January 12, 2018

‘Our family is complete with him’: Couple reaches across ocean, boundaries to give a child with a disability a home

Russ and Katrina Kelly, members of St. Mary Parish in Indianapolis, pose with their adopted son, 5-year-old Gosho, at his orphanage in Bulgaria last October. The 5-year-old boy shares the same condition as his adoptive mother—spinal muscular atrophy. (Submitted photo)

Russ and Katrina Kelly, members of St. Mary Parish in Indianapolis, pose with their adopted son, 5-year-old Gosho, at his orphanage in Bulgaria last October. The 5-year-old boy shares the same condition as his adoptive mother—spinal muscular atrophy. (Submitted photo)

By Natalie Hoefer

Katrina and Russ Kelly can’t keep the excitement out of their voices—they’ve recently returned from Bulgaria, where they finally met their 5-year-old adopted son.

“He attached to me way faster, but long game of the week, she became his favorite,” says Russ with a look toward Katrina, who beams with joy.

“He got really excited when Russ sat him on my lap,” she says of Gosho (pronounced GO-show).

Russ had to place Gosho on Katrina’s lap for two reasons: the child did not have the ability to climb into her lap on his own, nor did Katrina have the ability to pick him up—both Katrina and Gosho have a rare genetic disorder called spinal muscular atrophy.

‘This one is me, in an orphanage’

“It’s a neuro-muscular condition,” explains Katrina, 32, of the defect, also known as SMA. “It affects the nerve-to-muscle connection so there’s not a strong signal, and because of that the muscles atrophy, so it causes weakness.”

Because of the condition, she has used a motorized wheelchair since the age of 3. With such mobility, Katrina received her sacraments while growing up in St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis, earned her law degree from the University of Notre Dame, practices business litigation for a law firm in Indianapolis, married Russ a year-and-a-half ago at St. Mary Parish in Indianapolis, and soon will be a first-time parent.

The Kellys’ search for a child to adopt began about 15 months ago.

“Russ told me we should start looking—I think he had the baby bug a little bit,” Katrina says with a grinning glance toward her husband.

“We looked at foster-to-adopt,” she says. “We probably would have gone that route if we hadn’t found our son.”

But with Gosho, she says, “It was meant to be.

“I’ve been drawn to the idea of raising a disabled child for a long time, and [Russ] wasn’t too intimidated by it. I’ve felt that God has been involved, just the way that one thing after another has fallen into place. It’s been pretty remarkable. Everything just came together.”

The Kellys found Gosho on the RainbowKids Adoption and Welfare Agency website, which features both international and special needs adoptions—a term which in adoption parlance includes older children and sibling groups, as well as children with unique physical, mental or emotional conditions.

Katrina says they found Gosho on the second-to-last page of a list of children from Bulgaria—a country that, unlike some other nations, does allow persons in wheelchairs to adopt.

Katrina recalls reading about the boy for the first time.

“He is such a sweetheart,” she recalls of her reaction to his biography. “And then it described him as having the same condition as I did, and I was like, ‘Oh! We have to adopt him!’ ”

Katrina notes that her mom was hesitant at first.

“She was asking me, ‘Are you sure you’re ready for this?’ I said, ‘Yeah, we are. He needs us.’ And my mom said, ‘Well, they all need you.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but this one is me, in an orphanage in Bulgaria.’

‘He’s just a resilient, happy child’

And so began the long, complicated process of adoption.

“The paperwork is mind-boggling,” says Katrina. “There’s a lot of bureaucracy, a lot of steps,” including obtaining permission from both governments, background checks from every state they ever lived in—which totals four for Russ, 36, who works for an electrical contractor in Indianapolis—and overseeing agencies in both countries.

“The fees are certainly high because you’re paying two agencies—in fact we have three, two here and one in Bulgaria,” she says. “There’s a lot of financial challenge, although there’s a lot with domestic adoption, too.”

Finally last October, the Kellys made the 30-hour plane and car ride to Gosho’s orphanage in Bulgaria. Armed with only a few Bulgarian phrases and the occasional help of a translator, they finally met their soon-to-be son.

“He was just so sweet,” Katrina gushes. “He didn’t speak any English except ‘Mickey Mouse’ and ‘Happy birthday.’ We managed though.”

