CLOVER — At Dan and Michelle’s house this Christmas season, there has been a new ornament on the tree.
The new one is for 6-year-old Alyssa. She’s spent almost all of her life in a Bulgarian orphanage, abandoned by parents who said they couldn’t take care of her.
There’s a reason for that: Alyssa has Down syndrome.
Now her image hangs with those of her six brothers and sisters on a small, white artificial tree in her new home.
There’s a reason for that, too.
During the holidays, the world returns to the story of the baby Jesus, a newborn who had no place to go. Driven more and more by their faith, Dan and Michelle Hills have always found room for just one more.
“Everybody is worthy of love,” says Michelle, 37. “You are not disposable. You are beautiful just the way God created you.”
For the past six years, the couple has opened their lives to six children from distant parts of the world, children who others didn’t want, who had stayed in the orphanages too long, or had severe medical problems that scared prospective parents away.
Now they all live together in a crowded home on a rural street outside of Clover. Counting Anthony, Michelle’s son from her first marriage, there are seven kids, two parents and two cats.
“It’s not perfect,” Dan says. “But it’s so much fun.”
The couple’s first five adoptions came from orphanages in Ukraine.
Yana, now 16, started it all in 2006.
Nadia, now 8, came two years later.
Brother and sister Ivan, 18, and Olya, 15, followed in 2009.
Marni, 7, joined in 2010.
The younger girls brought physical and developmental issues. Nadia has severe cerebral palsy. Marni, like Alyssa, has Down syndrome.
The older children carried their own challenges as well. For one, all of them had fantasized for so long about being part of a family that at first, their parents say, the actual family life never matched up.
With adopted children from other parts of the world, “each child has got so much different history,” says Meg Houlihan, a Charlotte therapist who works with adopting families, but does not know the Hillses.
“Each child comes with such a complicated story that will be unfolding for a while.”
One of the issues, at least for the older kids, is intimacy and love.
“For a while, the closer you try to get, the more they try to push you away,” Michelle says. “They’re thinking, ‘You’re going to reject me. Let me show you all my garbage right now so we can get this over with.’ ”
And the Hillses aren’t finished. Their Christmas tree also includes an ornament with the smiling face of Katya, a Ukrainian teenager that the couple has been trying to adopt for six years. They already consider her their daughter.
“The biggest surprise is that my folks keep going back,” says Anthony, 17, who shares a bedroom with Ivan.
The second biggest may be this: Dan and Michelle’s adoptions appear contagious. About a dozen of the couple’s friends, including their Charlotte pastor, have also adopted children or are in the process.
“Look at the ripple effect,” says Diane Gabanyic, owner of a pediatric therapy clinic in Rock Hill that works with Nadia and Marni. In March, Gabanyic will travel to Bulgaria to pick up her own child, a girl also impaired by cerebral palsy.
“Their love for each other and especially for those our society looks at as not worthwhile. ... I mean, who was this little baby in the manger that nobody cared about?”
Lo and behold ... money
Dan and Michelle don’t have a lot of money. Most of their adoptions cost about $25,000 and involve a year-long wait.
In 2005-06, they cobbled the money together for Yana.
Before they found Nadia, they joined Horizon Christian Fellowship of Charlotte. If God wanted them to keep finding children, they figured, God would help foot the bills.
At home, the couple continued to save and cut expenses. Dan worked overtime when he could at his job with a Charlotte company that makes CDs and DVDs.
But soon, they say, donations from friends, church members and even complete strangers started pouring in. Some were as small as a dollar or two. One man they barely knew gave them $26,000 to cover all the costs of adopting Ivan and Olya.
“They do everything by faith, and lo and behold, the money always appears,” says Terry Sartain, their pastor, himself the recent father of an adopted Ukrainian teenager.
The Hillses house is now crammed with children. They’re eyeing the attic for a new bedroom. But the question must be asked: When is enough, well, enough?
“That’s up to God, isn’t it?” says Dan, an Air Force veteran who turns 50 later this month. “We’ve said ‘enough’ every time, but the children keep finding us.
“... You just know – it’s your child. Like Alyssa. She’s ours. What are you going to do? You gotta go.”
Behold the Christmas child
As a little girl, Michelle dragged a wagon around filled with Cabbage Patch kids and dreamed of the big family she would have one day. Now she feels led by her faith to get children into loving homes.
“You have to understand, Michelle never stops with the children,” Dan says. “If we’re not trying to adopt, she’s helping other people find kids.”
The couple, both living in Florida at the time, met at their siblings’ wedding, married in 1997 and moved to Charlotte about a decade ago.
Dan has two grown daughters from his first marriage. Michelle had Anthony. But as her 30s approached, she wanted to raise another child. The couple settled on adoption.
“They believe that there are more children out there, and that God will make a way for those children to come home,” says Kristin Renzema of York, Michelle’s best friend and herself the parent of a Ukrainian child.
“There are so many children out there that are stuck in beds and have never gotten up, never known a mom and dad. If you think about that, why not?”
The best gift of all
A year after Michelle first saw Alyssa on an adoption website, Michelle and Yana went to get her. The party of three landed in Charlotte on Dec. 8.
Three days later, the Hillses began decorating their home for Christmas. Cookies were in the oven. Balloons danced along the floor. Nine stockings were stacked to the side, until a big enough spot could be found to hold them all.
The tree was almost done, and it was Alyssa, held aloft by her new big sister Olya, who added the star at the top.
The message of Christmas, author Taylor Caldwell once wrote, is that we are never alone: “Not when the night is darkest, the wind coldest, the world seemingly most indifferent. For this is still the time God chooses.”
The Hills family shows that the best gifts come from the inside out, says Sartain, their pastor.
And the best gift of all?
Sartain, a father again for the first time in 19 years, has a quick reply:
“The gift of a child.”
The gift of a child, 7 of them
Meet the seven children living with Dan and Michelle Hills.
“Anthony doesn’t get enough credit for moving over and making room,” his mother says. “Every time we’ve gone over to adopt, he’s embraced it and supported it.” Says Anthony: “You need to be prepared. They are going to be part of your family.”
“The first one to offer to help or take care of something or give up something,” Michelle says. Says Yana. “I don’t see yet what my mother sees in me. I like being a big sister. I like being there to help.”
Nadia has cerebral palsy and came to America as a sensory-deprived, frightened 3-year-old. Now her mother calls her the family entertainer. “An amazing kid who went through so much in her early life,” says Diane Gabanyic, a Rock Hill pediatric therapist who works with Nadia and her sister Marni. “She’s just a free spirit – so much love and energy and sense of humor.”
“She is big with her emotions so if she’s in the mood for fun, there tends to be fun,” her mother says. “Olya is great with kids when she’s in the mood for them. She will be the one to grow up and follow in my footsteps adopting.”
Quiet, hard-working and highly protective of Olya, his biological sister. He insisted on attending Clover High instead of being home-schooled like two of his sisters. Shares a bedroom and big-brother duties with Anthony.
Dan and Michelle’s first Down Syndrome child, “The Whirlwind,” Gabanyic calls her. Early on, she had trouble controlling her energy and understanding boundaries. Now she’s thriving, she said. “She’s a very bright child, very loving.”
Came down with a nasty virus the first week with her new family that necessitated two trips to the emergency room and an overnight hospital stay. Michelle’s says Alyssa and Marni, both Down syndrome children, already have become close, and the two share a room with their big sister Nadia.