Monday, February 28, 2022

A Texas couple adopts a disabled child from Ukraine just in time

If you're a parent of a child with disabilities, you know full well that you love them as much as you love any of your children. You know they have their own unique abilities, like any children. You know that they can be as awesome as any children. Unfortunately, these are not things the world at large often sees or understands.

And so I am always beyond grateful when I hear about couples adopting children with disabilities, especially when I read a story last week about a couple in San Antonio, Texas, who adopted a four-year-old with cerebral palsy from Ukraine—and escaped just in time. This is their incredible story, with a list at the end of fundraisers for nonprofits that work with Ukrainian orphans.

Kelci and Theron Jagge were parents to two kids in 2020 when they decided to adopt a child with special needs. As Kelci wrote on the fundraiser they started for the adoption:

I came across an Instagram reel of two little boys with Down syndrome hugging and the caption said it was the first time one of them had shown affection. I was captivated by the family's story of adoption, which led me to discovering Reece's Rainbow. I spent two days looking at all the pictures of children on their website / social media and shed many tears for these precious souls. I felt like we had to do something. 

The situation for orphans with disabilities in the Ukraine is especially grim. Photojournalist Christopher Occichone, who is based in Kyiv, has documented what he's seen in an ongoing projec. The photos are deeply disturbing and heartbreaking. It's hard to fathom the additional isolation and hell these children and teens have endured during the pandemic, and what could lie ahead because of the war.
"In an orphanage in central Ukraine, a handicapped child spends their life in bed, often restrained."
Christopher Occichone

And yes, this is happening in 2022. Ukraine is said to have one of the largest orphanage systems in Europe, with an estimated 100,000 orphans. The system includes children with disabilities who were abandoned by their families, brought to light in filmmaker Kate Blewett's 2012 documentary Ukraine's Forgotten Children. Under the communist system, parents of children with disabilities were encouraged and expected to hand them over to the state to care for them. Even after Ukraine split from Russia in 1991, the practice continued. 

When Kelci spotted a photo of a bright-eyed, brown-haired orphaned boy on Instagram, she fell in love. Ruslan had cerebral palsy and used a feeding tube. She and Theron began the adoption process in 2021 and in December, they visited an orphanage in Kramatorsk, in Eastern Ukraine. The couple returned on January 31 to finalize the adoption. An amazing nurse, Valerie Bitterman, accompanied them; she has helped transport eight adopted orphans from Ukraine in the last several years, including ones with disabilities. 

The Jagges secured a visa for Ruslan, said to be the last one granted by the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv before it was evacuated. And then it was a race against time to get out before the potential Russian invasion. They planned to leave on February 12th. At the airport, they were detained and told their papers weren't valid, and that Ruslan would have to wait another 30 days.

Ruslan had pneumonia and fever. He was in withdrawal from meds he'd been giving at the orphanage.
"I told them, 'Look at our son,'" recalled Kelci. "He's going to die if you make us wait 30 days. He cannot survive 30 days."

The border guards wouldn't back down. The Jagges and Valerie returned to the apartment they'd been staying in, and their adoption agency hired a lawyer to help. She gave the odds of persuading the border guards a 50/50 chance.

They prevailed, receiving only a verbal agreement. On February 14, an internal source came to visit the Jagges, tipped them off that a Russian airstrike would be happening and told them to flee. They raced to the airport, which was filled with panicked people. Valerie Bitterman detailed on a GoFundMe she started for the family what happened next:

By the grace of God, we went through an immigration line that had a border guard that had not harassed us two days before, and she stamped our paperwork and let us through! The level of relief in that moment was unlike anything we've ever experienced. 

The four of them were able to get on a flight to Istanbul, then returned to the United States. Ruslan immediately went into intensive care, and has been progressing. A Facebook post from Nurse Valerie on Saturday said that he has been downgraded from the ICU to the Medical-Surgical Pediatric Floor.

I've been watching daily YouTube updates from Kim Johnson, an American couple who started Wide Awake International. They run a ministry in the Ukraine for youth with disabilities and have themselves adopted and taken guardianship of six disabled children and young adults. They live in a village outside Zyhtomyr, in the Western part of Ukraine. Kim broke down as she spoke on Saturday. "It's just crazy to be in a place," she said, "where, it's like, nobody's coming to save you."

We can't send defense forces to help. But we can hold the families and the orphans in Ukraine in our hearts, and we can certainly send financial support. They'll need it now, more than ever: During the battles in Eastern Ukraine from 2014 to 2015, UNICEF reported on one orphanage that stopped receiving food and money for additional food and medications from the state. The children survived thanks only to locals. 

If you'd like to make a donation to help orphaned children in the Ukraine, or orphaned children with disabilities, consider these nonprofits:

Life2Orphans receives and distributes donations, medical supplies, food and other support to orphans and the neediest in Ukraine. You can donate here or on their Facebook fundraiser

Donate to Wide Awake International here.  
Maya's Hope Ukraine 2022 Emergency Fund
: Launched in 2011, it supports families of children with special needs in Ukraine and the Philippines.

Legacy Refuge is a ministry dedicated to helping orphans in Ukraine; their fundraiser is here.

Photo: Kelci and Theron Jagge


  1. Thank you for sharing this. I adopted my son from China in 2005. He was a special needs child with a cleft lip/palate. Unknown was his autism diagnosis. Today he is 19 and transitioning to an adult day program.

    1. Hi, Janet. Our boys are the same age. I hope the day program transition goes well. Max is sticking with school for the next couple of years, as of now.

  2. Thank you for sharing this info and nonprofit links.

    1. Hello from a mom to another mighty Max. Just trying to do what I can.

  3. Thank you for sharing this story, Ellen. I found it both heartwarming and inspiring what this wonderful couple did for this boy, but also heartbreaking to hear about the dire situation in Ukraine (all the more magnified with the Russian invasion). That photo of the boy tied to the bed is especially heartbreaking.:( I’m glad more light is being shed onto this situation.


Thanks for sharing!

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