Rusty is 17!!

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Oh, how can it be that my mushy little chunk-muffin has been stretched to a height of six foot three and is now almost a man?!

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Rusty:

My first son and only son for the longest time.

Now older brother to three younger brothers.

I couldn’t have picked a better child to fill the role of oldest son. His strength of character is just the example I’d like my younger three sons to follow.

Rusty is my quiet servant. He says little, asks for no acknowledgement or recognition, just quietly observes the needs of others and acts without being asked. He is such a blessing to me.

I rely on and depend on his strength (physical and emotional) both in opening pickle jars and in highly emotional moments. There is a steadiness that he exudes that draws people to him.

Rusty is kind. I call him a gentle giant and he is every bit that.

He is quick to smile and what a smile he has!

He has a gift with animals, especially dogs and horses. His gentle, quiet authority calms animals and makes them feel safe.

He loves problem solving and puzzle solving. He like word puzzles and riddles. His mind is quick and so is his wit. Of all my children he and I share the most similar sense of humor (which makes him hilarious!)Ā  šŸ˜‰

Rusty loves to explore how things work, enjoys trivia and his favorite subject is math. He is a black and white, logical thinker. He is great in a crisis and is our family’s one-man-tech department… solving any computer/tv/electronic issue that arises.

Rusty loves all things Disney and considers Walt Disney his personal hero. Someday he’d love to work at Disney World.

For 4 years of Rusty’s life he didn’t speak a single word to anyone outside his immediate family. We did not know if he would ever have the ability to overcome the challenge of Selective Mutism and successfully navigate the world. His anxiety made speech impossible. You’d never know it today.

Rusty is a special soul. I knew it the moment he was laid in my arms and I believe it even more today…

17 years later.

When I found out I was pregnant with a son I was terrified. “I am not a ‘boys mom’ sort of mother,” I wailed. I am so glad God had more faith in my ability to raise boys that I had in myself because I would have missed out on so much. There is something special about the love that exisit between a mother and her son. It is a love different from that I share with my girls.

Rusty was my teacher. I learned to raise boys with him in my arms, and now I am the mom to four. But Rusty will always be my first baby boy. He will always hold a special part of my heart.

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For Rusty’s birthday we enjoyed a fun night out at Dave and Busters. This unique restaurant is the adult equivalent of Chucky Cheese. Take away the cardboard pizza and spooky animatronic characters, add some delicious food and state of the art arcade games, and you have Dave and Busters.

It was a perfect birthday choice for Rusty.

And it was a delight to enjoy some playtime as a family.

Rusty’s birthday fell on a Wednesday. The day began with his birthday cupcake and ended with his birthday cake. Because it was a school/work day, his celebration began at 5:00 when Toby arrived home from work.

We began with gifts…

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Each sibling did their own shopping and Toby and I bought our gadget loving guy a drone. He had been pondering the possibility of going to school to be a drone pilot and thought this would be a nice way to test and see if it is something he’d like to pursue.

After he was done opening gifts we headed down to Pittsburgh for a night of good eats and fun games as a family.

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Because Rusty’s birthday fell on a Wednesday, we were able to take advantage of 50% off all arcade games, making Rusty’s birthday celebration more affordable for our family of eight.

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Rusty had a wonderful time. I mean, can you think of a more perfect way to celebrate a 17-year-old boy’s birthday than hours of arcade games?!

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We ended up all having a lot of fun and making some special memories as a family.

Happy 17th birthday Rusty!

We can’t wait to see what adventures the next 17 years holds!

 

One Step Closer to the Eagle

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It has been 9 years since Rusty first donned the blue and gold uniform of the Cub Scouts. Since then he has spent endless hours learning skills, earning merit badges, camping, hiking, building fires, attending Scout Camp, and participating in service projects, all with the end goal of earning his Eagle.

Eagle Scout is the highest achievement or rank attainable in the Boy Scouting program of the Boy Scouts of America. The designation “Eagle Scout” was founded over one hundred years ago. Only four percent of Boy Scouts are granted this rank after a lengthy review process. The requirements necessary to achieve this rank take years to fulfill.

And we are proud to say that Rusty is one step closer to joining the 4 % who have earned that rank.

One of the final steps in earning the rank of Eagle comes when the scout develops and executes a plan to lead a service project that will benefitĀ  the community. This large project is the culmination of a lot of behind-the-scenes planning, prepping and presenting the planned project to gain approval for their proposed Eagle Scout project.

As Rusty considered possible projects he decided to approach the good people at Ready Yourself Youth Ranch, a non-profit organization that he and his sisters volunteer at two mornings a week to see if they had any possible work projects on their wish list that he and his scout troop could bless them with.

