Wyoming Couple Flees Ukraine With Newly Adopted Special Needs Children
"Darkness, the truest darkness, is not the absence of light. It is the conviction that the light will never return. But the light always returns, to show us things familiar; home, family, and things entirely new, or long overlooked. It shows us new possibilities and challenges us to pursue them. This time, the light shone on the heroes, coming out of the shadows to tell us we won't be alone again. Our darkness was deep and seemed to swallow all hope. But these heroes were here the whole time to remind us that hope is real; that you can see it. All you have to do is look...up in the sky."
- Justice League
Heroes. It's a term that can be used fairly loosely. The guy who helps the old lady across the street, he can be a hero. The lady who tips especially well at the restaurant; maybe she's a hero. Heroes, in a broad sense, are a dime a dozen. The term starts to lose its power after a little while but then, every so often, we're reminded of what true heroes really are. And right now, across thousands of miles, the world is bearing witness to actual heroes performing actual feats of strength, of courage, and of heart.
When Vladimir Putin ordered an attack on Ukraine, he couldn't have known that he was coming up against a real-life Justice League, led by Ukraine's own president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Zelenskyy is leading his people on the battlefield, taking up arms, arm-in-arm, with soldiers and civilians. He is a hero. The Ukranian soldiers defending Snake Island, who told a Russian warship to "go f*ck yourself;" they are heroes.
Sarah and Tony Witbrod are heroes as well. The married couple from Douglas, Wyoming recently adopted two special needs children from Ukraine. 24 hours after signing the adoption papers and picking up their children, the first bombs in Ukraine began to fall.
"We landed in Ukraine on February 20, had court for our children's adoptions on the 22, and picked them up from the orphanage on the 23," Sarah Witbrod told K2 Radio News. "And the bombing started on the 24."
Sarah and Tony met at Casper College in 1999. They were both going to school there and lived in the same dorm complex. They met via mutual friends and the rest, as they say, is history.
But it's not a simple case of happily-ever-after for these two. After getting engaged, Sarah said she wasn't "ready for the title of 'wife,' yet, so I drug my feet for like seven years."
Eventually, though, they did get married. And then the topic of children came up.
"Adoption was part of our plan for our family from the vey beginning," Sarah said. "And right after we got married, we ended up looking into adoption and we got matched up with our oldest daughter pretty immediately. The joke is that it was a shotgun wedding, because we got married in October and she was born in December. But she was born in Guatemala."
Sarah said that the desire to adopt has been something she's had her entire life.
"It was always a big thing for me," she said. "It was just always really important. Even when I was little and played with dolls, I pretended they were adopted. Tony came from a big family and I came from a pretty small family so when I told him I had always wanted to adopt, he was just like, 'Okay, cool.' And we've been on a pretty epic journey."
That journey has led them through a handful of different countries, from Guatemala, to the the Democratic Republic of Congo to, now, Ukraine.
All together, now with their little ones from Ukraine, the Witbrod's have 5 adopted children. That's in addition to their three biological children. Needless to say, it's a full house.
"Our oldest is from Guatemala; she's 15," Sarah said. "And then Micah and Rita, who are from the Democratic Republic of Congo, are 12 and 11."
However, Sarah said that they should have had more.
"We lost six children in the process of adopting from Congo," she said.
After adopting their daughter, Lillian, from Guatemala, Sarah said they wanted to "go where there was a great need."
"We contacted somebody about Ethiopian adoption and the agency told us that they were piloting a program to adopt from Congo," Sarah said. "They asked us if we wanted to be one of the pilot families to make the way for other people to adopt from that country, and we said yes. And we were matched with a little girl who we were going to name Wren. But we found out several months into the adoption process that an epidemic had gone through her orphanage and 12 of the 16 children had died. She had died."
Sarah and Tony were also planning to adopt the little girl's sister but, after the epidemic, the family rescinded the offer because they thought the epidemic was a curse, due to them signing off on the adoption. So they rescinded their offer and the other little girl is still in the orphanage.
"That whole situation completely changed the whole trajectory of our lives," Sarah said. "Like, you think you're on this path and you live in America and you see a few sad things on the news and you go, 'Oh gosh, that's sad.' And then you go to Target and everything is shiny and it doesn't really affect you."
But for Sarah and Tony, this affected them. Any family who has lost a child, whether via biological reasons or something else entirely, can tell you how much it breaks them. But Sarah refused to break.
"We had survivor's guilt or something," she stated. "We had lived over there for a month and when we came home, I was like, 'What am I supposed to do with this?' So instead of feeling sorry for myself, I felt like I was supposed to do something to make some sort of sense out of what happened. So I founded Wren's Song to give voice to the children who didn't have a voice in Congo."
