Comments : 0
My “lemon” was infertility. My “lemonade” was discovering my life’s mission by starting SPOON Foundation transform nutrition and care for children in orphanages and foster care, and for children with disabilities, worldwide.
I’m a girl who grew up knowing that I wanted to be a mom, only to find myself in a body that couldn’t make babies. I’m now a woman who still marvels at how the adoption of my son led me on a straight path to my life’s purpose.
We tried to conceive for five years. It never worked naturally. So, we turned to IVF. Not once but four times. It never took. As a woman, it was heartbreaking to realize that my own body wouldn’t do what it was supposed to be able to do.
It was then that we looked into adoption.
All my husband and I had hoped for was a healthy baby boy. When we met our 6-month-old son for the first time in an orphanage in Kazakhstan, however, he was dangerously underweight from severe malnourishment. He almost lost his life to something as easily preventable as malnutrition.
Jadyn’s developmental growth, as a result, had been stunted. At 6 months old, he couldn’t roll over. He couldn’t lift his head. His needs were so tremendous that I quit my job to care for him. Bringing him home to Portland in 2006 wasn’t easy. I was struggling. But Jadyn was a “gift”.
One afternoon, I went to the park to reconnect with a woman I had befriended online. Mishelle Rudzinski and I had adopted a child from Kazakhstan at the same time, and we had been exchanging emails for months.
Mishelle, who had been working as a speech pathologist, had read about a 5-year-old girl’s plight on a work listserv. The orphan, diagnosed by some doctors with cerebral palsy and by others with muscular dystrophy, was to be permanently transferred to a special “end-of-the-road” facility if she was not adopted soon.
Mishelle immediately contacted the adoption agency and received videos of the little girl who was to become her daughter. When Mishelle watched the videos, she saw the girl’s condition grow progressively worse. As a toddler, Bakha could crawl and climb. But by age 5, she was hunched over, bowlegged and barely able to walk. At the time of the adoption, the agency had Mishelle sign papers acknowledging that
Bakha might not live to age 18.
Knowing Bakha’s story, I was surprised to meet an energetic and exuberant girl at the park that day. The doctors had all been wrong. Bakha did not have cerebral palsy. Nor did she have muscular dystrophy. Her symptoms had been caused by rickets. Once given vitamin D supplements, she began showing improvement in weeks.
Mishelle and I talked to other adoptive parents and found we were hearing a similar story involving malnourishment again and again. Once you see it, it’s hard to not see it anymore. And so, we decided to act.
After much research, we found this group of children was being totally overlooked by their own countries and the international aid community. We could not find one organization in the world focused on protecting children without families from preventable malnutrition.
We had no choice but to start something ourselves. But the problem was so big that we doubted ourselves. We thought, “What can we do as just two moms in Portland, Oregon?”
I had previously been working for a health food company. Mishelle was a speech
pathologist. We knew nothing about international development, nonprofit management or medicine. And so, one of our first calls was to Dr. Dana Johnson at The University of Minnesota, who specializes in the effects of early institutionalization on international adopted children’s growth and development. Dr. Johnson’s research had confirmed — on a large scale — what Mishelle and I had seen. We would learn, later, just how common nutritional deficiencies and harmful feeding practices are worldwide in institutionalized children.
Initially, Mishelle and I thought we could send vitamins overseas. But we could not. Vitamins could get stuck in customs and expire, be sold over the black market and required regulatory approval in other countries.
Instead, we embarked on something far greater. With Dr. Johnson’s help, Mishelle and I assembled a team of medical advisors, former government officials, public health professionals, clinicians, nonprofit executives and international development experts. We were even joined by the former U.S. Ambassador to Armenia and Kazakhstan. SPOON Foundation, transforming nutrition and care for orphaned and vulnerable children, was born.
We began in Kazakhstan in 2007 and, through our work, earned the full support of the Kazakhstani government. With local partners, we assessed the nutritional status and psychomotor development of hundreds of children in baby homes (the name for orphanages for children under 5 in Kazakhstan). Half of the children in their study had measurable delays in motor and mental development. And the levels of malnutrition they found were on par with what one might see in a famine.
Over time, SPOON Foundation staff helped deliver vitamin supplements, change meal plans and alter feeding practices in Kazakhstani baby homes. In December 2011, the Kazakhstan government passed a law requiring that all baby homes adopt new nutritional standards. A lot of countries wouldn’t have been open to this. Kazakhstan wanted to do a better job for these kids. They wanted to be pioneers in this work, and they have been.
SPOON has grown and is now also working in China, India, Vietnam, Russia, and Tajikistan – with plans to launch a program in US Foster Care in the next year.
I think that a lot of people struggle. They ask, “Why am I here? What’s my purpose?” And Jaydn just handed mine to me by introducing me to this truth. There are so many children in this world who aren’t getting what they need. I can’t go back and undo what wasn’t given to him, but we can change that for other kids. SPOON Foundation is my “lemonade.”
Founder & Executive Director
SPOON Foundation is the first organization dedicated to transforming nutrition and care for children in orphanages, foster care and children with disabilities worldwide.