Our family was introduced to Ready Yourself Youth Ranch a year ago as a possible resource for the older kids as we navigated the challenging/explosive behaviors that Ozzie was presenting at the time. Our family based therapy team thought the ranch could be a place of refuge that the older kids could escape to on hard days and allow them to benefit from the therapeutic affects of serving and blessing others.

My kiddos fell in love with the ranch and since that day have committed themselves to waking up early two mornings a week and driving to the ranch to care for the horses from 7:00- 9:00 am. Their responsibilities include feeding/wateringĀ  the horses, moving them to the pastures, grooming horses, and mucking stalls.

It not the most glamorous work, but my kids love it. They have found a place of refuge and peace among the dusty stalls of Ready Yourself Youth Ranch…

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And they aren’t the only ones.

“Ready Yourselves Youth Ranch is a non-profit, Christian ministry that connects horses in need of rescue with children dealing with challenges and difficulties who need to learn about the hope and healing found in Jesus Christ. In 2010, the founders and directors, Micheline and Mathew Barkley desired to combine her broken childhood and his equestrian experience to rescue horses and mentor children facing conflicts and challenges of their own. Ā When God blessed them with fifty acres of land, in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, they gathered a dedicated group of volunteers and mentors to bring their faith, time and talents to make RYYR a place where Godā€™s love and grace enables horses and children to trust and love again.

Ready Yourselves Youth Ranch is for children, ages 6 through 18, who are dealing with challenges and difficulties. We connect one child, one horse, and one mentor for ninety minutes of interactive experience, free of charge. Learning to care for and ride rescue horses, many who have come from environments of abuse or neglect, increases a child’s trust, faith and love. The overall aim of our session program is to love and encourage children which in turn will foster hope and joy.”

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When Rusty approached Micheline (the owner and visionary of the ranch) about projects on her wish list she quickly produced a list of possible projects Rusty could undertake for his Eagle Scout project. He decided that he would present the plan of constructing an outdoor riding arena for the ranch to the board to get approval. Once he received approval the dates were set for his Eagle Scout project.

The project took two Saturdays.

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The support of many made lighter work of what would have been a very arduous task!

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Dozens of fellow scouts, leaders, siblings, and friends from church answered the call and showed up ready to work.

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It was quite the undertaking but the arrival of many helpers was inspiring.

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Rusty couldn’t have done it without the generous support of so many helping hands.

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Here are photos of the many happy helpers and the project they tackled over the course of two Saturdays:

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In Rusty’s attempt to bless others, he too was blessed.

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We are so proud of this young man we call “son.”

A BIG “thank you” to all who have helped mold Rusty into the man he is today.

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He is who he is thanks in part to leaders (both current and past) who have taught Rusty scouting survival skills and basic life skills that will benefit him as a man. We are grateful for the wonderful troop of boys who have grown up with Rusty, and the many friends and families who have cheered Rusty on as he has blossomed from a silent and timid little boy into a confident and caring young man.

It truly does take a village to raise a son…or at least an incredible Boy Scout troop.

How thankful I am for troop 558!

A Family that Plays Together…

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Whew!

What…A…Week!

Some weeks are especially hard.

Some weeks are wrought with an extra steep climb and out-of-the-ordinary challenges.

Some weeks hold more tears than smiles,

And more weariness than joy.

Some weeks take you 20 steps backwards and produce a desire to simply crawl back into bed, pull the covers over one’s head, and try again in 24 hours.

Some weeks make you question everything you thought you knew, everything you do, and everything you are.

Some weeks drive you to drink…or at least make you wish you were a drinker.

Some weeks are full of moments so surreal and un-freaking-believable that you wonder if there was something special about the mushrooms in last night’s stir-fry.

Some weeks are so heartbreakingly hard that you can’t muster the drive to do much more that numbly move through the motions of living.

Some weeks are so absurd that you question whether you have somehow lost your mind and everyone forgot to tell you.

This week was one of THOSE WEEKS.

I am so empty I don’t even have it in me to tell the tales of the last 5 days…

You wouldn’t believe me if I did.

My little RAD kiddo dragged me through the wringer. I mean I love him, but some days…Grrr…

A good barometer of my mental health can be found in the ponderings of my blog. I write to process through the ups and downs, joys and heartaches of this journey we are on…

When the screen becomes blank and my voice falls silent it is because I can’t find an inkling of hope or a nugget of wisdom hidden within the current struggle we are navigating.

Silence is a sure sign of discouragement and hopelessness.

