Deciding to Adopt
Even before we realized we could not conceive, Sue and I had decided we would eventually adopt children; we wanted to extend our love to children most in need of such love and nurturing. In 1975, we adopted nine-month-old Heidi, who had been abandoned at birth in a basket on the steps of a local church in Seoul, Korea. Following the finalization of Heidi’s adoption and her naturalization as a U.S. citizen, we adopted five-month-old Dena in 1979. Dena had been given up for adoption by a twenty-six-year-old unwed mother who left her small village outside of Seoul to secretly deliver her baby.
Since foreign adoptions were complicated and costly, for our third child, we decided to try to adopt locally in Michigan. We submitted all of the paperwork and were very early in the process when we received a call asking us to consider taking a special-needs child out of her existing foster home. Within a day or two we visited Denise—who was then two and a half—and concluded that we would adopt her with full understanding of her special condition.
Denise was not severely disabled but she had been labeled a “failure-to-thrive infant.” Because her birth mother had not properly fed her during her first eighteen months of life, Denise had remained at her birth weight for most of that period—a time during which the brain normally doubles in size. Denise had a number of related issues, including eating disorders, speech problems, and a mental maturity level below her chronological age. She had trouble articulating her thoughts and spoke way too rapidly for most people to understand. She ate voraciously and got quite heavy even at a young age. She also had great difficulty adapting to any kind of change from her daily routine. We were told that it was highly likely that many of these issues would affect her throughout her adult life. But little could any of us have known how Denise would thrive.
The most challenging issue to deal with during Denise’s childhood was her education. She attended very good elementary and middle schools in the public school system but it was always extremely difficult to find classes that both met her needs and gave her room for further development. When placed in special-education classes she was inadequately challenged and at times mimicked the inappropriate behaviors of her less capable classmates. On the other hand, she simply could not keep pace with the more advanced abilities of non-disabled students in mainstream classes.
In middle school, this dilemma became more pronounced, and after speaking to school officials and psychologists, it became clear that an optimal solution would be to find a private boarding school that might better meet Denise’s needs. Sue and I really didn’t like the idea of sending Denise away, especially considering her difficulty in adapting to change. And like many parents of special-needs children, we felt guilty—almost as if we were copping out. Nonetheless, after much prayer and consideration, we concluded that a suitable private school would be in her best interest.
Finding the right school
On a New York Life business trip, one of my colleagues, Pat Colloton, told Sue and me about Riverview, a unique and well-known school to which he and his wife Patti had sent their son, Johnny. Located in Sandwich, Massachusetts, it was run by a well-known and well-published educator and author, Rick Lavoie, and his wife, Janet. We knew this fortuitous discussion was prompted by God. In the course of our discussions with the Collotons, we also learned of Johnny’s tragic drowning death at their home in Kansas City, Missouri. I was surprised I had not heard of this earlier because I had known Pat for a few years and he had never mentioned it. However, I quickly came to understand and appreciate the extent of the devastation to Pat and his family of the loss of their beloved son. Johnny loved his years at Riverview and the Collotons had donated funds in memory of him to establish a small park on the Riverview campus, complete with a gazebo: It was named “Johnny’s Yard.”
After researching a number of potential schools, we were most impressed with what we learned about Riverview and the Lavoies and we arranged for a visit with Denise during the summer following her sixteenth birthday. We worried she wouldn’t like the school or would be extremely nervous about the possibility of leaving home—boy were we surprised!
The visit to Riverview was wonderful! Denise was treated very respectfully and compassionately in her interview with Janet Lavoie. She then visited several summer classes in progress and was warmly welcomed by the teachers and students in each class. As we left the campus, a couple of students thanked her for coming and even yelled out good wishes as we got in the car for the ride home. During the visit, Denise had been difficult to read, so I had no idea what to expect when I finally asked, “Denise, how do you like the school? Without hesitation, she responded, “I want to go there. Sue and I were amazed! How thrilling that she would respond in this way. Her words were a gift from God, a gift that began during our conversation with Pat Colloton.
