The Webster family grows through adoption.
Story and Photos | Hayden Andrews
Graphic | Taylor Ringenberg
“It’s not a sprint to 18: It’s a lifelong marathon. If you decide to [adopt], you have to know that you have to pace yourself. There are times when you can go all in, but there are times when you have to step back and let other people help. You have to be prepared to gather resources and support to make [family life] work.”
Victoria McMullen, an associate professor at Webster University, is just one of the parents in the Webster community who have made the lifelong commitment to adopt. These families model all dynamics and prove they certainly “don’t have to be blood to be family.”
Peter Elibarki Megahan: Tanzania, Africa
Peter Elibarki Megahan has come a long way: 8,295 miles to be exact. Born Francis Kija, Megahan was housed in an orphanage in Wanza, Tanzania, after his twin brother and biological mother, who was a prostitute, died in childbirth.
The orphanage’s attendants passed along the food provided by the government for the children in their care to their husbands. While working in the area, Megahan’s adoptive parents—his mother, a doctor, and his father, a translator—heard about the infant mortality rate as a result of the hunger. They decided to adopt a child.
The 20-year-old advertising major has been jet setting ever since his adoption 16 years ago. Megahan has lived in or traveled to Kenya, Botswana and Italy under his dual citizenship, but he says Africa will always be home.
He comes from a family of travelers. His four siblings born to his adoptive parents live in Italy, Minnesota and Texas, while his parents remain in Africa, passionate about aiding Third World countries. They’ve been doing it for more than 20 years now. Megahan credits his adoption and travel experience for his betterment.
“I don’t get surprised by people who are different than me,” Megahan says. “People in America are very surprised or taken aback that other people don’t really lead the same lives as them. I think that’s a major difference. I’m accustomed to many different accents. I don’t even think about it.”
His adoption process was difficult, as it can be especially difficult to adopt in Tanzania. According to Megahan, his parents were lucky to have gotten him. Their hard work paid off: After the process was complete, Megahan was one of the family.
“We would go places and I wouldn’t know why people were staring. It didn’t even occur to me. My parents really didn’t make a big deal; they didn’t sit down and tell me. It wasn’t an issue. I think my parents did it right.”
Tom Barkman and Tracy Stamper: Stavropol, Russia
When Tom Barkman and Tracy Stamper met their future son in Stavropol, Russia, he seemed very much a baby. Three months later, when the couple returned to the orphanage to make him part of the family, he was on an asphalt playground, ready to fight.
“At a year and a half, he knew how to defend himself on a playground against 5 year olds,” Barkman says. “The fact that [an 18-month-old] kid even had to consider protecting himself is even beyond comprehension, but he already could do that.”
In Russia, children without guardians are sent to live in “baby houses” where they live together until they’re 16. After that, they lead their own lives.
Stamper says, “The role of adoptive parents can be a combination of parent and therapist. When we first brought Max home, we went through a really rough period of adjustment. He was terrified.”
Stamper turned to books for parents of distressed children, but when the information exacerbated the situation, she realized they were written on the assumption that the children were attached to the parents. The couple found a woman who worked with parents of traumatized children.
“There is a tendency in our culture to paint such a rosy picture—and it absolutely can be and is that—and there is also that other piece. No matter in the most ideal situations, adoption is trauma. There is that separation from the birth parent or from a familiar environment. Even when a child comes into the most loving family, the kid is still dealing with loss,” Stamper says.
Through Smallworld Adoption Foundation, Barkman and Stamper adopted Ansar, meaning blessed son. Seven years later, he is Max Ansar William Barkman and never has to defend himself against playground bullies.
Marcy Barbeau: Tongling, China
Every time she joins in “Two Truths and a Lie”—an icebreaker where players present two truths and one lie to fool one another—20-year-old Marcy Barbeau always plays the same truth.
“When I was around 6, my mom told me I was found in a box,” Barbeau says. “They had to guess my birthday.”
She was just a newborn when she was found by the police in a park near the police station. Barbeau says that whoever left her there knew she would be found but was taking a huge risk. Abandoning a child is a felony in Tongling, China, where Barbeau was found.
Due to a system that is now banned, she was given a typical Chinese surname designated to unclaimed orphans, Yang Wang Wu. That name stayed with her through her first 11 months, during which she lived in a foster home and in an orphanage two separate times.
On March 1, 1993, P.J., an English and theatre teacher, adopted Barbeau. The two have since declared it “Our Anniversary.”
Throughout Barbeau’s childhood, her and her adoptive mom frequently participated in Families for Children from China events, where Barbeau was able to decorate fans and cook native Chinese dishes.
