Joey Funderburk remembers the day he met his mother, who changed his life. He was 5 years old, riding atop a pink toy Barbie car down the hall of the Romanian orphanage where he’d lived all his life.
“When I saw her, I knew she was my mother,” said Funderburk, now 20.
Chrystal Funderburk had the same feeling, looking down at the handsome, bright-eyed boy with a beautiful smile, and short stubs instead of legs.
“I just knew,” she said, “that Joey was supposed to be mine.”
Chrystal had raised money to travel halfway around the world to the Romanian orphanage and volunteer, inspired by an article she read in Reader’s Digest.
Joey had lived all his life there as an orphan, born with severely deformed legs called club feet. Doctors said his mother had taken medication during her pregnancy that likely caused the deformity.
The conviction that brought this mother and son together – and ultimately resulted in Joey’s move to the United States and his adoption by Chrystal and her husband, Joe – still guides them today as they confront the latest obstacle.
Joey needs new legs.
Joey – who lives with his family in Hickory Grove and is now a student at York Technical College – is using the same prosthetic legs he has had since he was about 16, even though he’s now 25 pounds heavier. Because the legs are too small, he often falls.
“He needs new legs. He has outgrown the ones he has,” said Joe Funderburk, who works as a building code enforcement official for the town of Clover. “It’s only a matter of time before he cracks his head and winds up in a coma or something.”
When Blue Cross/Blue Shield of South Carolina initially denied a claim to provide new legs for Joey, the Funderburks decided to do what they could to pay for the new legs on their own.
Joey started selling boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts three to four days a week at Pineville and Charlotte locations, including Miller’s Gas Station on S.C. 51 in Fort Mill, near the North Carolina state line. So far, he has raised more than $25,000 for the new legs.
“I am so humbled by God’s goodness, by people in their generosity,” Chrystal said. “We had no idea we’d get this kind of attention, that people would reach out in the way they have.”
Donors have been generous, many giving $20 for a $7 box of doughnuts, and some have given as much as $100. Radio and television news stories have been aired in Charlotte and ABC featured him on its website for “Good Morning, America.”
Still Joey has a long way to go. The high-tech, computerized prosthetic legs Joey needs cost about $120,000, Chrystal said.
She said the prosthetics, which have been recommended by his doctor, have a microprocessor in the knee that adjusts for body movement. Mechanical prosthetics don’t have the ability to do that. Because Joey is a double amputee above the knee, she said, he needs the high-tech prosthetics to keep him from falling.
After reviewing and denying the claim three times, Chrystal said, Blue Cross/Blue Shield recently said it would pay about $47,000 toward the legs. The Funderburks are working to raise the rest.
Patti Embry-Tautenhan, a spokeswoman for Blue Cross/Blue Shield of South Carolina, said the company does provide coverage for prosthetics, and medical necessity plays a key role in coverage decisions.
“Prosthetic replacement is based on what is considered to be standard,” she wrote in an email. Standard prosthetics range in price, but they can cost more than $40,000, she wrote. Funderburk is seeking the more high-tech bio-processors, “which are not standard items,” she wrote.
Chrystal said the family is not angry or revengeful about the insurance company’s decision, but they are hopeful. Joey is undaunted.
At first, he said, asking people to buy doughnuts so he could have new legs seemed demeaning. As a child, his prosthetic legs had always been provided to him by Shriner’s Hospitals, which could no longer help him when he turned 18.
“I realized it’s actually a ministry,” said Joey, who is interested in a ministry career. “I get to tell my testimony to hundreds of people if they want to hear my story.”
And Joey’s story is an amazing one.
Joey was placed at birth in a Romanian orphanage operated by the Roman Catholic sisters of Mother Teresa. His birth parents – who named him Viorel, a name he later changed – realized the task of raising him would be daunting, Chrystal said, and they left him.
Joey was later diagnosed with PFFD – proximal femoral focal deficiency – a rare, non-hereditary birth defect. The cause is not known, but one cause is believed to be exposure to toxins during pregnancy.
Joey said the nuns at the orphanage were wonderful, but some children and volunteers who worked there were not.
“The part I didn’t like,” he said, “was being alone and not having a family.”
The orphanage was surrounded by a wall that encompassed the only world Joey knew. One day, he said, he looked outside the gate. A boy outside the gate threw a rock at him and laughed.
The orphans owned nothing of their own, he said – not even their clothes – but at Christmas, they received two pieces of candy tucked into their shoes.
