EAST COUNTY — Sitting on the living room floor with Legos in hand, Matt Vanderford looks completely at home.
His mother, Cyndee, grabs a larger Lego piece, and much to the delight of her youngest child, engages him in a short game of peek-a-boo with the toy block serving as a camera both to hide her face momentarily and to take her son’s picture.
The 4-year-old grins a wide, toothy smile before mimicking the gesture and bringing the toy to his own face and then to his mother’s.
Cyndee relishes the moment. Just a few weeks ago, Matt didn’t have toys to call his own. In fact, he didn’t even have a home, parents or a fighting chance. In his home country of Uganda, his mother abandoned him, leaving him on the side of a road when he was just an infant.
But that all changed when Cyndee and her family welcomed him into their East County home in March.
Following in the footsteps of Bayside Community Church members Tony and Georgia Gamelin, the Vanderfords and two other East County families last month returned from Africa with their newly adopted children. The families hope a life here will provide the orphans with opportunities beyond their wildest imaginations.
Already, it’s working.
FIRST OF FOUR
Three-year-old Brianne Gamelin bounds across the living room, plopping herself on the couch beside her mother. This particular day, the child is showing no signs of shyness.
Tony and Georgia Gamelin and their two children welcomed Brianne, the first of four Ugandan children adopted by East County families, into their home last summer.
Like Matt, Brianne was abandoned on the side of the road. She was just 2 years old at the time and had an open wound on the back of her head when someone found her.
Georgia tussles the girls’ dark hair to glance at the spot that still bares evidence of her past. But gone is the fearful child who screamed and cried in terror the first time she saw her new father while he was visiting her orphanage. Gone was a daily meal of only rice and beans and a future without an education.
Tony and Georgia Gamelin already had two children — Brittany and Bryan — when they decided to pursue adoption in Sri Lanka, where Tony was born, in 2001. And after a two-and-one-half-year process, the couple returned with their child, Bryce, now 7.
They knew one day, they’d become a family with four children, but they didn’t know when or how it would happen.
“We always knew we wanted to adopt again,” Georgia says.
Tony, a CPA, went to the country three times to help an organization there make plans to build an orphanage, a school and a hospital. While there, he visited an orphanage.
What he saw there was both amazing and heartbreaking.
Although the country is relatively lush, much of the land is owned by foreigners, leaving the Ugandan people without much land of their own to use for growing crops or other work. Children whose families cannot afford a uniform and other supplies for an education are left without an opportunity to learn, furthering the already-vast distinction between the wealthy and the poor.
“There’s no lack of love, but the orphanages are the poor supporting the poor,” Georgia says.
When the Gamelins realized how many orphans the country held — an estimated 2.5 million — they attempted to adopt through an agency but eventually decided to move forward on their own. Tony spent a week in Uganda with a missionary friend, interviewing attorneys and setting up an adoption.
The orphanage Tony visited had only one child available — Brianne. While the other children embraced his visit, Brianne was terrified of him.
“In my humanness, I thought, ‘God, what are you doing?’” Tony says. “I asked about other children. They were fun and beautiful. But my whole prayer was, ‘God, I don’t want to select a child. Close the door to the others.’ And God did.”
Last June, the Gamelins and their children returned for Brianne and to deliver supplies to the orphanage. During the visit, an orphan wrapped himself around their son Bryan’s leg. In his native tongue, he begged for the family to come back — next time with his mommy and daddy.
And they did.
About a month after returning to the United States, the Gamelins’ attorney in Uganda contacted them, saying an official from the orphanage had agreed to adopt out more children if the Gamelins could find them good Christian homes.
In Uganda, representatives began getting paperwork together for seven children the Gamelins had met.
“God knew all along what families were supposed to be these (children’s) parents,” Georgia says. “I prayed God would bring us those families.”
And one by one, He found them.
Cyndee Vanderford calls the diary of her adoption experience “her miracle log,” a record of all the times her family faced a hurdle that only God could overcome, and He prevailed.
With three children of their own, Cyndee and Scott Vanderford had not seriously considered adoption before Georgia Gamelin, a fellow member of Bayside, called Cyndee one day and asked her to consider adopting a child from Uganda.
“This isn’t a new car you can take back,” Cyndee says, smiling. “We prayed about it, and (my husband Scott and I) both felt like this was what God wanted us to do.”
So, with a mountain of questions still before them, last November, the couple decided to become a family of six.
After completing paperwork and getting a court date in Uganda — a date shared by all three families —
Cyndee and her family packed their bags and prepared for their newest adventure. They arrived March 1 and met Matt the next day.