That fall, Denise enrolled at Riverview; it was very difficult for Sue and me to drop her off in September, but we knew it was best for her. In subsequent years, the decision repeatedly proved to be a very wise one, as Denise thrived in the Riverview environment. There was probably no place quite like Riverview and surely no place as perfect in meeting Denise’s needs. During her years there, Sue and I came to learn that their very simple tag line, “Riverview Cares,” appropriately and succinctly describes exactly what Riverview does and what it stands for.
From there, Denise went on to attend the Cape Cod Community College. She has remained on the Cape into early adulthood in a very supportive community called Living Independently Forever (LIFE) At age thirty, Denise now has her own condominium in the LIFE community, is a landlord (as she has a tenant living with her), is working part-time during the week, and has many close friends. Riverview changed her life, enabled her to join LIFE, and indeed prepared her to live independently forever. How did she get to this point? There were many highlights and emotional experiences related to Denise’s years at Riverview but none were more memorable than her graduation ceremony. For Riverview students, this was perhaps the biggest day of their lives.
It was celebrated in an auditorium at Cape Cod Community College. Despite a relatively small graduating class, the audience that summer day in 1999 numbered several hundred, with all of the faculty, staff, and numerous family members and friends in attendance. Our entire family came, and I sat in the center of a row occupied almost exclusively by Sieverts. The ceremony not only recognized all of the graduating seniors and involved presentations and speeches by some of the students, but it also included a handful of special awards.
We burst with pride as Denise walked up to receive her diploma with a broad smile amid the cheers of her classmates. Up and down our row, the Sieverts were unanimously fighting back tears, and I couldn’t help but surmise that in most public schools, a ceremony like this would have been for Denise a welcomed ending to a less-than-satisfying experience. At Riverview, however, it was a triumph—a true “commencement” of a meaningful and fulfilling life for the students and their families and a well-deserved recognition of the faculty and administration for a job well done.
Following the graduation ceremony, Rick Lavoie got up to introduce the winners of a few special awards. When he got to the good citizenship award, he explained that it had been established in memory of Johnny Colloton and was being presented to the student who best exemplified Johnny’s spirit of friendship and caring for his fellow classmates. He then paused and said, “Fred Sievert is in the audience today.” I was surprised and all my family members stared at me with equal surprise. “Fred is a friend and colleague of Johnny’s father, Pat Colloton,” continued Rick. “And on almost every visit to campus, Fred sits in Johnny’s Yard and calls his friend Pat to tell him how well maintained the yard is and how beautiful it looks. Pat has always greatly appreciated those calls.” Rick was right. Out of gratitude to Pat for introducing us to Riverview, I had done exactly what he described—but to my knowledge, Pat was the only one who knew about those calls. “Today is a special day,” continued Rick. “For today, Fred can leave this ceremony, go to Johnny’s Yard, call his friend Pat, and tell Pat that his daughter Denise has been awarded the Johnny Colloton Good Citizenship Award.”
What a dramatic and moving way to make the award to Denise! I could barely focus through my tears as Denise marched up to the stage—to the enthusiastic applause of all her classmates and their families. My family was as stunned as I was. It was clearly a fitting recognition of our daughter, who had become a kind, loving, and fully-accepted “special” person in this Riverview community.
That afternoon I went alone to Johnny’s Yard and called Pat. We both cried so hard as I told him the whole story that I was barely able to articulate the words. I will be eternally grateful for the partnership of God and Pat Colloton and the resulting opportunity that came to Denise—one that changed her life forever.
As Sue and I reluctantly tried to find a residential school that would meet the requirements of our special-needs daughter, Denise, we were led to Riverview School in Massachusetts by God and by my colleague, Pat Colloton. In a sense, through God’s grace, Johnny’s death provided a means by which the Collotons would find a triumphant way to touch other lives and impact Sue, me, and Denise in a very meaningful way.
Denise feared and poorly handled change of any sort. Miraculously, Riverview proved to be the perfect place where she could not only overcome her fears but where she would develop and flourish—something we didn’t fully appreciate until that highly emotional experience on the day of her graduation. It was a bonus when that emotional experience involved Pat Colloton and his deceased son, Johnny. God’s hand was most certainly in the events at Riverview from matriculation to graduation. The tragic death of Johnny Colloton ultimately resulted in emotional healing and triumphs for both the Collotons and the Sieverts.
