I had thought my article last month would be the end of my series on adopting my daughter, Jolanta, from Lithuania. But then I decided I didn’t want the final article on her to be one focusing on the trauma of her sister’s death. So, I’ve decided to end this series with two wonderful events that later followed this tragedy.
As Jolanta began to emerge from her self-imposed shell of being an elective mute, she slowly began to make friends. This was a wonderful new discovery of joy for her. She had never before in her life had a friend. At first, her friends were other girls she met through her adapted sports programs—other girls who also struggled with various handicaps. This gave them an immediate bond and emotional connection to one another.
Eventually, though, as she became more secure, Jolanta opened up to friendships from her Church group and school. In the beginning of their friendships, they seemed to have similar interests that fed these friendships: favorite music, movies, church activities, Girls’ Camp, etc. But as the girls got into their teenage years, there began to be a natural separation.
Jolanta’s non-handicapped friends became interested in boys. Of course, Jolanta too, had the same interest. But it quickly became apparent that she was not receiving the same kind of attention from boys, as her friends were. As she turned 16 and was finally able to date, it didn’t take long to realize that she wasn’t being asked out. Being a paraplegic seemed to create a wall that she didn’t know how to bridge.
As her other friends were actively dating, while Jolanta spent weekend after weekend at home, she and her friends began to drift apart. That’s when John and I tried to step in. Our weekends became outings with Jolanta: Friday night trips to the movies, bowling, out to dinner, or other activities. We couldn’t be there for every weekend, because we both had to travel quite a bit with our work, but we tried to fill the gap as much as possible.
I remember being so frustrated that boys were ignoring Jolanta. Dances and Proms came and went without an invitation. When I expressed my frustration to John he’d say, “Well it’s not as if we can just go to the high school, grab a boy by the neck and say, “Listen stupid, you need to ask my daughter to Prom!” A million parents have had this challenge and can understand this frustration. It’s so hard to watch your beautiful daughter being left out. But the remedy was not very obvious.
Jolanta’s senior year, as prom approached, I wished there was anything I could do that would let her have that experience before leaving High School. One Friday night as John, Jolanta, (Michael our youngest son), and I returned home from a trip to CiCi’s Pizza, we were a little surprised as we entered the door of our home. Before turning on the lights, it looked as if there were some sort of forms floating in the air. When we flipped on the lights, lo and behold, those forms turned out to be balloons; eleven of them.
Jolanta and Michael began scurrying around to round up the balloons. It turned out that each balloon had one word written on it. The living room couch was used to sort through the words and by moving the balloons around, finally come up with the sentence: Jolanta, will you go to Prom with me? Brian Ray.
John, Michael and I all let out a war whoop, while Jolanta, (who seemed totally stunned) was silent. I looked at her and was surprised to see that she had tears running down her face. That was all it took for my own eyes to get misty. I turned to my husband and said under my breath, “Put that boy in our will!!!”
What an incredibly fun experience that turned out to be. For the first time ever, Jolanta actually got to go shopping for a prom dress with her friends. They all seemed to be almost more excited than Jolanta was about her going to prom. She still seemed to be in disbelief and could hardly allow herself to get excited.
Shopping for prom dresses in Atlanta is always a challenge because of the difficulty of finding a dress that meets the modesty standards of the Church, without looking matronly. Fortunately, someone told us about an online store out of Utah that sold beautiful, but modest prom dresses. Jolanta picked out a beautiful bright pink dress and it was ordered.
It didn’t arrive until three days before Prom. What was the hold up? We were already biting our nails when it finally showed up. But then, horror of horrors—it was too small, we couldn’t even zip up the back zipper. I got on the phone to the company and they explained to me that prom dresses were sized the same as wedding dresses and were typically much smaller than standard sizes.
Could they get us a new size in time for prom? They replied apologetically that this was their busiest season and they didn’t have the needed larger size in stock. “Look,” I begged, desperately. “You have no idea how important this is.” I explained that Jolanta was a paraplegic and had never had a date in her life. This was her senior year—obviously her last chance to go to a prom. I continued, “Jolanta getting asked to prom is absolutely the biggest thing that’s happened to our family this year!” Then I added, “Somehow, you are going to have to pull off a miracle!”