“That was the coolest thing ever,” he recalls. “We got two pieces of candy for Christmas. And it was all ours.”
The food at the orphanage was whatever could be donated by the community, he said. One time, he said, they ate chocolate icing for a week.
Still, Joey is grateful for his experience at the orphanage, perhaps because he deeply appreciates how far he’s come.
“I was blessed to have gone through that,” he said. “I look back on it, and I appreciate it.”
Chrystal said she was motivated to visit the orphanage in part because she was at a low point. She had recently become a Christian, as a Baptist, but also was recovering from a divorce.
“I couldn’t get away from the thought that I was supposed to go to Romania,” she said.
When Chrystal met Joey during her three-month stay as a volunteer at the orphanage in 1998, she hadn’t planned on adopting a child.
But she realized right away she must. When she told the nuns she wanted to take him back to the United States with her, they just smiled.
“They said, ‘We’ve never had anyone from America come here before,’ ” Chrystal said. “ ‘And we’d been told right before we received your letter that this child needed surgery that could only be done in America.’ ”
Chrystal and the nuns began the long process of seeking an adoption through the Romanian government. Chrystal had to return to the United States, with plans to come back and get Joey.
Joey was never told she wanted to adopt him, but he overheard someone talking about the plans. He said he was convinced she would be back to get him.
“I had complete faith that she would come back,” he said.
In June 1999, about 18 months later, Chrystal returned to Romania and brought Joey, then 6, to the U.S. She became his legal guardian for the purpose of health care, because the adoption had not yet been approved.
In 2000, he had surgery to remove his club feet, preparing his legs for prosthetics. He received his first prosthetic legs in spring 2001.
Soon after, Chrystal met her future husband, and Joey’s adoptive father, Joe Funderburk. The couple married in 2003.
By the following year, the Romanian adoption was still not finalized, and the couple learned the country planned to halt all foreign adoptions.
But they learned Joey had been in the U.S. long enough to be considered a legally abandoned orphan. Chrystal and Joe adopted him in 2004, through the U.S. government.
“You don’t know the tears I wept,” Chystal said. “It was so hard going through the Romanian system. And after all those years of fighting for him, we were finally able to get him through a simple local adoption.”
Joey also wanted to change his name. The name he chose, she said, was Joey. When Chrystal and Joe adopted him, he became Joseph Viorel.
The Funderburks have since had two daughters, Morgan, 8, and Hannah, 5.
‘I can run’
In the years since, Chrystal said, the Shriner’s Hospitals have paid for Joey’s prosthetic legs, which need to be replaced every couple years as he grows. When Joey turned 18, however, she said, the Shriner’s could not longer help him and Blue Cross/Blue Shield refused a claim to replace them.
She said prosthetic legs typically have a fairly short life span before they need replacements — about two years for a child, three to five for an adult. Many amputees battle with insurance companies to get approval for the costly prosthetic replacements, she said.
While raising money for his new legs, Joey has been allowed to test a pair of prosthetic knees with microprocessors, provided to him by the prosthetic maker. The knees, he said, are the most critical part.
“They’ve changed what I can do,” he said. “For the first time, I can run.”
Chrystal believes Joey will eventually get the legs he needs. She said several fundraisers are planned, and the prosthetic company has offered to work with the family to help find discounts.
Joey also has been seeking donations on a website, joeyslegs.org.
“I am crazy about my son,” Chrystal said. “He is the sweetest person I know, and he is the most grateful person I know. And he doesn’t want to be seen as a victim. He just wants a normal life.”
Joey, who plans to finish his basic classes at York Tech and go on to college and a ministry career, said he’s thankful for his family. Several years ago, he returned to Romania on a mission trip, speaking to churches and visiting orphanages.
He said he also is thankful that his parents have never allowed him to use his disability as an excuse.
“I appreciate her sternness,” he said of Chrystal, “and not giving up on me.”
Chrystal said when she went to Romania 15 years ago, she expected to be doing something wonderful for someone else.
“I had no idea,” she said, “that I’d be getting the greatest blessing myself.”
Want to help?
Joey Funderburk has a website, joeyslegs.org, where people can make donations to help him get new legs. In addition, a silent auction fundraiser is planned from 6 to 9 p.m. Dec. 8 at the Coffee Creek Cafe in Pineville, N.C. Wedding packages, gifts and other items will be auctioned.