If you or your children are plagued with fears, hardships, or anxieties, remember Paul’s words to the Romans through which he is seeking to alleviate the fear of separation from God’s love and care: No hardship, trouble, or persecution can separate us from the love of Christ. We are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.
Denise’s Riverview experience is a story of triumph over adversity for someone who deeply believes in and embraces the love of Christ. And the Collotons found a degree of peace and comfort in extending their love and Johnny’s love through this providential experience.
Comments from the Original Post
Marlene Sommer 8.21.13
The same tears of pride and joy that you and Sue felt when Denise graduated and received the Johnny Colloton Good Citizenship Award will be shared many times over by everyone who reads this story. Thank you so much for sharing this inspiring event.
John Riingen 6.18.13
What I learned today is that God can only do good things indirectly through people who care.
glenda koltko 5.4.13
Your story reminded me how
god blesses special people like you and your family. You managed to potray the
god fact that Denise gave to you as much as you gave to her. My best friend is raising a special needs grandson and his younger brother. When her daughter was murdered two days before her 21st birthday at the hands of her husband, she didn’t doube a moment that
god wanted her to raise them. It has not been easy as she battles multipl health problems. They’re getting older now (11 and 13 boys) so she’s starting to reap the rewards from them. You see Elijah is Autistic with borderline retardation. His world and they way he perceives it tends to be challenging for the family. With God”s guidance she is doing a remarkable job. I didn’t mean to blab on and on. I just wanted you to know I relate to the years leading up to Denise’s awesome success.
Joan Brooks 5.2.13
God Bless the teachers and students at Riverview. What a powerful story, you know God had a hand in this. Thank You
Norton Starr 5.2.13
Wonderful tribute to the power of caring.
vicky kotrys 4.26.13
I loved this story,brought tears to my eyes,Thanks for sharing.
Dr. Sally 4.8.13
My daughter Cynthia loves Denise and values her as one of her closest friends. Thanks to Cynthia I recently had a delightful lunch with Fred & Sue and Cynthia & Denise. Thank you Fred for the extra joy you just gave me. I had known a lot about Riverview School before, but I had never known anything about the “spirit” of “Johnny’s Yard.”
Nancy Hopkins 3.19.13
A heartfelt memory. So nice of ths family to share.
bari schneider 2.26.13
i wet to grow for 3 year,s
i had a great time they- i had a lot of freind,s i had a wonderful time they with my doorparent,s we had fun with very one they
Alan Franks 2.15.13
Thank you. What an amazing account of how our perfect Father leads us into areas we think to be impossible, only to show us His power and plans.
May HE keep you and your family,
Terri Turner 2.14.13
Fred, thanks for brining both stories to us, Johnny’s and that of Denise. It is certain that God’s blessings come in so many ways, the key is to be able to recognise them…
Roy Eaton 2.11.13
Thanks for sharing this wonderful story. You are a gift to us all.
Diane Waltman 2.8.13
Hi Fred…I was just wondering if you got my story yet? Now there’s a lot more, of course, to the story…I’m anixous to know of you received it. Have a good weekend. God Bless
Sandi Holland (The Handmaid) 2.1.13
BTW, I love your glowing header. So God-like and intriguing.
Sandi Holland (The Handmaid) 2.1.13
It’s a wonderful feeling when your child feels comfortable and eager, and leads the way to a change.
Donita Frederick Stratton 2.1.13
I can’t wait to read the rest!
Denise Sievert 1.31.13
This is really nice what you wrote Dad I love it keep
Up the good work
Emily Parolari 1.30.13
I love to read about people and how they overcome struggles. This hits home . my children are both Fragile X Syndrom .But they are a true blessing. I thank God for their purity . They are like God. My daughter is getting married in Sept this year.
phyllis johnson 1.30.13
special need children do need special needs parents with lots of patience and love…only through Jesus Christ can these needs be met with the full expectation of Christ like love and care… that only He can give…God bless
Diane Waltman 1.29.13
Please visit my facebook and see my story, “The Little Girl Inside.”