Tech. Sgt. Jamie Meadows-Valley traveled to Ukraine to adopt 2-year-old Oleksandra from an orphanage. Jamie, her husband, Master Sgt. Ernie Valley, and the couple’s children have embraced Oleksandra as part of their family, where she has made remarkable strides since coming to America. (U.S. Air Force video/Tech. Sgt. Samuel Morse)
A small crowd gathered outside the secure area exit at Boise Airport. It was late on a weekday, so the small airport was largely abandoned, save for a few families waiting for their loved ones.
Among the anxious crowd were family and friends of Tech Sgt. Jamie Meadows-Valley — an Airman from the 366th Aerospace Medicine Squadron at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, whose months of searching, legal struggles and even dodging protests in Ukraine, led to this pivotal moment.
Then, a familiar face pushing a stroller came through the exit.
It was Jamie with her newly adopted daughter, Sandie. The sight of her two sons and husband brought tears to Jamie’s eyes.
She kissed and hugged them, then introduced the twins to their new sister.
Finally, the reunited family turned their attention to the friends standing behind them, waiting for their chance to meet 2-year-old Sandie.
Mark Tschampl and his wife, Capt. Lauren Tschampl, recalled the joy and optimism they felt welcoming Jamie and Sandie home.
“That little girl just won the parent lottery,” said Mark, a long-time friend of the family. “She may not know it for a while, but (she) is going to have a fantastic life.”
Jamie and her husband, Master Sgt. Ernie Valley, who serves with the 366th Component Maintenance Squadron, did not take the choice to adopt lightly. The couple wanted to make sure they made the right decisions for the long term.
“When I met Ernie, I didn’t really think I wanted to have kids,” said Jamie. “Even when I was a little kid, I knew there were lots of little kids who didn’t have mommies and daddies.”
Eventually, in addition to Ernie’s daughter from a previous marriage, Jewel, they did have children – twins by the names of Wolfgang and Jaeger, affectionately called “Wolfie” and “Yogie.”
Then, the topic of adoption came up.
For this Air Force couple, adoption wasn’t enough. They wanted to give a better life to a child who wouldn’t receive the help he or she needed in their home country, whether or not he or she was adopted.
They started by trying to adopt a special needs child from Russia.
“You see these kids on photo listings, and, for me, they spoke to my heart,” said Jamie. “They don’t have the Americans With Disabilities Act (protecting them), so they don’t have ways to get on trains, to get into apartments; they don’t have elevators that are big enough for wheelchairs. There are no ramps into restaurants. I thought, ‘Man, this kid’s going to get the short end of the stick.’”
Unfortunately, adoption was put on hold.
The Dima Yakovlev Act was signed into law in Russia and took effect Jan. 1, 2013. Among other things, it banned the adoption of Russian children by U.S. citizens. Disheartened, but still hopeful, they looked elsewhere while promising themselves to try Russia again once the borders were reopened for adoption.
They turned to Ukraine because the adoption process was similar to what Russia’s had been, and because the country was similarly limited in its accommodations for people with disabilities. That’s where they found Oleksandra, also known as Sandie.
Jamie and Ernie traveled to Ukraine in search of a child to adopt Nov. 29, 2013, leaving their sons in the care of family. Civic unrest had been building prior to their arrival, and the idea of being in Kiev, one of the areas affected by protests, was unnerving to Jamie.
“I was totally scared the first night, plotting where the embassies were and where I could run to if something happened,” Jamie said.
The couple took a train to Donetsk, where the orphanage was located, and met Sandie for the first time.
“They handed her to us, and our dream became a reality,” said Ernie. “I was ecstatic.”
“At that point, I don’t think (anything else) really mattered,” Jamie said. ”It was love at first sight. I knew she was meant for us.”
Life in Ukraine wasn’t easy for Sandie. With a cleft palate and limited access to medical care, she was hand-fed the entire time she lived at the orphanage. Staff members would hold her steady and only feed her bread soaked in milk so she didn’t have to chew and wouldn’t risk choking. She wasn’t allowed to make choices for herself and despite being 2 years old, she wore clothing made for children less than half her age.
The couple wasn’t able to bring Sandie home on that trip, they began the adoption process. Jamie later returned by herself to finally adopt her new daughter and bring her to the United States.
In her first week in her new home, Sandie learned to chew, try new foods and even use sign language to ask for more food. While she used to eat in total silence, she came out of her shell and was very vocal about her desire for more food, causing her to gain a full pound.
“She seems to be more vocal, she’s closer to being able to walk and the interaction she has with her brothers − it’s a natural bond,” Lauren said.
While the ability to form words still eludes Sandie, hearing a new language hasn’t hampered her ability to communicate.
“She doesn’t seem to mind that we speak English,” Jamie said. “She seems to understand what we’re saying, regardless.”
While Sandie’s new parents are reveling in the love they feel for their new daughter, they also credit their military family with creating a positive environment for their new family member.
“Because of the community, being in the military, (we knew that) regardless of the race the child was, or the health issues, or the physical disabilities she had, we would be accepted by the people we worked around,” Jamie said.
The couple received more than just support, but also genuine curiosity and enthusiasm toward the adoption.
“I wasn’t sure what kind of feedback I would receive when I mentioned to my friends that we were going to adopt a child,” Ernie said. “I haven’t had a negative comment, no odd looks, but questions. We have a few friends, since we started doing this, who want to (adopt as well.)”
The couple expressed strong feelings about the need for good homes for orphans, especially in Eastern Europe. They said they hope their story will inspire others to follow in their footsteps.
“If I can be a catalyst for someone else’s adoption, that’s amazing,” Jamie said. “Everyone thinks how lucky (Sandie) is and how much we’ve changed her life, but she’s changed us just as much. We’re so lucky to have her.”
Ultimately though, it’s all about giving Sandie a home.
“When she’s sad, she has someone to hug her. She’s got brothers (and a sister) who want to teach her to do bad stuff, I’m sure, like how to get snacks out, or not go to bed when she’s supposed to,” Jamie said. “She knows she has a mommy and daddy who love her.”