Faith in family — Special-needs baby in India already at home in Kenai couple’s hearts

By Jenny Neyman

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Kenai’s Gozelski family — from left, John holding Ben, Anna and Amy, show a photo of 20-month-old Kitana, who they hope to adopt from India.

Redoubt Reporter

Of all the questions, details, adjustments and decisions needing to be sorted out for the arrival of the Gozelski family’s new daughter — and they are many to the point of seemingly infinite, big to the brink of panic, small to the realm of sometimes silly, and nitpicky past the edge of frustration — the truly significant ones are unequivocally settled.

While the international adoption process for the Kenai family to bring home 20-month old Kitana from an orphanage in India has been crawling slowly forward to its — hopefully near — conclusion for over a year now, John and Amy Gozelski have been keeping up a quicker pace, spinning with all that must be done, arranged and resolved: Which adoption program, and which country, and which child do they apply for? How do they come up with the at-minimum $21,000 in fees? What’s the extent of Kitana’s disabilities and how will they provide for her special needs? How will their other two kids adjust? Where will she sleep? Which of the three giant binders of paperwork is that one, particular form in? How much forewarning will they have to book tickets when they get the OK to go get her? Should they start cooking spicier meals now so they can stomach the food when they get to India?

And so on, and so forth. Another day, another detail, another eligibility requirement to pass, another cost to pay, another form to file, each detail leading to another needing to be ironed out. It’s enough to make even the most determined prospective adoptive parents question their resolve, except that Amy and John already have the biggest questions answered:

  • They were meant to adopt Kitana.
  • She will be every bit their child, so whatever physical limitation she has or challenges she brings will not limit them from loving her wholeheartedly and unendingly.
  • Doing so is God’s will, and accepting that means having faith that God wouldn’t set forth such a task without providing for a path to follow.

As with most routes in life — lacking, as life does, the point-to-point, straight-line navigation of hindsight or GPS — the Gozelski’s path to Kitana has been long and looping, with some stops, starts and stumbles along the way. And a few other paths had to converge before they could lock in their direction to adopting their new daughter.

First was their path to becoming a family: Amy is from small-town Oregon, John from farm country in upstate New York. He joined the Army straight out of high school. For a time, after his military service, he pursued a dream of being an Olympic cyclist, possessing the prerequisites for making that goal conceivable — fire for the sport, athleticism, military-issue discipline and his own inner drive. But a dream that big without enough financial support to back it can fade. He eventually moved to Colorado and worked in the hospitality industry, but wanted a change and followed in the steps of his older brother, a police officer, to Juneau, thinking he’d check out Alaska for a year before heading back south.

Amy, meanwhile, had studied education in college, came to Juneau as a tourist when she was 26, loved the place and moved up. The two met around town, got married and had their daughter, Anna, now 7. For a few years they thought they were set in the kid department, until friends and family’s hints and suggestions about a sibling for Anna began to resonate. They had their son, Ben, now 5, shortly after moving to Kenai in search of more-affordable housing. John had started working for the Department of Corrections by then, and he preferred taking a job at Wildwood Correctional Facility in Kenai, rather than living in Anchorage.

“I just drove down to the peninsula one day, didn’t think anything of it, and drove back. But I knew it was away from Anchorage and more in the country with wildlife and fishing,” he said. “We kind of came more sight unseen, but after a period of time we were very happy with our decision.”

Amy home-schools the kids, while John’s job at Wildwood affords a week on, week off schedule, with John still home at night, that suits the family well. They also found a church they feel at home in — Kenai Christian Church, right down the road from their house on McKinley Street.

Faith has been another path needing to converge before the adoption journey could begin. Amy grew up in the Christian church and maintained her participation into adulthood. For her, God is a central, active and personal presence in her life, by which she seeks to order her decisions, purpose and priorities on a daily basis. John grew up a practicing Catholic with religion being more of a guiding undercurrent, but with exposure to Amy’s faith tradition, his own faith moved more to the forefront of his mind. Three years ago he decided to be baptized in Kenai Christian Church.

