By ROGER MOONEY
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – There were more children like Karwen back in her native China, born with clubfoot and unable to walk. Some who would never take a first step.
At the orphanage where she had lived from an infant on, Karwen was surrounded by other children with special needs, covering the spectrum from mild to severe. Most of them did not get the attention they needed and deserved. But Karwen was one of the lucky ones.
In 2012 when she was 8, Karwen was adopted by an American couple, Keely and Nick Cogan. Her new life was transformative. In addition to having loving parents, she now had two sisters and a brother. With their help, she quickly learned to speak English. Her medical needs were promptly addressed. Eventually, she learned to walk.
The transition, said her father, Nick, “was atypically easy for her.”
But, as Karwen blended into her new family, she couldn’t shake memories of the children left behind, those who were headed for lives as outcasts. In her homeland, those with special needs are alienated.
Orphans may never know the love of a mother’s hug. May never roll their eyes at a dad’s joke. May never share a secret with a sister.
“After I came home it was nice, and I wanted to go and help bring somebody else home,” said Karwen, now 15.
So, while helping with the dishes one night, six months after her adoption, Karwen asked her parents if they could adopt again.
“I think we can be a family for at least one more,” she told her parents.
One more? Keely and Nick knew before they came home with Karwen they would return to China to adopt another child with special needs. But “one more” child became two when the Cogans adopted sons Kai and Kade. Three years later, daughter Kassi joined the family. They also have special needs and all four children use the Gardiner Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students.
Today, the Cogans are a family of nine that’s soon to be a family of 11 when the adoptions of two children from the Ukraine are completed this spring.
“It’s easier than you would imagine,” Nick said of his growing family.
The daily workings of the Cogan family can be a grind at times, he said, just as they are for any large family. But the emotional part?
“Connecting to them as a family and trying to understand the struggles they have, I found that the easiest part,” Nick said.
Added Keely, “People say, ‘Oh you guys are so great,’ or, ‘What an amazing thing to do.’ The downright truth of it is we probably get the better end of the bargain because we look at the world so much different.
“My kids learned that it doesn’t matter where your brothers and sister come from. Someone can just come into your family and be a brother and sister and the world just got so much smaller.”
How one became four
Keely and Nick had three biological children– daughters Kenley and Kolya and son Kellin – when they decided to adopt. They learned of children in China who were left at orphanages because they were born with a special need.
Love Without Boundaries, an international charity that aids in the adoption of orphans, estimates that 750,000 Chinese children live in orphanages, with 98% of them having a special need.
“In China, physical differences are a major barrier, especially (for) children in orphanages,” Nick said.
“(Special needs are) considered unlucky,” Keely said. “Unlucky to the point of being contagious.”
Keely, a pediatric nurse, said she was not intimidated by the thought of adopting a child with special needs.
“It didn’t worry me,” she said.
Nick, a math professor at Florida State University, and Keely knew their biological children would be accepting and patient with their new siblings.
Karwen was first. She has arthrogryposis, the condition that results in a congenital joint contracture of two joints. She did have surgery in China but used a wheelchair. She had more surgeries after her adoption and can now walk on her own.
“I can do a lot more things now than I would have been able to do (in China),” Karwen said.
And about that request made shortly after joining the family? Keely and Nick already knew about Kai, who has cerebral palsy, and began the adoption process in 2013. That’s when they learned about Kade, who also has arthrogryposis. His condition is limb immobilization. He cannot bend his knees.
So, Keely thought, what’s one more child?
The transition for the boys was not as smooth as it was for their sister.
Kade didn’t know how to be held, because contact with adults in Chinese orphanages is limited to prevent the formation of a bond that might someday be broken if the child is adopted.
Kade would stiffen when Keely tried to hold him. He also cried himself to sleep each night, sometimes for as long as five hours. Keely said it took nearly six months for Kade to accept being in his mother’s arms.
It wasn’t long after adopting the first three when Keely and Nick found themselves working as advocates for orphans in China. That’s how they met Kassi in 2016.
Kassi, who has cerebral palsy, was nearing her 14th birthday, the deadline for a child in China to be adopted. Once they turn 14, those who are employable are given jobs. Those who are not, continue to live in institutions, Nick said.
“We felt like we were set up for this need,” Keely said. “It wouldn’t be a hardship for us, so we stepped forward and home she came three days before she aged out. If we got there three days later there would be nothing we could do.”
Kassi, now 17, was also born with clubfoot, which is a complication associated with CP. She actually learned to walk on her ankle bones, though mostly moved around on her knees. After her adoption, she underwent a series of castings that stretched the muscles in her feet and ankles. She walks today with the aid of her forearm crutches. Though she has a walker, she rarely uses it.
The Gardiner Scholarship at work
All the children are currently homeschooled, but over the years some have received physical, occupational and speech therapy, and some have used tuition assistance. Each child had unique needs.
For instance, Karwen, her hands are locked in a downward position because of her arthrogryposis, has a custom keyboard for her computer and special grips to hold pencils and pens.
Kade, 8, attended a small private school for two years. He stopped this year because construction at the school made it tough for him to walk around the campus. He plans on returning next year.
The children came to America with not much of a formal education.
That posed a problem. The district schools didn’t know where to place them.
Keely said the district wanted to put Kai in middle school. That would not be fair to a student without the foundation of an elementary school educational who is also trying to learn English.
The answer was homeschooling. This way Keely and Nick could place their children in education-appropriate settings.
An adoption advocate
Kenley, the Cogan’s eldest biological child and a student at Tallahassee Community College who is pursuing a career in art therapy, works for two nonprofits that advocate for international adoption. She has traveled to China and Ukraine to assist families during the adoption process. She is conversational in Mandarin and is learning to speak Russian.
Kenley said it is “agonizing” to visit a Chinese orphanage and see rooms filled with children lying in rows of cribs, devoid of human contact and staring aimlessly.
“It just kills you to look at them and wonder what their potential could be if they had a family,” she said. “You want to hug them and take them home.”
Kenley said she knew when Karwen came home that adoption would be a major part of her life. She expects someday to adopt a child with special needs from China or Ukraine.
“That’s where my heart is,” she said.
Big and getting bigger
They refer to themselves as the Cogan Krewe.
They drive around in a 15-passenger Ford Transit Van, which they have nicknamed “Moby” because it is large and white.
It is a sight to see the family file out of the van.
“Like an airport shuttle bus,” Nick said.
“It’s a spectacle,” Kenley said.
Even when loaded with the full Krewe, there is room for a few more passengers. That’s good, because they expect to soon finalize the adoption of Sasha, 16, and Vova, 14, a brother and sister from Ukraine, who do not have special needs.
What? No ‘K’ names?
They will have that option, Keely said.
What began with the biological children has continued to those who were adopted.
When Karwen joined the family, she was given the choice of keeping her Chinese name or choosing and American name. She picked American.
“And she wanted it to begin with K to be inclusive,” Keely said.
The next three were given the same option. Obviously, they opted for a name beginning with the letter K.
The kids joke that Nick should spell his name “Knick.” He even signs Knick on the family Christmas cards.
“Wouldn’t want to leave anyone out,” Keely said.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.