"There were sacrifices on our side but it becomes a thing where you're talking about money versus a human being," Jessica Watson tells PEOPLE of her family's adoption process
When Desiree White, 38, began looking to adopt a child with Down syndrome from China, she was told that “those children” weren’t available because they’re considered “not worthy” of adoption.
Thanks to White’s persistence and the incredible bond she shares with her 5-year-old adopted son, Isaac, a Down syndrome child from China, all that’s changed for good. And happily, some 200 children who might have previously spent their lives in institutions around China now have the chance to find forever families.
White, who’s from Tacoma, Washington, says she’s wanted to adopt a child since she was teenager. She later realized she wanted to adopt a child with Down syndrome – a genetic disorder that causes intellectual differences and developmental delays – after working as a pediatric trauma nurse, and having “incredible experiences” with her young Down syndrome patients.
“I think honestly most of the pediatric nurses fought over who was going to work with the kids with Down syndrome because they were just really lovely to take care of,” she says.
Because of her pediatric nursing background, White was well equipped – and compelled – to raise a child with special needs.
“When I made the decision that I was going to adopt, I knew I had the skill set and the experience to take care of a child with special needs and also that children with special needs tend to wait longer for forever families,” she says.
White decided to adopt a special needs child from China – where Down syndrome kids were considered “unadoptable,” and therefore even less likely to find a home than special needs children in other countries. White reached out to Bethany Christian Services, an international nonprofit organization founded in 1944 that provides adoption, foster care and immigrant resettlement services. As Elisabeth McGinnis, a project coordinator for Bethany Christian Services, explains, if not adopted, these children have few options.
“Some of these kids will live in an institution for all of their lives while some of them will essentially be turned out on the streets,” McGinnis tells PEOPLE.
Six months after she’d started her quest, White was matched with Isaac, who was just 11 months at the time – and one of the first children with Down syndrome ever to have an adoption file released in China. She says the fact she was going against the political status quo was of little significance to her.
“I don’t know that I paid attention to the political details,” White says. “All I knew is that my son was there and I was here and I needed to close that gap quickly.”
Nine months after first seeing Isaac’s photo in November 2011, White traveled to Guizhou province in Southwestern China to bring him home.
“We went to this dilapidated building and this woman took us up 15 flights of stairs and then she said, ‘There’s your son,’ ” White recalls. “There he was dressed in bright green like a jolly rancher. He kind of toddled over to me and smacked me in the face – that was our first love tap.”
Because Isaac’s adoption was among the first of its kind, White was required to file reports back to China on her son’s condition. Isaac, who currently attends a neurotypical preschool, flourished in White’s care. As a result, in 2013 the Chinese government released adoption files for 14 more “unadoptable” children with Down syndrome.
Within two years, Bethany Christian Services had found homes for Down syndrome children as part of a program it called the Bamboo Project. Since the program’s inception in 2013, the families who adopted through the Bamboo project have formed a strong support network, coming together for “family reunions” and advocating for the 40 children in China now seeking families through the project.
All in the Family
One of the 14 children adopted through the Bamboo Project is Emi Watson. Chances are she would not be alive today if her Minnesota family hadn’t sold their home to finance her adoption.
Dan and Jessica Watson of Sartell, Minnesota, always knew they wanted to adopt. The Watsons, who have two biological children, sought out a special needs adoption because they knew few families make that choice and, like White, they felt uniquely prepared because Jessica is a registered nurse.
“There were definitely times of fear,” Jessica Watson, 33, tells PEOPLE of her family’s five-year adoption process. “But in the end we just took that leap of faith because having a family should be a basic right of every child.”
The Watsons believed so strongly in that principle that they spent five years sacrificing and saving for the adoption – even selling their home and renting a smaller space in order to afford the more than $30,000 cost.
“Sure, there were sacrifices on our side but it becomes a thing where you’re talking about money versus a human being,” Watson tells PEOPLE. “It really wasn’t even a question for us.”
In January 2014, the Watson family was matched with 2-year-old Emi and by October Dan and Jessica were on their way to meet her.
“We were with three or four families from the Bamboo Project all traveling together to the same orphanage,” Watson recalls of the day she and her husband met Emi. “She was the last child they brought out and, of course, you just cry instantly because you’ve been praying for this child and you’ve fallen in love.”
Watson still remembers how her husband made Emi laugh just moments after their meeting. Then came something unexpected.
“The minute we got her into our arms we could tell she was really sick,” Watson says. “As we fed Emi her first bottle I could hear she was aspirating fluid into her lungs with every sip.”
None of which stopped the Watsons from immediately bringing her home. Shortly after her arrival in the U.S., doctors found two holes in Emi’s heart and permanent lung damage from aspirating formula. Not only were the Watsons undaunted by Emi’s “medical surprises” – they felt that much more blessed to have found her in time.
“If she hadn’t been adopted she would’ve gotten a common cold eventually and that would’ve taken her life,” Watson says.
Now, thanks to multiple surgeries and ongoing therapy, Emi’s condition has vastly improved.
“She doesn’t know anything is medically wrong with her, she’s just a loving, funny, mischievous little girl,: says Watson. “She gives us all a new perspective.”
She adds that the greatest surprise in bringing Emi home was discovering her love of hip-hop and R&B music.
“We’d be in another room and if we turned on music that had a lot of bass, she’d come running in and just start dancing,” says Watson. “It was a good bonding thing for all of us – it’s impossible not to have fun during a family dance party.”
“Her siblings just love her,” she continues. “I still feel like we’re waiting for the honeymoon to be over but they just dote on her at every chance.”
The Bamboo Project has also had success with other families across the country. The Bostroms of Knoxville, Tennessee, report that their three older children also “dote” on 4-year-old Miley, who they adopted in July 2014.
“She’s like the prized sibling,” Rebecca Bostrom, 32, tells PEOPLE. “The hardest part was when we brought her home. Her siblings were so excited to meet her they brought her every toy in the house! She got totally overwhelmed because she just wasn’t used to getting that much attention.”
Fifteen months later, since arriving in the U.S., Miley loves being one of four children. “Now she’s used to tons and tons of kids,” Bostrom says. “Her siblings like to play with her in the backyard and she likes to tear up their toys – typical younger sister stuff.”
The Bostroms are so thrilled with the new addition to their family that they’re planning for another special needs adoption this March. Families like the Bostroms and the Watsons share their adoption stories at every opportunity in the hopes that they’ll inspire others to follow suit.
Watson says her daughter’s story has already inspired four more adoptions.
“Emi has been home for one year and her story has already helped four children find families,” Watson says. “I can’t say in my life that I’ve had that big of an impact – my daughter has literally saved four people.”