lesson. Afterwards, the sister missionaries took a few minutes to help translate for us since this would be the parting time for us since Gabe's FM had to work on Friday. It was a very touching conversation and at times the emotion was obvious in both of our voices. I attempted to express our gratitude for his FM and all that she had done for him and she expressed her happiness that her prayers had been answered that he was going to join a good family that would continue to love him and help him grow. I assured her that it was not only her prayers that were answered. We said our goodbyes and that was it for the night.

This morning I woke extra early to be sure to have time to pack up and head to the store before I met Yavor for breakfast. After the energizing walk I came back loaded up with the first batch of chocolate I've been commanded to bring home (or else I'm not allowed to come home). A few posts and memory pictures later and we were off to our last meeting with Gabe. His FGM and he were both all smiles and he talked about knowing that this was our last visit but he was happy that we had a good week. We listened to music and took some pictures then Gabe told us it was time to go to the social services office (or course we were early) but first I took him for a walk around the block in his stroller and we talked a bit (my Bulgarian has improved dramatically). Ultimately the social services workers were ready and after a brief conversation about the visits (which I recorded for posterity) Gabe said he wanted to walk me to my car so that's what we did. We arrived at the car and said our goodbyes and gave our kisses and as we pulled out of our spot Gabe said "I'm not going to cry".... and then he started crying. He's an awesome kid, he has experienced trials and challenges, but he has also felt the love and caring touch of his foster family and many friends I met during our walks. I am optimistic that he will continue to thrive and develop his abilities and become the best Gabe that he can be and I'll be proud of him every step of the way.

The road trip.... well let's just say that for anyone who has never ridden in a car in most eastern European country that traffic laws are more like rough suggestions, speed limits are somewhat relative and making dangerous passes is a cultural pastime. Yavor is a wonderful road tripping companion and we had a lot of fun conversations, some of which I'll post in the videos (super-secret-facebook-group) section. It took about three hours to make the drive and we crossed some pretty awesome mountains (hills to you western US folks) that reminded me so much of Buena Vista, where Valerie and I met. Finally after crossing into the valley of the kings (which features countless burial mounds up to 4,000 years old as well as BEAUTIFUL fields of sunflowers (sunflowers are row-crops here) we drove into Stara Zagora and checked into the hotel.

After checking into the hotel we had dinner and I went off "wandering" as I like to call it since I taught Yavor what the English term "wander" means. In this case I wandered myself into the local missionaries (in reality I knew where to find them since we'd been talking) and I hung out with the Elders, Sisters and the RS presidency who was just finishing up a meeting (and saved me a plate of yummy food). The Elders had work to do so I walked with them up to the north side of the city where they said "you need to go up there" - and "there" was a long path/staircase as far as the eye could see - and so they went their way and I went up, and up, and up and up. until I got to a small church at the top. The pictures do not do the climb justice and it was a workout like none I've had since cub scout camp this year. I took lots of pictures at the top and on the way down as well as during my walk through the city (which for those of you who don't know, both Valerie and I have spent time in Stara Zagora before).

And that brings me to now. I'm tires, it's getting late, the Internet isn't very good and I'm hoping some of these pictures come through:

One Last Picture
Valley of the Kings/Sunflower Fields
Elders Kingsley (L) and Brown (R)
This is From The Top of the Stairs

This is an Ancient Stone Path which has been Unearthed In SZ
The Regional History Museum
(Val and I Went Here Several Years Ago)
This is at the top of the hill

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Richard Here: Day Four - At Least It's Not 103 Today...

Yesterday was hot. So hot.

But back to the adoption... Yesterday went well and the visits continue to be what I consider to be positive for all involved. In case I hadn't made it clear before, our visits in the morning are with Gabe and his FGM and in the evening we visit with Gabe and his FM (his FM works during the days at the orphanage as a physical therapist.)

Yesterday afternoon we met him at his apartment building and went for a LONG walk around the park, along the Danube River and back up the middle of the park to one of Gabe's favorite spots, the swings. He could swing all day I think.  Being able to interact with his FM has been a very positive experience and is a real change for us compared to our past adoptions where we have had little background information, if any that was really reliable. We talked about Gabe and how he has been doing this week. He is happy to see me when we arrive and after crying the first few times when I leave we've settled into a routine where I say my goodbyes and then we leave him at the steps to his apartment with his FM or FGM. He has not napped at all this week because he has been so excited but instead he sits in his chair and "waits" for our afternoon visit. During our walk his FM said that he has been asking about his future family members so we sat down on a bench in the shade and I went through the photobook that we gave him with Bulgarian descriptions of our family and our life in Ohio. He is able to recognize Valerie and I by name and he is able to remember some of the kids (can't fault him for not knowing all of them already!) but most notably he is able to easily identify Joshua. I hope his familiarity with Joshua is a good example of how to not let physical impairments dictate who you are and what you can do.