The clouds have now parted enough to allow a ray or two of sunshine through the low hanging clouds and I thought I’d share our survival strategy for the dark days that have plagued us…

When the urge is to run, hide, fight or isolate, reigns supreme, the cure is to play.

As an introvert by nature, when the weight of the world lays heavy on my shoulders my instinct is to isolate for self-preservation, but I recognize how essential it is for our family, as a whole, to pull together, draw closer, and focus on attachment and connection when feelings of resentment and frustration are pushing us apart.

So we play…

And it is a healing balm for hurt feelings and injured relationships.

One evening this past week, when everyone was home and the hours before bedtime were mercifully free, we chose to set aside tasks that needed done and hard feelings that had surfaced from the poor choice of one child who is struggling at the moment, and commit to “just be.”

We didn’t plan, we didn’t orchestrate, we left with no agenda for our local park to simply play.

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We needed it.

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We were all raw,

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and I was trying to remember why I had signed up for this mothering gig.

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An hour of just being a family helped me remember why I keep showing up and keep navigating this rocky road.

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This is why I do it.

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This is what it is all about.

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This is the reward for the hard days and ugly moments.

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Sometimes you just have to drop everything and go play,

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Because the family that plays together, stays together.

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A little of this. A little of that..

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Time for another catch-up post.

To answer the questions of concern from those who love us and have wondered at our apparent disappearance from their lives…

Yes, we are all still alive and kicking.

No, we haven’t fallen off the edge of the Earth.

Yes, we realize we haven’t been the best friends/family members these last 6 weeks.

No, we aren’t mad, sad, or hurt by something you said or did.

Ā And no, we are not trying to avoid you…

We are just stretched to the max and trying to keep our heads above water.

Even blogging, my favorite therapeutic outlet, has taken a backseat to the everyday tasks we are trying desperately to stay on top of…

You know those necessary irritabilities that have to occur regularly, like meals on the table and clean clothes for the family. But we are still here and still working to find our groove with the addition of another child in the family, additional activities that the kids need ushered to, appointments out the wazoo, and school work. I have never slept so well, so deeply, or so quickly as I do in this season of life. I pray we might find our rhythm again and our days will eventual settle into an upbeat, little two-step rather than this frantic, “flight of the bumblebee” freestyle we are dancing at the moment.

But I can’t complain too loudly. God has been incredibly gracious and we have witnessed the multiplying miracle, much like the loaves and fishes, with our time and energy. On paper the math doesn’t equate. How we fit so many tasks, responsibilities and obligations into a 24 hour period is nothing short of miraculous. It testifies to the Heavenly promise that God will make a way if we but faithfully answer His call to “Go and do the things that He commands.”

So outside the tasks that take priority in our lives these days, filling our calendars with schooling, tutoring, therapy, home management, sports practices. and CYF appointments, here are some of the small moments that make up our days on Patchwork Farm:

The weather has been crazy lately. In the last few weeks we have lost power multiple times due to high winds and thunderstorms. One particularly exciting storm brought down three trees in our front yard and knocked out our power for 2 1/2 days.

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It was a fun adventure at first. We lit candles and enjoyed a fun dinner and board games in the candlelight. It ceased being fun when bedtime came and my kids that are scared of the dark didn’t want to go to bed.

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The next day we ran into more problems when my cyber schooled children, who rely on electricity and internet service to do school, couldn’t log in. Our short term fast from modern conveniences was humbling and was a good reminder of how many everyday blessings we take for granted.

School is in full swing for me. I have begun BYU-Idaho’s Pathway program. I am slowly adjusting to the academic workload as I manipulate the free minutes of the day searching for the 3-4 hours of study time I need to allow each day to keep on top of my classes. I have a consistent 2 1/2 hours set aside in my schedule each morning while the kids have live classes and then make up the difference by carrying my laptop with me to ball fields and waiting rooms, taking advantage of free minutes to read and complete assignments. (School is majorly cutting into my blog time!) I am, however, loving the challenge and its been fun exercising some mental muscles I haven’t worked for a while.

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(The kids insisted on a back to school picture of Mom on the night of my first Pathway Gathering class.)

A few weeks ago Tyler and Brandon shared their first joint activity with the youth. It was the first youth activity Brandon was able to attend since he moved in a month ago and it was Tyler’s first joint activity having recently turned 12. It was fun that they were able to experience this “first” together, and the fact that they had Molly, Rusty, and Ozzie there as well made it even more fun.

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The youth leaders couldn’t have picked a better introduction activity to welcome in Brandon and Tyler than the activity they picked: Human Foosball! The high energy activity, coupled with ice cream sundaes after the game, made for an awesome night!

