By Nathan Hedman, Runner Up in the Response Essay Competition 2008
Chris Jones ’94 and his wife, Kara Jellum Jones ’99, had a second bedroom in their Chicago apartment, and it was ready to go. They had been expecting to welcome a child through Chicago’s Safe Families program, and it was mid-June with no call.
Established as an extension of a privately financed, Christian organization, Safe Families places youths into volunteer homes until difficult domestic situations are smoothed out. It seemed like a good idea to the Jones’ — a way to circumvent the stressed-out foster care system with as little disruption to the child as possible. It also allowed Chris, a pediatrician, and Kara, a fifth-grade teacher, to participate during the summer without becoming full-fledged foster care parents. And they had the extra room. Despite the fact that Kara had just learned that she was pregnant with their first, she called again to make sure they were still on “the list.” They were assured they were — and they didn’t have much longer to wait.
At 2 p.m. the next afternoon, the phone rang with a request for Kara to come down to the hospital to pick up their special “young person.” Born four days earlier, this baby was the child of a woman with health issues. Her father was nowhere to be found. In an extraordinary set of circumstances, Safe Families was given charge of the newborn and handed her straight over to her new surrogate parents. Within two hours of the call, Kara was holding their new little summer guest – a 6 lb. 3 oz. African-American girl named Latrice.
Such an event might have been an impossible disruption for some, but Kara and Chris are a flexible pair and spent their days with children; together they could flex those skills with delight and aplomb. But little could have prepared them for the events to follow.
Latrice’s mother, it turned out, had an exceedingly rare genetic disease called spinal cerebellar ataxia (SCA type 7). Little is known about SCA but that it culminates in an attack on the brainstem, causing weakness of the muscles, seizures, impairment of the eyes, shortness of breath, and, finally, death. After giving birth, the mother had been moved to a nursing home, unable to care for even for herself. The father continued to be elusive, failing to attend several arranged meetings. Uneasy reports trickled through that this was not the mother’s first baby, but in fact her fifth. And the other four babies, again, reportedly, had died of SCA type 7 before their first birthdays. It was possible, Chris and Kara learned, that Latrice could also be diagnosed with SCA type 7. Tests were being run on a blood sample taken from her at birth.
On July 14, a month almost to the day of her arrival, Chris’ cell rang with Latrice’s diagnosis: She tested positive for SCA type 7. The news came just as Chris and Kara had inducted her into an extended family of welcoming faces in the Northwest — grandparents, cousins, uncles, aunts, not to mention friends and co-workers. She had become familiar among the congregation of their thriving church. Adopted children were a regular presence there. In fact, one family had set a precedent with no less than seven adopted children over 13 years. When Chris and Kara returned to Chicago, they had little grasp as to how much time they would have with her. It was possible that Chris and Kara may be the only parents she would ever have.
By the middle of August, Latrice began to have minor seizures, and it became clear that she could not remain with Chris and Kara without their licensure as foster care parents. She could also not be returned to her birth family. But the thought that Latrice would soon be transferred to a new and, due to strict confidentiality laws, entirely anonymous home, just as she began to display early symptoms of her disease was deeply distressing to Chris and Kara. The couple prayed, often in despair, that Latrice would somehow be moved to a home that loved her as much as theirs, and that they could somehow continue to be a presence in her life. But how? In a series of impossible events and a labyrinth of paperwork and advocating, Latrice was assigned to the very family in their church known for their commitment to adopting children. She was transferred to her new home on September 6 as a permanent member of a large and loving family, with Chris and Kara obtaining special status as “respite workers.”
Latrice has proven more robust than those first seizures suggested. A year and a half later, she has grown in healthy stature for her age, but she has developed a prevalent shake when she walks. The seizures occur more frequently, and the focus of her eyes can slacken. Chris and Kara have in the meantime had a beautiful son of their own, Reed, who has become the primary object of Latrice’s wet, haphazard kisses whenever she visits. Those visits have been the highlight of the last 18 months.
Though Latrice’s presence was far more significant in Chris’ and Kara’s lives than they ever anticipated, the event is no anomaly; rather it is indicative of the kinds of lives they were already leading. The same disposition that led Kara to a major in special education and her keen concern in public education and its service to the disadvantaged, is the same disposition that has led Chris to become a pediatrician at Lawndale Christian Health Center, a nationally renowned program that serves one of the most historically depressed and violent neighborhoods in the country.
It’s the same disposition that compels them to offer a brief stint of medical care in Afghanistan within the year. It’s the same disposition that made the simple determination that they had an extra room, a disposition that made room enough for Latrice. Though she was the direct beneficiary of such a disposition, Chris and Kara insist that, for them, Latrice was far greater gift to them than ever they gave.
Nathan Hedman is working on his Ph.D. in theatre at Northwest University in Chicago, Illinois. Friends of the subjects in his essay, he says, “I feel honored to know these guys. They're the kind of people who challenge you to live well without even knowing they're doing it.” Nathan and his wife, April, are parents to three children under age 5.
Read other Response essay winners
Return to top
Back to Features Home