“Many people steer away from older children when adopting and go straight for the younger children, but nope, not us. Hi. We are the Zimmermans and we go against the grain in most that we do. We aren’t ordinary like most typical Americans…start careers, get married, have 2 kids, and grow old together.
We dated long-distance in college, married before physical therapy school, had a long-distance marriage, graduated physical therapy school, bought a house, and adopted a teenager. Yes, you heard that right. We adopted a 14.5-year-old teenage boy from Ukraine when I was 27 years old and my husband was 31 years old. Some thought we were crazy, but to us, it felt right.
Adoption wasn’t on our radar until we started working with an organization that brought over 3 groups of about 10 Ukrainian orphans each a year. We fell in love with these children and their culture. Each time we were with the kids they craved attention and you could just look into their eyes seeing a lack of hope; it broke our hearts. But what really broke us was hearing the statistics of Eastern European post orphans that aged out of the system: 2/3rd of girls are sex trafficked, 70% of males will become hard criminals, and 10% will commit suicide by age 21. The cycle must be broken one orphan at a time and our hearts were longing to make a difference. Looking back on this process, we thought we were saving a child, but in return, he was saving us.
We adopted our son from Ukraine when he was 14.5 years old. We made 3 trips back and forth between Ukraine and America with each trip leaving us heartbroken that our son was still over in the boarding school and we couldn’t do anything to help. It was an emotional rollercoaster of a 3-month time period of the first meeting in Ukraine to coming back to America, on top of 6 months prior waiting on paperwork and approval.
I clearly remember the day were able to take him officially out of the boarding school. It was joyous and oh so hard. He said goodbye to his older brother before were able to meet him for paperwork at the notary and I could see on his face the grief and weight of his decision setting in. He is the seventh child and has 6 older siblings that were not eligible for adoption due to aging out. The faces of tears and agony of him hugging his sister and saying goodbye to his two nephews was so tortuous. I remember telling my husband, ‘Did we do the right thing?’ with tears streaming down my face. We knew this decision was for the best, because Ukraine didn’t promise a life of hope for our son.
He was leaving a life behind him. The only life he knew —his culture, language, siblings, friends, etc. All for the hopes of a better life with two random Americans pledging to be his parents for life. Oh how brave he was. I tell him all the time how strong he was and how much courage he had to make such a monumental decision to change his life at 14.5 years old. He amazes me.
We spent three weeks in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, over Christmas and New Year’s waiting on his passport and our approval to leave the country. It was such a joy to experience so many new memories with our son from playing in the snow, falling on ice, watching movie after movie at the theater, to bowling, and eating out all the time. We were kings and queens with the currency exchange. We are so thankful for that time for our son to be in his culture and see those monumental sites in his capital he had never seen before besides pictures, as well as appreciate the history of his country.
It was January 10th, 2017, when we returned to the U.S. after a long-awaited journey. We were home. The hopes of having a son were now reality. Many before us explained that there would be a honeymoon phase and then it would be over with reality sinking in. The first few weeks were awesome just getting into a routine all together, starting school, and focusing on learning English so we could communicate. Then it hit. I started noticing he seemed to be going through the stages of grief. Grieving his culture, his language, his familiarity, our new normal, and the expectations he had versus reality. It wouldn’t be until about 1.5 years later before he fully accepted his decision.
Boundaries were hard. He came from a world of few boundaries and being an adult from such a young age, to now two random people telling him what to do. We struggled with authority and boundaries, as well as trust. We held firm knowing that he needed structure and stability. The first three months of transitioning home were filled with glorious and dark days. Everything I cooked for dinner was disgusting and he didn’t want to eat it. All he wanted to eat everyday was an American hotdog. One thing we had an issue with was that he hated Mexican food, which is what we loved to eat all the time! I am happy to say he loves his shrimp fajitas and chips with salsa now! We also struggled finding clothes for him that fit his European standards. The struggle was real.
The newness of everything wore off and reality kept setting in. I was with him for three months then returned to work with new issues arising. Being apart from both of us each day for that long and him flipping back and forth between my parents and us caused so much stress and instability for him. We knew we had to do something different and we chose to make sacrifices. We wanted to be intentional in our parenting and be present as much as possible since we only had 4-5 years before he went off to college. So I reduced to very part time hours at my career and started a flexible side business that allowed me to be present all while supplementing the losses.
He was thriving and learning so much. So many people say that older children come with baggage and you don’t get to experience all of those firsts. I have to disagree. I remember all the firsts—going to a Target and Sam’s for the first time, a museum, the beach, the drive thru, the car wash, etc. All those things we take for granted were brand new experiences and seeing him experience the world through his eyes for the first time was amazing and a blessing that brought so much joy.
We decided to put him in football six months after being in America to get out him out of his comfort zone and learn something new. It was so hard. He hated us. He told us quite frequently that we were horrible parents for making him do football without any experience or understanding of the game. We had an agreement he was going to commit for one year, and then he could decide for the last three years of high school what he wanted to do. I remember his first freshman game. The coaches placed him as a wide receiver and he didn’t even know what his role was. He was just shaking his head ‘no’ as they pushed him into the game. I tried telling them that he should be a kicker to translate his soccer skills, but what do moms know?!? Let’s just say he became the kicker that season and started to perfect his skill.
The first 1.5 years were the hardest for not only him in transitioning, but for my husband and myself. We went from a family of two to three, but not to the typical path of a newborn. We went straight to the teenage phase. We have been through hard times and have come out the other side thanks to many hours with our family therapist and psychologist. We are stronger together as a family and push one another to greatness all while butting heads as a normal family. We have our ups and downs just like you, but we may have more as we are overcoming years of failed promises and expectations that weren’t met. Family is more than blood. Family is love.
Fast forward to today. Our son is a 17-year-old Ukrainian American fluent in English, Russian, and Ukrainian. He has his driver’s license and loves hanging out with his friends. He is the kicker for our local high school, loves R/C cars and fishing. He is the life of our family and makes a lasting impression on everyone he meets. His heart is gold and is the first person to give you the shirt off his back. You see his experiences have developed him into the person he is today, and he has a beautiful, redemptive story of grace and hope that will change someone’s life. To see a child’s life change from the promise of no future to a life full of dreams despite jumping over every hurdle will definitely put you in your place. Every child needs a home, no matter the age. Everyone needs stability. In the words of Josh Shipp, ‘Every kid is one caring adult away from being a success story.’
This is our story. This is us.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Megan Zimmerman of Huntsville, Alabama. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.
Read more inspiring stories of teen adoptions:
Help us show compassion is contagious. SHARE this beautiful story on Facebook with your friends and family.