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Last week Miss Grace came home from school eager to show off something special.

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She called us into the kitchen and pulled from a plain white envelope this:

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Her ASL certificate!

Grace has completed the first half of the program, earning her certificate in sign language interpreting and is now working on the second half of the program which will earn her an associates degree in the same field before she transfers to a four year college. Grace worked so hard to earn this ASL interpreting certificate and we are so proud of our hard working girl!

Speaking of our “girl on the go”…

Miss Grace has kept busy this last month with a task beyond her normal workload. She volunteered to take on the task of planning a luau for her Young Single Adult ward with the help of a great committee. This undertaking was a big one but it was a challenge that played to her strengths. She had a blast getting creative and creating a dinner and dance around this fun theme. She said the night was a blast! Here are some photos of the night:

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Molly and two of her best buddies went out last Friday night to celebrate some exciting news. Molly, Tatum and Caleigh each campaigned for leadership roles in National Honor Society. Molly campaigned for the role of President, Tatum campaigned for the role of Parliamentarian, and Caleigh campaigned for the role of Historian.

Well, on Friday they each received the exciting news that they were elected to the leadership roles they were seeking. These three sweet girls make up 3/4ths of 21st Century Cyber Charter School’s new National Honor Society presidency.

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Congratulations girls!

And in final news…

Brandon has joined Tyler and Ozzie on the back of a horse. This past week Brandon began equine therapy at Glade Run Adventures in Zelienople. He was paired with Pumpkin for the lesson and the connection was immediate. It was his first time on the back of the horse and I could tell he was a bit nervous,Ā  but any unease disappeared as soon as he climbed atop Pumpkin.

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It was an immediate connection and we soon discovered that despite lack of previous experience, Brandon was a natural.

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Like Tyler, his God-given athleticism and calm confidence made him a natural on the back of the horse. Like Tyler, he also had a way with animals. He loved it and his equine therapist commented to me at the end of the lesson, as we watched Brandon squeeze and love on Pumpkin, “This is why I do what I do.”

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I think equine therapy is going to be a great blessing in Brandon’s healing journey.

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ICONz for Ozzie

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Recently Ozzie has started taking part in an activity that is solely his…

And is loving it!

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A few months ago our Family Based therapy team connected us with the amazing people at Parents in Toto. This non-profit organization, based out of Zelienople, offers support to individuals on the Autism spectrum including parental support, social skills groups and family activities multiple times a month. This year they are also offering a free ICONz class at their center, made possible through a state grant.

While visiting Parents in Toto, we were introduced to the ICONz program and knew that it was a program that would benefit both Ozzie and the entire family. In addition to teaching needed skills, this class allows Ozzie to meet twice a week with other 13-18 year oldsĀ  on the spectrum and hone his social skills in a fun and engaging way.

So, what is the ICONzĀ® Program?

The program is designed for studentsĀ to learn positive ways of responding to social situations and the underlying complexities of these interactions.

The ICONzĀ® Program is uniquely based on research conducted in local high schools with curriculum written and developed by Russell Johnson, PhD, founder and principle of ICONzĀ® Associates, LLC.

How does the program work?

The program uses a series of stories that describe characters in everyday social encounters.Ā Students are introduced to visually-based concepts/cues that help the main characterĀ achieve a positive outcome. The ICONzĀ® Social Concept Cues enable students to understand the complexity of social expectations and choose positive responses. This language-based curriculum requires basic verbal ability to participate in the exchange of ideas.

Ā The program is most successful when the ICONzĀ® language is used in the group and at home.

The ICONzĀ® Toolbox Curriculum

Dr. Johnsonā€™s experience with verbal adolescents and adults with ASD is consistent with recent advances in autism research suggesting that these individuals are better able to perform behaviors which he calls Information Processing Skills but perform less well on tasks which focus on Social Relationship-Building Skills.

Based on his research, Dr. Johnson has developed a curriculum that integrates practices that have been found to be helpful in working with verbal individuals on the autism scale. The ICONzĀ® Toolbox Curriculum is based on the use of ICONzĀ® Social Concept Cues, a set of easy-to-remember visual cues and their accompanying reminder phrases. The ICONzĀ® Curriculum contains a series of lessons that illustrate how to use the ICONzĀ® Social Concept Cues in everyday life through stories, social autopsies, brainstorming other options, journaling, and life application.

The ICONzĀ® Curriculum helps verbal individuals with ASD learn more effective Social Relationship-Building Skills and improve their ability to balance relationship-building and Information Processing Skills in everyday social life. The goal is to help individuals with ASD learn to improve the quality of their lives in terms of independence and overall satisfaction in their relationships with other people.