"Center Emmanuel has been in operation for 10 years," she said. "The mortality rate of kids in Congo is at 80% for children under the age of five. And with Center Emmanuel, we've lost one child in 10 years."
Sarah and Tony just want to save as many children as they can. They want to give opportunities, a chance at life, to kids who may not otherwise receive them. It was this desire, along with an experience Sarah had at her father's deathbed, that led them to Ukraine.
"I was really close to my father my whole life and he had an autoimmune disease and, in the last couple years of his life, he deteriorated pretty rapidly," she revealed. "He was really, really sick and he wasn't able to communicate and he couldn't care for himself at all."
Sarah said she was sitting in his hospital room, at his bedside, scrolling through her phone as her father slept, when she came across a story of children who have special needs in Ukraine.
"I read about these kids that have medical needs in Ukraine and how bedbound kids lay with no interaction and they have zero life," she said. "And then, when they're six or seven years old, they're moved to the mental institution, whether they're mentally insane or not. They live in the mental institution until they're 35 and then they go to an old folks home and they never gain citizenship, they never have the ability to drive, or hold jobs, nothing."
Sarah said that wasn't okay with her.
"That was three years ago," she said. "We thought we were done with six kids but when I read about that, I spoke with my husband and started talking about what it would look like if we were to move on the feelings that I had. Because I would have done anything to have brought my dad home. And we would have dealt with anything; any need or any obstacle, just because we loved him and he was family. And these kids had nobody. And so that's the reason we chose Ukraine.
The idea started three years ago and finally came to fruition last week when they flew to Ukraine to meet their two-year-old daughter and their 14-month-old son, both of whom have special needs.
Their daughter, whom they named Juniper, has esophageal atresia, which means her esophagus did not connect to her stomach. Their son, whom they named Caius, has arthrogryposis multiplex congenita (AMC), a condition that causes joints to be especially tight, something akin to webbed feet. Except this is for the whole body.
"He would have had no chance," Sarah said. "When he would turn six years old, he would be put into a mental institution. But mentally, he's there. Mentally, he's a normal baby. He makes eye contact and he coos and now that we've been carrying him around, he's decided that he never wants to be let down again. He's a really happy, beautiful baby. His name is Caius, and in Latin that means rejoice. And we are rejoicing."
They're rejoicing, especially, because they are out of Ukraine and safely in Warsaw, Poland after a week of absolute uncertainty.
"So, people ask 'Why are these people traveling to Ukraine when it's potentially unstable?' We went because we know what it feels like to lose a kid. And there's no way that I could have handled watching that country burn down, knowing that my kids are within its borders," Sarah said.
So, they went. They were in Vienna, Austria and they knew that tensions between Russia and Ukraine were high.
"We just kept checking the news and making sure that nothing happened," she said. "We were at the airport in Vienna and we said if nothing happened, we would board the plane. And we did."
Sarah and Tony landed in Ukraine on February 20 and were met by their adoption facilitators, Alex and Yulia.
"Alex and Yulia were amazing," Sarah exclaimed. "They are such amazing people and they held our hands like we were babies through Ukraine. They were our absolute lifeline. Alex was our translator and our driver and our facilitator. They did all of our adoption paperwork. They did all of our running for us, they applied for everything in the country for us. They found us apartments. They gave us a Ukrainian cellphone. They stood with us as we stood in court to adopt our children."
They were, in short, friends.
On Wednesday night, Sarah and Tony had dinner with Alex and Yulia near the Black Sea. They exchanged gifts and told the Ukrainian couple how much their help meant to them.
"They were so happy. We were so happy," Sarah remembered. "They said 'It's like Christmas!' We had dinner in this restaurant on the Black Sea, and we stood out and watched the Seagulls and had no idea that there were Russian ships out there waiting."
The two couples finished dinner and agreed to meet for breakfast the next morning. And that's when everything changed.
"We woke up around three or four in the morning to the first bomb," Sarah said. "I immediately looked at my phone and was trying to figure out what was going on, but there was no news to read because the news was happening. Nobody knew what was going on at that point. So we were looking out the window to see if we could see anything. And then another bomb went off, and another bomb, and another. And that's when we really knew it was real."
Sarah said they called their point person and were told to pack their bags and wake their children up. She said they drove past countless gas stations with lines and lines of cars waiting to get gas. They also drove past banks which had countless lines as well.
They were scared, but they were moving. They were safe. Most importantly, they were together.