After our meeting yesterday we went back to the hotel and let the sun go down before we went out for dinner as it was just so hot out. I enjoyed a pizza and some potatoes with feta and then we headed back to the hotel to cool off. Instead of going for an evening walk as I normally do, I stayed up late and spent about an hour Skyping with Valerie and each of the kids took a turn talking to me. Most of them were non-chalant about my presence (they're used to me being on trips for work) but Alayna showed particular interest in my activities including where I'm staying, what I'm eating, and how Gabe is doing. Lily has shown interest, but only in the two boys in Stara Zagora, so Gabe is unfortunately not on her list of priorities for this trip.

I slept in again this morning but not as late as yesterday - the heat has really sapped the energy out of me along with all of the walking. I started off the day by calling the missionaries in Stara Zagora where I spoke to Elder Brown - I introduced myself and told him I'd be there this weekend and would like to go to church on Sunday if possible. We're going to work out the details, but I'll be calling them Friday when I get to SZ and we'll meet up on Saturday.

At our usual meeting time we met downtown at a zero-depth water feature that kids often play in. Gabe's FGM had promised him a water (squirt) gun so we went on the hunt for one in the city center shops. After finding one we filled it up in the fountain and Gabe sat in his stroller firing off shots of water in the air and at us. His fine motor skills are better than to be expected and while they can use more work, I've been surprised overall with some of his physical abilities. 

After sitting at the fountain we went over to the therapy center to see if they could fit him in since his normal slot had been moved to 2pm - unfortunately they could not because the schedule was too full but we spent several minutes talking to the girls there, Ellie and Rougia (pronounced Rouge-ah - it doesn't translate easily). Apparently word has spread quickly between our friend Kelly and the agencies supporting the therapy center and the girls have already started reading our blog - Rougia took my hand firmly and said "I am an occupational therapist, not a physical therapist" as I had incorrectly identified her as a physical therapist in my previous post... Either way, they are both very nice girls and we thank them for the work they have done with Gabe any many other children who benefit from their work. I told them to friend Valerie on Facebook (so you'd better do it!)

We said our goodbyes and walked back towards Gabe's home but first stopped at the swings for a bit so Gabe could relax on the swing. (I will need to build a new swing at our house, I think.) After 15 minutes on the swing we walked them home and said goodbye after making our plans for this evening.  We will meet at five for a short while and then at seven Gabe's FM is going to accompany me to the local building for our church where they teach English lessons twice a week. My hope is that if she is able to learn more English, she will be able to help Gabe do the same. Her English is at the basic conversational level but her vocabulary is focused on orphanage and child-centered areas. So let's just say that her English is far better than my Bulgarian.

A little more about Gabe...

Gabe's personality overall is pretty mellow, he is not overly excitable and balanced in his responses. He gets upset when he doesn't get his way but does the normal crying/complaining that you would expect of a child roughly his age. He really is very verbal if you can get him to use his words, so I think Valerie's studying of Bulgarian will come in handy when it comes to helping him transition. Gabe will be a new experience for us because we've never had the benefit/difference of having a foster family in the picture, and in his case he has obviously formed bonds with his FM and FGM but also has appropriate relationships with other women (mainly friends of his FM and FGM) who see see on our daily walks - which is also an indicator of how much time Gabe really does spend outside the apartment. He does have some institutional behaviors (mild rocking) but he also has some healthier ones (thumb-sucking) which can be seen to help him calm down. When he gets excited he tends to clap his hands and make noises of excitement but when he gets upset (like he did today during the visa photos when he thought we were in a hospital) he cries and expresses his concern verbally (saying he doesn't want to see a doctor) but can be soothed by holding him and talking to him - after a 5 minute breakdown he calmed down and we got a good visa photo for him. He communicates proactively and asks questions in full sentences and expresses his desires. I look forward to seeing continued progress after we bring him home and while his physical challenges may take some time to resolve, I think his emotional and psychological transition will be bearable for him and us. Overall, Gabe's situation is far better than I had expected based on the early photos and videos of him which I used to commit to him. I think Gabe will be an excellent part of the Rieben family and we look forward to having him come home to us.