“I told my parents I was getting baptized. They were confused, ‘You’re already baptized,’” John said.

“A lot of things you do perplexes your poor parents,” Amy said.

“I just answered them, ‘Well, Mom and Dad, I didn’t know it at the time.’ (In the Catholic Church, baptism typically occurs with babies.) That’s how I feel in my heart. It’s been a growth for me, which has changed my heart and outlook on a lot of things. I’ll tell inmates, too, ‘If I weren’t Christian I don’t think I could do the kind of work I do.’ You deal with things that are not always pleasant, but I also think, being Christian, I have the opportunity, at times, to make a little difference, too,” he said.

Life in Kenai has been going well — a tidy, comfortable home, not lavish but suitably sized and filled with the creative clutter of kids that’s corralled into bins, boxes, schedules and other evidence of organization. Decorative touches demonstrate the family’s priorities — family photos, including snapshots of Kitana, kids’ projects, a globe, an American flag, compact fluorescent lightbulbs, a bumper sticker about home schooling, a reproduction of “The Last Supper,” and text wall art saying “Give thanks” and “The Lord is my strength and my song.”

They’re a comfortably balanced family, too. There’s former military, corrections-officer John, with his shaved head and face and tall, lean frame and features seeming more severe than he is — an image that’s softened by his gentle attempts to coax little Ben out of his shyness. Older sister Anna is perfectly happy to chatter and wear her personality on her sleeve, along with her tutu over her regular clothes. Amy’s soft blue eyes are quick to swim with tears, welling up from the reservoir of compassion she stores in her heart.

All in all, they’re pretty happy. Thus brought a potential fork in their path. Amy yearned to share their wealth of happiness, health and love with a child in desperate need of all of it. For John, though, the outcome of that path was shaded with the possibility that such a huge divergence from the status quo could bring some changes for the worse.

“I was the bad guy for a while. Well, not the bad guy, but the stumbling block,” John said. “Could I love another child as much as I love our children? I wouldn’t want to bring another child into our home if I could not give them all my love.”

“That, and the $21,000 price tag,” Amy teased.

“Yeah, that had something to do with it, but that wasn’t the major reason,” John said.

Adoption has been in Amy’s heart and mind for as long as she can remember, and is something she’s actively thought about in recent years. When she and John got married, she asked if, for some reason, they couldn’t have children of their own, he’d be open to adoption.

“I said, ‘Yeah, that’s something we could definitely look into. But we had our two kids, no problem, and I didn’t think more about it,” John said.

Amy did, with the topic re-emerging from a non sequitur source.

“Well, we got Neflix,” she said.

The order-online-movies-through-the-mail service had become Amy’s pass-the-time routine on the nights John was working late.

“I started watching all these documentaries,” she said. “And I started learning things about street children in Budapest and kids born into brothels in India, and just all this whole terrible world for kids started to open up. And I thought, ‘What can we do about it?’”

She could propose international adoption to John, first of all, to which he was at first reluctant. But the idea stayed on the table, and soon even the kids were chiming in — unprompted, Amy swears.

“We a did unit on India and a whole unit on poverty and orphans in India. (Anna) said, ‘I know’ — it was just like a light went on in her little head — ‘orphans don’t have a family, we have a family, so why don’t we just get an orphan?’” Amy said.

“(John) said ‘No,’ and her little face was crestfallen,” she said. “He just looked at her and said, ‘Well you can always pray that Daddy will change his mind.’ Intermittently, at any given time, either Ben or Anna would talk about it, ‘Daddy, are we going to get an orphan?’ We need to work on the vernacular a little, though. It’s called ‘adopt,’ not ‘get.’ It’s not like a puppy.”

Then came a period of, well, maybes. While out to dinner for their anniversary a year and a half ago, John said he’d been thinking about it and felt like he was ready for them to adopt.