ICONzĀ® Social Concept Cues

The proprietary ICONzĀ® Social Concept Cues are a specialized visual language designed to help individuals learn, remember, and apply basic social concepts and behaviors in every day life. These vivid, compact symbols serve as powerful visual cues to activate social behaviors learned in conjunction with the ICONzĀ® Toolbox Curriculum. Some targeted social behaviors include compromise, self control, and ā€œgetting the big pictureā€ (context). These and other verbal and social behaviors are especially difficult for individuals with ASD.

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Ozzie has now been participating in his ICONz group for a few weeks and is LOVING it. The setting is interactive and engaging and the affect of that engagement is understanding and retention of the concepts taught.

We have also begun introducing each of these principles in our home in an attempt to have these key phrases become part of our common vocabulary. While developed for those on the spectrum, the principles are good basic human skills that everyone can benefit from applying to their interactions with others. I have especially seen how this ICONzĀ  model could be beneficial for parenting children who have experienced trauma. The visual cues and short/clear verbal prompts are a great fit for the way the brain works in a child who has experienced the physiological effects trauma has on the brain.

Ozzie meets with his group two evenings a week and wishes it was more!

Thank you, Parents in Toto, for blessing our lives with ICONz,

What an amazing program!

Far too long apart…

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It has been 4 weeks now since our family of 7 became a family of 8. At a court hearing on August 22nd, the judge presiding over Brandon’s case officially placed in him in our home as a pre-adoptive placement.

Our last four weeks have been extremely busy. Those who have fostered children well know how busy things are those first 30 days following placement. In the midst of simply trying to find your footing as a new family there are a lot of extra tasks on the family calendar…

Things like tracking down IEPs and past records, registering for school, shopping for all the basic necessities like clothes and sundries that the child arrives at your doorstep without, fill your days. There are also endless appointments, most of which are required to occur within 30 days of placement. Home becomes Grand Central Station. The front door becomes a swinging door as endless people enter and exit. This is all a good thing. The increased level of monitoring is to make sure some these children are safe and cared for, but just to give you an example of what I am talking about here it what that level of care looks like:

Once a week, the social worker from your agency assigned to your family will visit your home.

Once a month, the social worker from your countyā€™s CPS will visit your home.

Within the first 30 days,Ā the child needs to visit his/her pediatrician. If your child has specific health issues, it is possible that your social workers may request this to be done sooner.

Within the first few weeks, the court investigator will also make a home visit. (The court investigator is the CPS social worker tasked with making a recommendation to the court (judge) regarding the childā€™s case in the early stages.)

Within the first few weeks, youĀ may also receive a home visit from a social worker employed by the childā€™s lawyer.

Possible other appointments include, but are not limited to: IEP meetings, therapy appointments, tutoring, and other various and sundry things that may arise in the case.

The time of year has also added to the craziness as we try to adjust as a family to a new son but also adjust to a new school year and become acquainted with being public school parents and all that entails ( bus schedules, football practice, open houses, etc.)

In the midst of the craziness, however, I have tried to keep a firm grip on what is most important and not allow the “important” to be swallowed up by the “urgent,”

And one of the most important tasks on the list has been to facilitate reunions between Brandon and the biological siblings he has not seen for the last few years.

When Tyler, Brandon, and their other two brothers and little sister where removed from their birth home they were separated by the courts and placed in different homes. Over the course of a few years they were adopted individually into different families. When Tyler came into our life it was just he and Brandon left in the system having court ordered sibling visits. We knew that upon the adoption of Tyler one of our first priorities would be to track down and reach out to the various adoptive families and try to reconnect him with the siblings he had lost.

We have been blessed greatly in this regard. We located and reached out to the other families soon after adopting Tyler and were able to host a reunion at Patchwork Farm soon after. What joy there was in watching these children reunite after years of separation, and what a joy it was meeting the amazing families that adopted each of Tyler’s siblings!

Since that special day we have tried to keep Tyler connected to his siblings through phone calls, birthday gifts, and visits, but because of the life circumstances unjustly thrust upon Brandon, he has not been able to enjoy that same level of contact.

Brandon adores his siblings and has missed them greatly, so one of our top priorities, amidst the craziness of all the “urgent tasks” filling our calendars, was to make time for Brandon (and Tyler) to reconnect with their biological siblings.

The eventual goal is to host another reunion at our home in the upcoming months but I didn’t want Brandon to have to wait on the logistics of multiple schedules aligning for that to occur, so in the meantime we arranged some individual visits.