While some other families had brought toys to share with their new child, the Vanderfords simply borrowed a ball. And once in a circle, they bounced it back and forth with Matt, practicing the names he’d learned to go with pictures in a scrapbook they’d sent prior to their arrival.
Mommy. Daddy. Michael. Melanie. Michelle.
A day later, with Matt in tow, the family headed with the others to their adoption hearing. Although the judge hadn’t scheduled the hearing as the families had anticipated, he stopped court to take their adoption hearings individually.
The judge, she says, explained the proces, asked a few questions and then thanked them for what they were doing.
“I thought, ‘You’re thanking me? I’m the one who gets to take this beautiful child home,’” Cyndee says.
The court order making Matt’s adoption official came a week later, and Cyndee stayed with Matt as they waited for his VISA while the rest of her family went home. Cyndee and Matt returned March 19 — less than one year after he had clung to Bryce Gamelin’s leg begging for a family.
Matt Vanderford shifts his attention from the Legos before him to a recliner about a foot away. His mother remains on the floor as the child climbs the frame, pushes against the back and begins to make the chair rock slowly back and forth to his amusement.
In a flash, Cyndee reaches under the chair and grabs a toilet paper holder that went missing after Matt played with it.
“I’ve been looking for that,” she says.
Cyndee looks at the child that has so quickly become a part of their family — a child who in another year would have been removed from the orphanage where he lived and taken somewhere else.
“I know God had a plan for him where he is, but I have to believe it (will be) better (here),” she says. “He has a childhood in front of him now.”
Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected]" target="_blank">[email protected].
In addition to the Vanderfords, the Gamelins found two other East County families to adopt two more Ugandan orphans.
Longwood Run residents Danny and Kristin Remchuk married in 1999, dreaming that one day they’d have a family of their own.
After learning in 2006 they could not have children of their own, the couple began the process to adopt a child in Taiwan. But when that adoption fell through, the Remchuks began questioning whether they were meant to have kids.
“We literally said, ‘We’re OK with not being parents if it’s God’s will,’” Danny says. “We stopped putting that whole almost-manic state about it and decided to say, ‘OK, God, whatever you want for us to do — that’s fine.’”
Within two weeks, Georgia Gamelin walked into the school where Danny taught and shared her passion for helping the children in Uganda.
“She wasn’t selling us anything,” Danny says. “She was very thorough in what she told us. She made no promises or outrageous claims. It was clear her only interest was for those children.”
Exactly five months after Georgia walked into Danny’s classroom, the Remchuks returned with their son, Cameron. Today, Kristin now is able to stay home with him, while Danny continues teaching.
“We left here as a family of two and came (back) as a family of three,” Danny says. “We’re still in the new parent sleep-deprived life, but we can’t imagine our life any different.
“It’s like he’s always been our child,” he says. “I really think that. He was chosen for us (by God). I don’t think we chose him.”
At the home of Doug and Julie Norman, their youngest son, Matthew, plays near the pool with his two older siblings.
Jack, the oldest at 8 years old, was adopted from Kazakhstan when he was 8 months old. His sister, Grace, now 5, came to the family from Guatemala when she was 5 months old.
He doesn’t utter a single word to respond, but the 4-year-old Matthew now is the quickest to come to his mother’s side when she calls, letting her place his water-soaked bottom squarely on her legs for a photograph.
The child is still reserved but is adjusting well to his new home. He likes to figure out how things work, and is hungry for learning, repeating new words as if choice morsels of food.
Every day Doug is away on business, Matthew brings his mother the phone and asks to call his daddy.
“It’s like he’s always been here,” Julie says. “He’s so relaxed and comfortable.”
“When you go the adoption route, there is a divine intervention,” she says. “You feel moved — this child from creation always was intended to be your child. God brings families together in many different ways.”
“Matthew is our little boy,” he says. “He fits in our family. His personality is perfect for his siblings.”
HOW TO HELP
Sharon Bradshaw, who traveled with the four East County families and will help facilitate future adoptions, will continue working in Uganda with the Florida Home Studies and Adoption agency.
“God loves these kids,” Bradshaw said. “The extraordinary measures God took to get homes for these kids is remarkable.”
Bradshaw’s agency will continue working with the orphanage to place more children from Uganda in Christian homes.
Georgia Gamelin said families who do not wish to adopt but would still like to help the plight of orphans in Uganda can do so by sponsoring children at orphanages there through organizations such as Compassion International.
For information, contact Bradshaw at 342-8189.