"We were driving along the border between Ukraine and Moldova looking for a point that they would allow us to cross," Sarah stated. "They ended up allowing us into Moldova and then, ultimately, into Romania. And then once we got to Romania, we got a flight. There were four seats left on the plane and we took up three of them. It was a miracle. We finally made it out of Romania and were able to come to Warsaw, Poland. And by the time we got to Warsaw, we had been moving and trying to escape from Russia for 70 hours."
Currently, the family are staying in an apartment in Warsaw, awaiting the US Embassy to approve their children to come into America. It's taking longer than they hoped, but it's the beginning of the end of a long, arduous journey to bring their children home. And it's a journey that could not have happened without their friends, Alex and Yulia.
"This apartment was rented by Yulia for us," Sarah beamed. "I call her my Ukrainian mother. She's a really, really good Ukrainian mother. She took really good care of us. I can't even put into words how incredible they were. They could have left us and said 'Good luck,' and gone to their families. I don't know why they didn't. But they took their job so seriously of making sure that these kids are okay. And I don't know...when you meet people like that, and you're exposed to things like that, it just really changes you at your core."
Tony said that he heard through the grapevine, though he couldn't verify it at the time, that Juniper and Caius were the last two adopted children to actually make it out of Ukraine for the time being. And that couldn't have happened, they said, without the help of Alex, Yulia, and their friend Serge.
"Right now, we're just praying for Alex and Yulia," Sarah shared. "We landed and then found out that the head of our facilitation team, a man named Serge, had died defending Kyiv. We met him last month and he was the one responsible for us being matched with our two kids. And he matched thousands of specials needs children. He's very beloved in the adoption community."
Serge died fighting for his country, literal days after uniting Sarah and Tony with their children. A hero.
"We talked to Alex and Yulia yesterday and they asked how we were," Sarah said. "We told them we were good and chatted a bit longer. What Alex didn't tell us was that he was getting on a train and going back into the fight."
"This is a man who is not military trained," Sarah said. "The people who are fighting for Ukraine are civilians. The government is giving them guns and everybody is going in. And I don't think Putin understands what he bit off, because there's a lot of people like Alex and Serge in that country."
Life isn't a comic book. Try as we might, we'll never actually see a rich orphan don a cape and cowl to take on the criminal underbelly of Gotham City. We'll never actually see Avengers assemble. We'll never actually believe a man can fly.
But that's okay, because in real life, there are people like Serge and Alex and Yulia. There are people like President Zelenskyy. There are people like Sarah and Tony. These people don't do things for attention, or for praise, or for the stories that are written about them. They do these things because they're the right things to do. They do them because they are strong. They are brave. They are good. And in times of war, especially, it's important to remember that, through it all, people are still good.
Five days ago, Sarah wrote a post on her Facebook page about her new daughter.
"Oh sweet Juniper," she wrote. "We have waited so so long to pick your name and are taking even longer on your middle name. Juniper is an evergreen like Ivy. May they grow together and thrive in even the most unlikely places. She is strong and brave and sassy. She was boss walking all over our apartment last night!!! We are loving to see her personality bloom. Juniper ——— Svitlana Witbrod. Sister, Daughter, Beloved. Welcome to the family."
That was five days ago. In the days since, Sarah and Tony decided on middle names for both of their children: Juniper Yulia Witbrod and Caius Alex Witbrod, named after the heroes that not only helped them escape a war-torn country, but who guided them into their parents' arms.
Before they decided to bestow Alex's name to Caius, however, Sarah took to Facebook again with a different middle name for her boy: Caius Orion.
"Orion was the constellation Tony and I would find when we were apart in the beginning of our relationship," she wrote. "It was there 20 years later shining in the beautiful Montana sky when I was driving and felt we would adopt a son as well as our daughter. And tonight when we looked up to the heavens to thank God for seeing us safely into Romania there Orion was again. Guiding us through young love and all the adventures life has taken us on."
Twenty years ago, Sarah and Tony looked up at the sky and they saw their lives written in the stars. They couldn't have guessed where, or to whom, those lives would lead them. But they knew they wanted to go on that adventure together. They saw firsthand how cruel life could be, how dark it could get. They experienced that darkness, but they never stopped believing that the light would return.
Today, many Ukrainians are facing that same darkness. People are dying. But Ukraine's people are still looking towards the light, a light that shines on Alex, and Yulia, and Serge and all of the people like them. These people are soldiers, fighting for a new tomorrow. For a world that is better, bigger, brighter.
Sarah and Tony are fighting for that world, too. And their children see that. We all see that. Because if we want to see heroes, real heroes, we don't have to look up in the sky.
They're standing right next to us.