I'm sorry I don't have many new photos or videos, but since we're spending most of our time walking I don't have as many opportunities. I will try to do better! :-D

Here are some pictures for today:
Always Happy on the Swing

...If you could just hold still I'd like to shoot you...

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Winner Winner Chicken Dinner!

The first six hidden boxes in our Back to Bulgaria Box Fundraiser have been uncovered! 

Congratulations Cheryl Johnson! 

You are the winner of a $10 iTunes Giftcard!

Congratulations Carrie Whitlock!

You are the winner of a $25 Target Giftcard! 

Congratulations Kirsten Armstrong!

You are the winner of a $25 Fandango Giftcard!

Congratulations Lee Gates!

You are the winner of a $25 iTunes Giftcard!

Congratulations Denise Reker!

You are the winner of a $25 Target Giftcard!

Congratulations Lisa Keillor!

You are the winner of a scrumptious assortment of European chocolate!

You can contact me via email with your mailing address (or email if you would just like the redemption code) by clicking on the "Contact Me" link on the sidebar. Thank you for your generous donations and your support! 

Richard Here: Day Three - Swimming Time!

After a rough night of sleep I had a quick call with Valerie at 0630 my time and then went back to bed, barely rolling out of bed before meeting Yavor downstairs for breakfast (nothing exciting for breakfast, the same toast and veggies as usual).

Adoption trips are exhausting. Period. It's emotionally draining, psychologically challenging and physically difficult. It also doesn't help that I do a ton of walking during my downtime which leaves me even more tired. But nothing is better and more rewarding than finding a supermarket, well except for spending time with Gabe.

Yesterday afternoon we met with Gabe along with his FM and FGM in their apartment near the park in Ruse. They live on the fourth floor of a standard soviet-style apartment building complete with that I like to refer to as "the ancient elevator of death" - you know, the one with no inside door so you see the wall of the shaft as you go up and down... so scary. Seriously.

His FM showed me his room and the rest of their apartment which was very quaint and orderly even with several pieces of adaptive equipment stowed throughout (kinda like our house back home). We sat talking for a while and she presented a three inch binder of his medical records... real medical records that will actually be helpful when he starts seeing doctors in the states. I connected to their internet service and suprised Val with an impromptu Skype session which allowed the kids to say hello to Gabe and for him to do likewise. It was difficult for him to see because of the small screen on the Nexus 7 (which by the way has been AWESOME to have here - I'm writing this post on it). It's become clear that Gabe's biggest challenge might actually be his vision - he seems to be able to see very close and very far, but intermediate distances seem to give him trouble. 
Gabe's Psychologist from Social Services

Real medical records - Far better than the usual worthless medical report and a "good luck" pat on the back.

This morning we met at their apartment once again and this time the psychologist came and visited with us briefly before we left for swimming therapy at the orphanage. The psychologist expressed her happiness with the progress that Gabe has made since living with his FM and we talked about his need for ongoing treatment.

Finally we left for swimming therapy and drove in Yavor's car to the orphanage which not suprisingly, looks pretty much like every other orphanage I've seen. We went in and Gabe changed into his suit and worked on therapy with his FM, who is the therapist at the orphanage. He actually swims very well (with water wings on) and is able to easily navigate the water with or without his feet on the bottom. While we were in the downstairs pool "room" the director came in and I suggested we go upstairs and talk while Gabe finished therapy. I talked to the director for about 20 minutes on a variety of topics including Gabe, the orphanage size and current situation - apparently this orphanage is preparing to shut down and the children are being sent to foster homes. The director expressed her unhappiness with this, but I had nothing to say on the topic. The director has also known Gabe since birth and also expressed happiness with his progress. I explained to her that his special needs would be addressed and that he was joining an excellent family for him. I recorded the discussion so Val could hear it later (and for Gabe when he gets older).

I've not received much response regarding my blog posts, so if there are particular topics you want covered, please let me know.

Here are some pictures for today:
Therapy Pool - Approximately 20'x12'
Playground - The Entire Grounds are Overgrown to the Point it was Difficult to get Pictures
Read of the Orphanage
Orphanage Entrance - Obviously Not Used - The Active Entrance Is In The Back
Gabe's Room