Local couple adopts 18-month-old boy from Russia

Photo By Rick Harris
Mike and Lora Owens are the proud parents of an 18-month-old son, Heath Vin. He was adopted from Russia in December 2003.

By Lesley Jenkins
star staff

   After filling out mounds of paperwork, watching videos of adoptable children, making two transatlantic flights to Russia, and struggling through the moment where both parents realized they didn't know how to change a dirty diaper, an Elizabethton couple has adopted a son.
   Mike and Lora Owens, 121 Meadow Lane, knew from the moment they were married in 1997 they wanted a child. But after struggling with infertility and an unsuccessful in-vitro fertilization, the couple decided to adopt.
   Legally, Heath Vin Owens was adopted on Dec. 2, 2003, but he wasn't welcomed home until Dec. 27. The process was long and tedious, but looking back, Mike and Lora wouldn't trade it for anything. He is the first grandchild for Mike's side of the family and the fourth on Lora's side.
   They chose to adopt from Russia through Adopt-a-Child, Inc., because international adoption is quicker than domestic adoption and there is less risk of losing the child. Unfortunately, the Owenses got held up in Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) paperwork when a new person was hired and all the cases got put on hold until the person was trained. Instead of the adoption taking as little as six months, the delay caused it to take more than 11 months.
   "(Congressman) Bill Jenkins helped us. I called (Senator) Bill Frist's office first to see if they could help us get our approval, because it kept taking so long. Most people have it in four weeks. So I called and Bill Frist's office didn't do anything. They did not help, they didn't want to talk to me.
   "Finally I called Bill Jenkins' office and they called me back the same day and told me the reason why we hadn't got it (new employee) and it was like two days later we got our approval. So his office really helped out a lot," Lora recalled.
   The couple then had to decide which child they wanted to adopt. Heath's video was the third out of five videos that Mike and Lora watched.
   "When we popped that video in I thought, 'That's him. He's perfect.' He was quiet but yet he was so sweet. I just knew whenever I looked at him. I was just like, 'He's beautiful.' Even though we were wanting younger, I told Mike, 'I want him. I want him.' When we saw his video we fell in love with him. He had on these little green shorts underneath his arms because his little clothes were so big with a little Mickey Mouse shirt on. He could walk and his motor skills were good. In the video he went, 'ooh.' And I think that was it right there," said Lora.
   "I lost my heart right then," Anne recalled about the video.
   A toy was set in front of him and when he saw it he cooed. "I had to get a DVD of it. I knew I was going to wear that video out," Lora said.
   The Owenses grew into a three-member family shortly after Christmas when they crossed the ocean for a second time to bring Heath home to Tennessee.
   Although he is a happy baby now, he had a long road to get to this point. He was born to a shopkeeper mother and his father was a driver. His birth name was Boleslav, and shortly after birth he had surgery to repair an umbilical cord hernia and a hole in his stomach wall. Lora said, "I think she just couldn't financially care for him.
   "He will know that he is adopted and where he came from. And if he wants to go back when he is a teenager or something, we will probably take him back. But we took lots of pictures and he has adoption books," Lora said.
   The process of adopting in Russia includes two trips. During the first trip, the child visits the family at the baby home, or orphanage, and the parents appear in court to finalize the adoption papers. Even though the child is technically adopted at this time, the parents have to leave the child behind and return home, suffer through a 10-day waiting period, and then make a second trip to bring their bundle of joy home.
   One of the main concerns in any adoption is whether the child will bond with the new parents. To ensure this, only Mike and Lora are allowed to feed Heath. "At first he would go to anyone who held their hands out, because of all the different caregivers he had in Russia. Now if one of them is holding him, he won't go to anyone else and he cries for them now," said Anne Johnson, paternal grandmother.
   Just as Anne was explaining the bonding and trust issue, Grandfather Lonnie Garland came into the room which attracted Heath's attention. He then showed his grandfather each of his toys, including the ride on a motorcycle that plays music when it is rocked.
   Heath's love of music makes him start "raising the roof" with his hands. "He dances, he raises the roof. He'll be in the car and almost asleep and we turn the music on real soft, and he will wake up and start dancing. He started raising the roof in church while we were singing," said Lora.
   "He is just so bright. Up until a month ago he had never heard a word of English. It is just absolutely amazing what he has picked up in one month," said Sue Garland, his maternal grandmother.
   He can say "bye-bye," "doggy," "kitty," "thank you," "daddy," "mama," and "all gone," Mike says as Heath demonstrates "all gone" by throwing his hands in the air.
   He learned to sign "all gone" during feeding time with Lora. "I had to do that with his food because if I took his bowl away after he was eating, he would cry. So that was just something I had done when the bowl was empty. I would say 'all gone' and do like that (throwing hands in the air) and then I would take his bowl and he just seemed to be fine with that," Lora explained.
   "He's really progressing from when he first came here. Even if he ate all the food in the bowl, if you took the bowl he would cry so bitterly. I guess at the time he thought that's all there is," said Anne Johnson.
   He now understands there will be more food and doesn't cry anymore. He even shares his food if someone asks for a bite, whereas when he first arrived home he wouldn't.
   The number of caregivers to children didn't allow a lot of personal attention during feeding time. Caregivers stood behind the children to spoon the food into their mouths, if the child didn't feed himself. Heath has been feeding himself with a spoon since he was 13 months old.
   According to his pediatrician, Heath is slightly underweight. He is at the 10th percentile among children his age. He has gained nearly two pounds since he has been home. At the baby home the food was prepared very bland. He won't eat sweets or desserts, but will eat animal crackers.
   The texture of food surprises Heath now. The baby home pureed a lot of food so that chewing was minimal, if even necessary in some cases. "He doesn't like the texture. Over there they didn't have to chew anything. It was all crumpled up so they didn't have to chew anything, except for the bread. So it was like bam, bam, and they were done feeding them," said Lora.
   Mike added, "It wasn't like they were mistreating them. That's just the way they did things."
   When Mike and Lora arrived at Tyson McGhee Airport in Knoxville at 11:06 p.m. on Dec. 27, almost two dozen people were waiting for them to get off the plane. "When they started down that hall, everyone started screaming and clapping. Everyone was crying," said Sue.
   "It seemed like we had waited 10 years when it had only been a year," Anne added about the moment Heath was brought home.
   "He was walking between us and we were both holding his finger when they saw us. There was people in the airport crying that we didn't even know," Lora recalled.