Which leads us to two events that have occurred in the past few weeks…

First we had a visit with Cheyanne and her mom. Cheyanne is the youngest of the sibling group and the only girl. She is deeply love by both my boys and when we were able to arrange an impromptu visit both boys were over-the moon about it. It happened after our Kennywood visit. Rain led to an early closing, leaving us free late Saturday afternoon with no plans. Realization that we weren’t to far from Cheyanne’s neck of the woods led to a phone call and plans to meet at Dairy Queen for ice cream and a mini-reunion between Cheyanne and her big brothers.

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It was absolutely delightful watching these three reconnect and become reacquainted, and doing so over Dairy Queen blizzards made the experience all the sweeter! They had all grown so much since their last visit that they couldn’t help but be shocked by each others growth, but despite the physical growth and changes to their appearances, the genetic resemblance remains as strong as ever! There is no question that these three are siblings!

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A week later we had the opportunity to meet up with another one of Tyler and Brandon’s siblings. This time it was Sean that we arranged to meet.

Like Tyler and Brandon, Sean also plays football for his school and after getting a copy of his game schedule from his mom, we made plans to meet her at one of Sean’s games so his brothers could cheer him on.

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It was delightful catching up with Sean’s mom while my boys watched their brother play.

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Tyler was delighted to find out that, just like him, Sean was the team’s kicker…

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And just like Tyler, he is incredible at it!

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After the game we had a half hour to spend together before Sean had band practice, so we drove to Wendy’s for a quick dinner that Sean’s mom kindly treated us to. The boys were so cute together. It was neat watching them reconnect, tease,Ā  and laugh as brothers do.

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Their only complaint was that they didn’t get nearly enough time together. They desperately wanted to head to a local park to throw the football, but were grateful for the time they did get together.

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Hopefully we will be seeing all three siblings again soon, for nothing has more value in this life than the love of family!

Friday Night Lights

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It is fall in Western Pennsylvania and we find ourselves in the heart of football season. After years of avoiding organized sports with the older kids,Ā  we dipped our big toe into the sports pond when Tyler joined our family at age 6. We tried to fight it but even at that age he had an affinity for sports of any kind, having been actively involved in soccer and football at his previous foster home, and we soon realized that for all of our survival that kid needed an energy outlet!

After a few months in our home we gave into the inevitable and signed him up for soccer, followed by football in the fall. It was a definite social shock stepping into the world of little league sports and all that comes with it.

The benefit of such an uncomfortable social shift, however, was a very tired little boy at the end of the day…a benefit that far outweighed the less appealing aspects of organized youth sports.

It was because of our naivety and lack of experience that we found ourselves at Blackhawk Lil’ Cougars football sign-ups that first year. We saw the signs around town advertising football sign-ups and so we arrived with required papers in hand (birth certificate, report card and proof of address) on the night advertised. He was registered and began playing, making quick friends with the other little brutes on his team. There was something endearing about watching 20 wild 6-year-old’s navigate the field as they learned the sport.

It wasn’t until we were fully entrenched in the world of the Cougars that we found out that we should have signed Tyler up under Beaver Fall’s league since we technically live in Beaver Falls school district. By the time we realized our mistake Tyler was firmly settled into this group of boys and we chose to request an exemption rather than move him. He has been playing with the Cougars ever since and loves his teammates and coaches.

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That was all well and good and then Tyler’s biological brother, Brandon, moved into our home. He, too, has both a love and affinity for sports and since he is currently required by the judge to attend our local public school it made it easy to simply sign him up for the high school football team.

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After a few years of not being able to live a “normal” teenager’s life, he is thrilled to be navigating halls between classes and donning football gear every day after school. Like Tyler, he has a natural gift for athletics and is loving being part of a team.

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So now we have two boys on the field each week, but they wear the colors of two different schools…

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Two rival schools.

Which had made life a bit crazier than usual.

Everyday Brandon has football practice immediately following school until 5:30 pm. We pick him up and then head to Tyler’s field for his daily practice from 6:00-8:00 pm.

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Friday nights are spent under the lights as we dress in our orange and black to watch Brandon play.

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Then on Saturdays we put on our green and gold to cheer on Tyler.

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Some of these games are pleasant but others are miserable…

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This one was particularly nasty as we battled high winds and heavy rains. We definitely earned some parenting points for our participation!

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For the most part we have been able to navigate this arrangement,Ā  but Friday presented its own unique challenge when both boys were committed to be on two different fields for Friday night’s game.

