Adoption completes family touched by Down syndrome
Todd and Anne Hollis of Elmwood wanted to add to their family, and they wanted a playmate for their 3-year-old daughter, Meg, who has Down syndrome. The couple got their wish when they adopted 3-year-old Alina from an orphanage in Ukraine.
Todd and Anne Hollis first learned that their lives were immutably changed – for the better, they now agree – from the slip of a resident doctor’s tongue.
“We knew shortly after (daughter) Meg was born that there was some trouble, and we thought it might be some sort of a heart problem,” Todd Hollis said. “When the doctor came in, the first thing I said was, “Please, tell my wife that (the newborn baby) doesn’t have a heart defect.”
“No heart defect, you really dodged a bullet there,” Hollis remembers the doctor told them.
“Dodged a bullet?” Hollis asked, a touch confused.
“Children with Down syndrome usually do (have heart problems),” the doctor said.
Uh, Down syndrome? Who said anything about Down syndrome?
“Suddenly you’re having this out-of-body experience. The camera pans back and you have this feeling that this is happening to somebody else,” Todd Hollis said. “We were all like, ‘You’ve got the wrong kid. We’re the parents of the Hollis girl, not the girl with Down syndrome.’ We had already made all the happy calls that everything went just fine. When it sunk in that we were the parents of the little girl with Down syndrome, we were blown away.”
The couple was so blown away, in fact, that less than three years later they found themselves in an orphanage outside of Kiev, Ukraine. That’s where they met the little girl who would soon become – after a second visit to eastern Europe and the i-dotting and t-crossing completion of a daunting stack of adoption paperwork – their second daughter. That girl, now 3-year-old Alina Hollis, also has Down syndrome, a genetic disorder commonly characterized by delayed mental, physical and social development.
“We waited two years for a family to move into Elmwood that had a little girl Meg’s age that had Down syndrome so that Meg could play with her and be with her,” Anne Hollis said. “When that wasn’t happening, we decided we’d have to take matters into our own hands.”
It’s important to know that Todd and Anne Hollis, prior to the birth of Meg, now 3, were no more oriented toward raising a child with special needs than any parents of a newborn baby would be. They had two healthy sons, Noah, who is now 6, and Caleb, who is now 4, and every expectation that their third child would hit all the developmental milestones, get a solid education and live a long, prosperous, happy, well-rounded, well-adjusted, meaningful life. It’s a lot to ask for, but it’s what parents do.
“After Meg was born, I went to the chapel across from the gift shop (at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center). Anne is a Christian, and I was pretending to be one. I knew the truth, but I didn’t believe it,” Todd Hollis said.
“I just kept repeating the Lord’s Prayer over and over again. It’s the only prayer I knew. And then all of a sudden I just gave it up. It was awesome. We believe children with special needs are angels, that they have a more direct link to God than the rest of us do. Anne knew this more than I did, but we had been preparing all of our lives for this opportunity.”
Todd Hollis teaches science and coaches the varsity football team at Elmwood High School. Anne Hollis works at Easter Seals in Peoria, where she is a Six Sigma black belt efficiency expert. In June 2007, the idea surfaced to adopt an orphaned child with Down syndrome. The idea became a mission when they learned that children with developmental disabilities and no mother or father usually are placed in an institution if not adopted by age 4. It’s a formula for a short, unhappy life.
“We got involved with Reece’s Rainbow (a self-described international Down syndrome orphan ministry), and they showed us pictures of 20 kids that were available for adoption and said if we didn’t see one we wanted, they’d show us 20 more, then 20 more after that,” Todd Hollis said. “Alina was the first one we saw.”
After climbing upward through dense layer after dense layer of eastern European bureaucracy, the Hollises received notification last Christmas Eve that the adoption was moving forward. The couple flew to Ukraine on Feb. 27 and met Alina in a moment more accurately described as a reunion than an introduction.
“It was like she was waiting for us,” Todd Hollis said.
Todd and Anne remained in Ukraine until March 18, visiting and playing with Alina in a little room with a couple of toys for three hours twice a day. They decided to return home during a mandatory 10-day waiting period.
“I was so homesick for the three we left behind,” Anne Hollis said. “I had to get back.”
Two weeks later, Todd Hollis returned to Ukraine and brought Alina home on April 4 after a grueling 30-hour trek across Europe, the Atlantic Ocean and half of the United States. Anne met Todd and Alina in Chicago and drove them to Elmwood. They tucked Alina into her bed in the room she began to share with Meg that night. In the morning, the Hollises shared their first breakfast for five.
Now the Hollises are doing far more than simply raising two children with Down syndrome – they’re devoted to raising as much awareness of development disabilities as they can stir up. The Elmwood/Brimfield football team raised $14,000 for Easter Seals in 2008, and a “Blackout” fundraiser, where black T-shirts are sold at high school football games, has spread to 25 area schools and has raised $60,000.
“That’s not just $60,000 for Easter Seals. It’s disability awareness at 25 schools,” Todd Hollis said.
That’s not all. The Hollises have a vision for a living community of varyingly self-sufficient people with developmental disabilities. They call it Touchdown Acres.
“We’d like to get a nice piece of farmland in the area and build some bungalows for people with developmental disabilities and a main house and maybe start a business,” Todd Hollis said. “They could work there and then at the end of the day be coming home to friends.”
“It’s not just a pipe dream,” Anne Hollis said. “There are models for this sort of community that have worked.”
Anne Hollis sat beneath a dome of warm light at the head of the large kitchen table recently and tried to explain the unexplainable – how raising two children with lifelong special needs, two daughters who might never be fully self-sufficient, is not only not a big deal, it’s preferable in the context of what makes this Hollis family this Hollis family.
Caleb Hollis played a video game in the TV room. A blinky-eyed Alina Hollis sat on her daddy’s lap slowly emerging from the cozy bliss of a late afternoon nap. Meg Hollis loudly improvised a tune on the electronic piano as Todd Hollis reached instinctively over and dialed down the instrument’s volume knob. Noah Hollis played with his mommy’s necklace as he sat on her lap. An audible rain fell on the cold, dark and windy side of the kitchen window.
“I know that this is working when I hear Noah tell us that he wants us to adopt another sister or when he came up with the idea to hold him back a few grades so that he could be in class with Meg and Alina,” Anne Hollis said. “There’s so much joy with these children. So much joy. Every night when I put Alina to bed, I thank her for letting me be her mom. Maybe they look different and act different, but they love us so much, and think about it ...”
Anne Hollis cupped both of her hands over Noah’s ears.
“We’re going to have Santa forever,” she said.
Scott Hilyard can be reached at (309) 686-3244 or firstname.lastname@example.org.