When it comes to native Chinese people, explaining Barbeau’s adoption and absorption into American culture is a process for her. While she was working as a tour guide at the Gateway Arch last summer, a group of English speaking Asian tourists admired her luck and praised Barbeau’s mother for adopting. Amongst another group of tourists was a Chinese speaking woman with a translator. After Barbeau explained her story, the woman was clearly disappointed.
“You have yellow skin but not really,” the woman said through her translator.
Barbeau didn’t let the woman’s comments affect her.
“I’ve never resented being adopted. Just be proud of where you come from. I’m proud that I’m different from China, but it’s not like I’m resentful. I live in a better place; I have better opportunities here.”
Laura and Tom Rein:
St. Petersburg, Russia
Laura Rein and her husband had a 7-year-old son when they began to explore the possibility of adopting in 1997. Their relatively advanced ages slimmed the couple’s chances of adopting domestically, which led the couple to explore international adoption in Russia’s then dire economy. With a single phone call regarding a video from their agency, Nightlight International, their plight to adopt began.
Rein, who began with Webster in 1995 and became University Secretary in 2011, watched the video of the 6-month-old orphan sent to her.
“You’re just going to have to trust me,” Rein said upon revealing the video to her husband.
The baby girl was a year and a half younger than the couple’s aimed age range.
“I don’t know what it was, I just couldn’t say no,” Rein says.
To finalize the decision that they were going to say yes, the couple showed the video to their son. The first thing he commented on was how smart she was.
In only a month, the couple was able to travel to their new daughter’s orphanage in St. Petersburg, Russia. Six days, a makeshift crib, a court date and an acquired visa later, they returned to the U.S. with Elena.
In the timeframe of international adoptions, the Rein’s got very lucky. Rein describes their adoption story as fairly painless. Some couples can expect to make the trek twice, even take up indefinite residence in order to acquire a child.
“When we were going through it, our adoption agency had been doing it for many years and had respect and knew how to navigate the legal social system over there.”
As she was growing up, the couple read Elena books about adoption to ease her into the concept. The couple took caution: Rein’s mother was also adopted, but was told at 6 years old by a neighbor, leading to devastation.
Elena is now a sophomore at Webster High. The 15-year-old is “very proud of her heritage and being Russian,” Rein says.
The couple brought back a number of Russian trinkets for Elena to grow up with but plan to visit St. Petersburg as a present for Elena’s graduation.
“To me, adoption is just another way to build a family. It’s really a miracle just like birth is. I think you are meant to be, and that’s why I couldn’t say no. She is our daughter and there’s just no question about it. She’s absolutely wonderful.”
Victoria and Bob McMullen: Missouri Health Department
Though Victoria McMullen and her husband both have backgrounds in education, only firsthand experience could have prepared them for Ron and Liz.
After being rejected from the Peace Corps at 16 due to hormone irregularities that prevented childbearing, McMullen, who was dating her future husband at the time, knew adoption was a given. Financial restrictions were what led the couple to state adoption.
Adopting a child of a different race was not permitted by the Missouri Department of Family Services, and since the couple was “aware of taking on too much with a sibling group,” three candidates were left. Ron came to live with them in 1985 when he was 6 years old.
“Despite his obvious disabilities, we decided to adopt him,” says McMullen. “We were told he would never walk, never talk, and the doctors were wrong.”
Though Ron is severely disabled with cerebral palsy, intellectual disabilities, visual impairments and autism, he functions with the cognitive abilities of a 4 year old. McMullen sites recurring medical issues as the most challenging obstacle, yet Ron is able to navigate using a walker and a support staff in the family’s specially built apartment for accommodating Ron’s disabled maneuvers.
Ron showed remarkable progress when the McMullen’s adopted their second child, Liz. Five other families passed on her; she was listed as intellectually disabled and visually impaired. Still, Liz graduated in the top 10 percent of her high school class and is now a second grade teacher who has a 15-month-old.
By watching Ron and Liz interact, their parents were able to see how crucial it was for Ron to be away from his state school, where he was sent by default due to an IQ under 50. For people with disabilities, McMullen says inclusion is a big word in education. When Ron was integrated with non-disabled peers, his cognitive, social and language scores doubled in the first seven months.
In 1988, the McMullen’s once again experienced something they couldn’t have prepared for: pregnancy. Their biological son Andy, 23, is a graduate assistant at Purdue University.
“We had never tried [to get pregnant]. We didn’t want to spend time or energy on getting pregnant because you don’t have to be blood to be family.”