“Well, the following two weeks I got anxiety over it and I said, ‘I don’t know if I’m ready for it. I’m not saying no, I’m just saying I need more time to think and pray about it,’” he said.

Then, last spring, John went on a mission trip to Haiti.

“Before that trip, I didn’t say anything to Amy, but I thought I was ready to make that leap, and that trip really touched me. I wouldn’t say it was the deciding point, but I knew coming back. We sat down the family when I got back and said, ‘Yes, I’m ready,’” John said.

With adoption so long in her mind and heart, Amy is certain it is part of God’s plan for her life. For John, he credits his own developing faith with his developing feelings of readiness to adopt.

“Pleasing God, doing something that was put in our hearts. It got in our thought process somehow. I like my comfort and everything just the way it is, but what it kept on coming back to for me was, OK, that day when I’m before (God), and he says, ‘Well, I put this in your mind, why didn’t you follow through with it?’ And that was the biggest determining factor for me,’” he said.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

With the decision made, next came the increasingly complex task of making it happen. After about four months of research, the Gozelskis applied to Holt International and found they were eligible for an adoption from India.

“I had prayed about it before and got just a very strong impression that India was the country we were supposed to be adopting from. So I wrote it down on a card and put the date on it and put it in my Bible for later. If we had been led to adopt domestically we absolutely would have done that, it just so happened that it felt like we were led to India,” Amy said.

Thus began the application and approval process. They had to submit letters of recommendation, fingerprints and financial information, and pass a home study, health exams and thorough background checks. And that’s just for Holt. Then they had to file basically all that information again — plus visa and passport information — to the adoption authorities in India.

“It is very meticulous and they write an enormous report about you. The paper chasing is not exactly pleasant,” Amy said.

It’s not exactly cheap, either. All told, the Gozelskis expect to pay more than $21,000 in all the fees and other expenses involved in the adoption process.

“Initially, the first couple of months, I would worry about it — like, how is this going to happen? But the worry just dissipated and I thought, ‘Well, if it’s God’s will that we’re doing this, he’ll make a way,’ and things just started happening,” John said.

“If he asks you to do something he’s not going to leave you with no way to do it,” Amy said. “I always felt confident about that, that God would provide for us, I just couldn’t picture how, exactly, that would work. I mean, let’s face it, people find ways to finance $21,000 for a boat or a car. There’s got to be a way. People have financed more expensive things that are a lot less significant.”

Amy applied for grants, and the family received about $8,100 in assistance from various agencies. Their family, friends and community have been generous, as well, donating about $6,000, including their church holding a musical performance fundraiser to help them pay for the expected $5,000 in travel expenses.

“Our church has been overwhelmingly supportive. We were so surprised in what people just gave,” John said.

The Gozelskis don’t know yet when they’ll be booking those tickets. India is restructuring its international adoption system, so the process could take even longer than usual. They’ve been at it for 13 months as of June and are hoping to get the call this fall, but are prepared to wait until winter, or however long it takes.

That’s not to say waiting is easy or that worry and doubt don’t creep in.

“You just wonder, ‘Did I really hear from God, or did I make this up?’ You have those moments where you think, ‘Really?’ This is pretty nuts if you look at it in the practical sense,” Amy said.

But it’s at those moments some sort of reassurance appears. A co-worker of John’s — who had no knowledge of the Gozelskis’ adoption plans — with a very pregnant wife was talking about the imminent birth of his child, and mentioned that he didn’t know if he wanted another natural-born child but would very much like to adopt a child with special needs one day. At another low point, while sending off yet more paperwork, the clerk at the mailing service told John and Amy that she’d just taken a picture of another local woman who had recently adopted a little girl from India. And best of all, while getting fingerprinted, a woman in the waiting room told them she’d just come back from a trip to India.

“She said, ‘Whatever child you bring home will be blessed.’ That was just great medicine,” John said.