Brandon’s game was a home game on Geneva College’s field but Tyler was also invited to be on the field Friday night as part of Blackhawk’s community days. The high school invited all the little players and cheerleaders to the game to support the high school team. The boys were invited to sit along the sidelines and then step onto the field as the big boys entered the stadium, cheering them on.

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Tyler didn’t want to miss this special event so we began our night with the Blackhawk Cougars and then at halftime drove across town to watch the second half of the game at Beaver Falls to cheer on the Tigers.

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It has been fun watching Tyler and Brandon bond over football. And we are all thrilled to have someone living in the house who readily volunteers to toss the ball with Tyler, giving the rest of our throwing arms a break!

Tonight we go and watch another brother in uniform.

Sean, Tyler and Brandon’s middle biological brother, is playing for his school and both my boys are excited to go and watch one of his games and reconnect with a brother they haven’t seen in a few years.

It is definitely football season in Western PA!

 

Molly’s Photo Session

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Well, here we are again.

First Grace and now Molly.

Molly is now a senior and with that exciting time of life comes additional items on the “to-do” list, as we help her prepare for the upcoming, next chapter of life. We find ourselves deeply entrenched in tasks like college visits, SAT testing, scholarship applications and SENIOR PHOTOS…

One of the more enjoyable tasks on our senior “to-do” list.

Like Grace, Molly asked that I take her senior photos rather than hire someone else to do it. She felt it would be more personal that way and that her personality would shine forth more clearly than if she was in front of a stranger’s camera.

I was thrilled she wanted her Momma to take her pictures. We began throwing around ideas for locations and props.

It was fun to see how differently the girls approached the task of senior photos, each choosing outfits, seasons and props so very different from each other, but so perfectly reflective of each of them.

When we did Gracie’s senior photos she choose the month of October, wanting the fall foliage to be her backdrop. Her outfit and props lent themselves to a classic, vintage, shabby-chic feel:

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Molly on the other hand is all about sunshine and wanted her photos to reflect her bright, fun, quirky personality. Her colors were bright primary colors and her outfit was casual. For her backdrop we decided to take a little road trip to Conneaut Lake Park, an old fashioned amusement park about 90 minutes away from home. We went in the morning when the park was deserted, prior to the rides being open, with a bag full of props on hand.

Grace joined us, adding her creative eye to the process. We had so much fun on our girls’ date and got a lot of fun photos for Molly to choose from…

A professional photographer may have produced more flawless photos, but we would have missed out on making some magical memories had we been sitting in a studio behind the lens of a stranger.

We had so much fun and laughed until our bellies hurt,

And even managed to get some usable shots along the way.

Here are some of Molly’s favorites that she is trying to choose between.

Like Gracie’s photo shoot, we’d love to hear your vote.

Which is your favorite?

Cast your vote for Molly’s senior photo!

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Adoption is…

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Adoption is caring.

Adoption is giving.

Adoption is hope.

Adoption is redemption.

Adoption is a blessing.

Adoption is LOVE.

But adoption is also heartache, heartbreak and loss.

It is all of those things, and if we don’t acknowledge that truth then we are doing a disservice to those who are embarking on (or are already traveling) theĀ  adoption path.

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Adoption is emotionally messy. Choosing to open your heart and home to a child that has come into your life through loss and tragedy creates a muddy mix of emotions on all ends. With each placement I am better understanding this reality and have adjusted my expectations accordingly.

When Tyler came into our home as a hurting 6-year-old boy, I am ashamed to admit that I really didn’t get it. I viewed what we were offering him to be a loving gift that he should be grateful and excited about. I wanted his emotions to mirror mine. I was feeling excited, blessed, and full of love for my new son but didn’t recognize that his emotions were more complicated.

The reality is…

As much as media wraps the experience in the tagline of: “Adoption is LOVE,”

(Which it is!)

It should equally be acknowledged: “Adoption is Loss.”

If a child comes to you through adoption, whether due to being removed from an abusive home or placed as an infant by a loving birth mother who is sacrificing all for the sake of the child she loves, loss is involved. There needs to be an understanding that while adoption is a beautiful blessing, it is not all joy and gratitude and celebration. There is also a lot of sadness, confusion, fear, anger, and grief connected with this journey.

The past five years have taught me a lot and I feel better equipped to sensitively and kindly navigate this road with Brandon than I was able to with Tyler. God is working on all of us and opening our eyes to the bigger picture and the deeper reality.

Two weeks ago we made a trip down to Washington County so that Brandon could have a visit with his adoptive father (whom he calls “Pap.”) His adoptive Dad is under the care of hospice due to terminal cancer. It is because of a series of heartbreaking losses in Brandon’s life that we find him living in our home. The visit was a good one. It was good for Brandon to see that we would continue to facilitate visits with his Pap and make visits a priority while we still can, but also good for his pap to see Brandon thriving.. giving him a sense of peace about the situation.