While the Kellys knew language would be a barrier, Katrina had an additional concern.

“I think I had a lot of anxiety ahead of time that he would not attach to me as much because I can’t pick him up and hold him as easily,” she admits. “But I really felt like he did. … He and I sang together several times, and he would say, ‘Bravo!’ when we were done.”

Russ felt the bond, too.

“He was calling us mom and dad [Mama and Tate, pronounced TAH-tay, in Bulgarian] from the very beginning,” he says. “I was wondering about that, if we’d have to ease him into that. But right from the very beginning he was like, ‘This is my dad. This is my mom.’ It was really sweet.”

Another smile lights Katrina’s face as she adds, “He’s a really good kid, really resilient, just a happy child.”

‘Getting a jump start’

That Gosho was so happy came as a surprise to the Kellys when they saw his environment—living with primarily non-verbal children, and left for most of the day in an armchair to watch cartoons with no means of moving on his own.

“He kept staring at my wheelchair,” Katrina recalls. “I was wondering, ‘Is he freaked out?’ He’s thinking, ‘Moms aren’t supposed to be in a wheelchair?’

“But I figured out pretty quickly he was just fascinated by it.”

When they returned home, the Kellys purchased a manual wheelchair with the orphanage’s permission, and had it sent to Gosho “so he could have a little bit of freedom,” says Katrina.

It is the first of many expenses that will come with raising a child with SMA. Gosho will need special doctors, therapists, medical equipment and a wheelchair for life.

But the Kellys are not as intimidated by the medical challenges as other parents might be.

“I already kind of know what we need to do on the school side, which is kind of a nice boost,” says Katrina. “We have neighbors with a disabled child who have been turning us in the right direction, and I’ve been talking to my mom, since she had a disabled child herself. I remember back to childhood enough to know some of the things I need to arrange for him, so we’re getting a jump start as much as we can.”

But there will be some additional challenges outside of the medical sphere.

“That transition [from the orphanage] can be emotional, losing everything he’s known,” says Katrina. “But we’ve got a pretty good support system. We’re as prepared as we can be, but no parent is ever prepared. You just kind of take it as it comes.”

‘Disabled doesn’t mean “less than” ’

Part of their support group includes their parish community of St. Mary, where the Kellys spoke after each Mass one weekend in November asking for assistance with fees and travel costs.

“Having spoken to them, they’ll know who he is and who we are, and they’ll embrace him with open arms,” says Katrina.

While most natives of his country practice the Bulgarian Orthodox faith, Gosho has not been raised in a particular faith tradition. That situation will change in Indianapolis.

Gosho will be baptized at St. Mary Church, say the Kellys, who are both lifelong Catholics and met on CatholicMatch.com.

“Faith has been an important part of our lives,” says Katrina. “I look forward to be able to share that with our son. … We want to give him that strong base of a Catholic faith, and to meet the people in our community with that same faith.”

Russ, who was at one time a postulant in New York with the Redemptorist order, agrees.

“Going to church, getting baptized, getting first Communion, getting the sacraments—that’s so important,” he says.

In addition to sharing their faith, the Kellys look forward to sharing with Gosho traditions of his new home.

“It’s important to keep his Bulgarian culture in mind, but I’m also very excited about presenting him with America,” says Russ. “I have this great vision of taking him to see the Mets play in New York, [Indianapolis] Indians [baseball] games here, Colts games, fishing. I’m very excited about that.”

Due to the difficulty the Kellys discovered of maneuvering a motorized wheelchair in Bulgaria, Russ will return to Bulgaria in February or March with Katrina’s mother for a final hearing with a judge, and then return home with Gosho.

“It’s not us rescuing him,” Katrina says emphatically. “It’s something different than that. We value life wherever we find it, and we’re finding it here with this little boy in an institution where he’s been devalued. ... We want him, we want him in particular. He’s not like a second best choice. ...

“I think for us, ‘disabled’ doesn’t mean ‘less than.’ Sometimes, it’s exactly what you want, actually. He’s just a kid, a great kid who happens to be in a wheelchair. … Our family is complete with him.”

(Anyone interested in contributing to help the Kellys with travel expenses and fees in adopting Gosho may contact Katrina at 317-730-6574 or katrina.kelly@FaegreBD.com.)

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