“She just happened to return from India — at the right time and the right place. How many people on the peninsula who just came from India could we meet like that?” Amy said.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Whenever the waiting and red tape get particularly acute, they have the best medicine of all to calm any stress, worry or doubt that may develop — photos and videos of a serious-looking 20-month-old baby girl, with a fine crop of dark hair, sturdy little kicking feet on chubby legs, and brown eyes so big they demand attention over everything else, even the physical abnormalities of her arms and the absence of a smile on her lips. Their Kitana Joy, whose Indian name means “singing glory to God.”

“Those little feet, those little feet are so cute. I just want to squeeze those little feet,” Amy said.

Photo courtesy of Gozelski family. Kitana is seen in an orphanage in India. After a more than yearlong adoption process, the Gozelski family, of Kenai, hopes to bring her into their home as soon as this fall.

“And just holding her and giving her attention and seeing whatever little difference that can make in her life. We see the little videos of her and she just looks sad. We’ve heard good things about the care she gets, but it’s an orphanage and they can only do so much one-on-one. They can only spend so much time,” John said.

Economic changes in India have led to a burgeoning middle class, with increasing numbers of Indians focusing on careers in their younger years and postponing having families until later in life, sometimes until it’s too late to have a baby naturally. So domestic adoptions and adoptions by Indians living abroad have increased, but mostly of healthy babies and boys. Older children, children with disabilities and mostly girls are primarily the ones left for international adoptions.

Adopting a child with disabilities, especially without knowing the extent of her medical and development challenges, was a difficult decision to make, especially for John.

“My first hurdle leap of faith was to adopt. And then it was like, ‘Wow, OK. Special needs?’ I’d never thought about that. I’ve never had a special-needs person in my life before. Who am I to handle that? But that being said, she was often on my mind and I thought about her a lot,” John said.

The adoption agency gives families a list of medical and developmental conditions a child might have. They can review it and mark off what they don’t think they want to take on. Amy and John sent it back with nothing marked.

“We talked about it and said, ‘If they handed us that same checklist when I was pregnant with both of the kids we would have handed it right back to them unfilled out because we were open to all special needs with our kids,’” Amy said. “If they’d had problems, we would have dealt with that.”

What they know so far is Kitana has ectrodactyly of her right hand (split-hand malformation) and radial ephrasia of her left hand (clubbed hand malformation). She may have a spinal issue, and an MRI scan of her brain showed evidence of asphyxia, possibly from a difficult birth.

“The last couple of times we got updates we sent them to an international adoption physician and he said her outlook for independent living is extremely grim. She probably has cerebral palsy or mental retardation or both,” Amy said. “She’s 20 months old but she’s basically around where you’d expect to see a 4- or 5-month old. She’s not babbling or speaking at all and is very passive.”

“That was the hardest part of this whole thing so far has been to hear those words that she might not walk and she might not talk and she might not understand. And you hope that with love of family and one-on-one care daily, that might make a difference,” Amy said.

“And we recognize that might not be the case, but, still, if we didn’t adopt her, perhaps no one would. She wouldn’t have a future. Clearly she can’t be left in an orphanage. As hard as it could be, how could we do anything else than give her a family and love and pray for the best?” John said. “It was really hard to hear, but it didn’t sway any decision on our part, it’s just a lot more concern for her future.”

They’ve already looked into what kind of special-needs services are available in the Kenai area, but, really, their main goal is to just get Kitana home and take it from there.

Anna said she’s excited to have a new sister, especially since she’ll be sharing her room with her.

“I’m looking forward to when she gets older I get to play dress-up with her, and I’m looking forward that I get to help feed her, and I’m really excited that I get to help with her,” Anna said.

Sure, there will be challenges and setbacks, expenses and frustrations, hard times and tears, but above and beyond all that, there will be a new baby girl who already is at home in the Gozelski family’s heart.

“She looked like a Gozelski, in an Indian kind of way. She just tugged at my heart, really,” Amy said. “I’m looking forward to her having a mommy and daddy and brother and sister.”

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