When it was time to leave and we were walking out to the car Brandon asked if he could go say “hello” to his dog.

Tied up in the backyard was a beagle that was bouncing with excitement at the sight of his boy. Brandon asked if I would go back with him because he wanted me to meet his dog.

The next 30 minutes were spent sitting in the grass as the pup bounced between us. With that wiggling mass of pure love in his arms, Brandon’s soul opened and the words began to pour out. Sitting beneath the shade of the tree heĀ  started talking; sharing memories of all that had happened in that place. Memories of his dog, of afternoons spent in the woods. He shared memories of learning to cook at his adoptive mom’s side and the struggle of watching her health diminish,

And the crushing loss he felt when she died.

It was as though his reinforced, emotional dam broke loose and the thoughts and feelings of the last few years poured out of him. There in the backyard of his home he purged a lifetime of tears and broken dreams and I sat and listened. It was cathartic and I could see the physical affect that emotional purging had on him.

I held him as he cried.

His overgrown, man-body shook with the tears of a toddler…those tears that wrack the body and wash the soul.

I held him tight until he released his grip, indicating he no longer needed hugged. As he stepped away he turned to say good-bye to a furry friend who has been a loving companion through some of the darkest life experiences a person can endure.

I suggested we take a picture of him with his dog so that we could print it and frame it for his room.

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He eagerly agreed and the pup thought it was a good idea too!

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We left the home of his Pap with the last of his meager worldly possessions packed in a black garbage bag. We will be returning for additional visits, making sure he has as many visits with his Pap as we can before Brandon experiences another horrible loss.

But despite the fact we will return for visits, there was a sad finality in the way he looked over his shoulder as we left, at the place he has called home for the last few years.

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Adoption is about hope, care, redemption and love…

but it is also about loss.

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We must never forget that.

 

 

Kennywood Days- Round 2!

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This summer my kids experienced Kennywood amusement park for the first time. This was thanks to friends we were able to acquire 1/2 price tickets which allowed us to affordably take our family of eight to this Pittsburgh icon.

It turns out that it was a deal that kept on giving because, following a fun, full day at Kennywood,the skies opened up, driving out visitors a few hours before the scheduled closing time…

Which resulted in eight raincheck tickets to return another day for FREE!

Woo hoo…what a deal!

The tickets were for the regular 2018 season so they had to be used before mid-September. The start of school and corresponding activities, along with two time-consuming football schedules, limited our possibilities of when we could use those raincheck tickets. We soon discovered that this past Saturday was really our only option.

We woke up to rain and were sure that our plans for the day would be canceled because of weather, but after monitoring the website all morning it seemed they were going to open the gates and we would be able to use our free tickets.

When we arrived we were informed that the park would be closing at 4:00 that day due to impending storms. The wash of disappointment that hit us was soon placated by the unexpected blessing of eight more raincheck tickets. These raincheck tickets are for the 2019 season, which will allow us to return a third time for FREE. What a blessing!

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So in we went with another set of admission tickets in hand and smiles on our faces, ready to enjoy the four hours we had ahead of us before closing.

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The very rain which was causing the early closure also drove away visitors, making it so we could walk onto every ride at the park. Despite the shorter amount of time we had to ride, we actually fit in a lot more rides that day thanks to the skeletal crowd.

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The rain broke midday, making the majority of our time at Kennywood dry.

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It wasn’t until the last 30 minutes that the sky actually opened up and we were driven indoors.

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The kids all enjoyed revisiting the rides and coasters they loved during our first visit,

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And while the other 5 kids were off enjoying coasters with Dad,

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I took Ozzie over to the newly opened Thomastown, where he was able to step inside his favorite childhood show.

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Ozzie is obsessed with Thomas the Train, and despite the fact he is now 14-years-old, his autism (and the boundless joy and enthusiasm that accompanies it) is evident when he is exposed to the things he is most enamored with. We stepped into Thomastown and he became a 6-year-old little boy again, meeting his favorite childhood friends in person.

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He was over-the-moon excited with the attention to detail found in this newest area of Kennywood Park.

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It was a delight spending that hour with just Ozzie as we experienced the world of Thomas the Train…

With themed rides, interactive characters, and talking trains…

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He was in heaven!

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After an hour in Thomastown, Ozzie and I met up with the rest of the family to re-ride our favorite rides before the park closed.

It was a fun day and we look forward to returning in 2019!