There was a short pause and then the man on the other end of the line said, “I don’t know how I’m going to do this, but I guarantee you that your daughter will have that dress for prom!”
Our whole family was on pins and needles waiting for the dress to arrive. It might sound silly to say this, but it even became a part of our family prayers. One of my sons questioned that, saying, “Do you really think that God cares about something like prom?” My answer was immediate: Absolutely! *
Finally, the day before prom, the dress arrived. There was a smaller box inside the dress box, with a note taped on top of it. It read, “We all wish Jolanta to have the night of her life at Prom! Please accept this small gift from us to help her celebrate.” Inside the box was a beautiful necklace for Prom. Wow!
Prom, indeed, turned out to be the happiest night of my daughter’s life up to that point. Brian Ray will always hold a special spot in my heart for the gift he gave my daughter. As my husband wryly said, “It is nice to know that even teenage boys can be angels!” And who knows, he may even show up in our will . . .
I’ve thought about this and have realized that in a very small way, this may be representative of how our Father in Heaven feels about the way we treat each other. I know that as a mother, I can handle almost anything negative someone wants to dish out to me, as long as they don’t harm or touch my children! On the other hand, if they want to gain my favor and undying devotion, all they have to do is be kind to one of my children. These are the people I pray for God to send our family, and they are the people I am forever grateful to.
I suspect that it is the same for God. He surely must hold a special spot for those who reach out to help His children. In so many cases, He is dependent on us to help lift His children. In fact, Jesus told us that when we do this, it’s as if we are doing it directly to God, Himself.
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me (Matt 25:40).
Mosiah reiterates this in Mos 2: 17:
And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.
I totally get this verse. Of course God as a loving Parent is grateful to those who help His children! So, when I need to gain God’s grace for a special favor, I try to reach out to one of His other children. It works for all of us. Maybe we’ll even end up in His will . . .
For if you keep my commandments you shall receive of his (God’s) fullness, and be glorified in me as I am in the Father (D & C 93:20.)
That’s quite a promise!
As wonderful as Prom was, it was about to be eclipsed by something of far greater eternal weight. When Jolanta turned 21 she applied to be a fulltime missionary. She was disappointed to learn that wheelchair bound youth were only allowed to serve either in the temple or in the Family History center. This was because it was nearly impossible for them to get up and down people’s front porches.
It just so happened that at this time, my husband John had already been called as a Mission President, even though it had not yet been announced. We contacted the member of the Brethren who interviewed John for this calling and asked for his assistance. He promised to do his best. Within a few days, Jolanta received a calling to serve as a fulltime missionary on Temple Square. She left the week before Christmas. It was a perfect call! She only had to wheel around one block, so didn’t have to worry about getting up and down front porches. While there were buildings of more than one story—there were also elevators. Hooray!
Maybe some of you saw her as she served as a missionary on Temple Square. If so, you probably remember a friendly, very happy missionary. If Prom was the happiest night of her life, the 18 months she served on Temple Square were definitely the happiest 18 months of her life! She learned to actually go up to people and initiate a conversation. No one realized what a giant step this was for the young girl who had spent years of her life as an elective mute!
As it turned out her sister, Esther, also received the opportunity to serve on Temple Square and so for a portion of her mission, the two of them actually got to serve together. It was amazing!
Today Jolanta works as my assistant at Rising Star Outreach, where her work benefits so many others who, like her, have mountains to climb. She feels a special affinity for the children of the leprosy-affected in India and is happy to be a part of their lives. It is a delight and a blessing for both of us to be engaged together working side by side, in what we both believe is a calling to serve God’s children.
*(Prom) I hope this doesn’t sound flippant. The truth is that I believe that God cares about us, and thus things that we care about matter. I do think He cares about prom in that He cares about how we dress for it, how we comport ourselves and how we treat others. He knows there are many more things that are much more important in our lives, but He also has a great understanding of the hopes and dreams of our hearts. He works tenderly to shape them to His eternal purposes and to guide us into paths that will bring lasting happiness.
Jolanta: Prom was a wonderfully fun experience. Brian and I actually ended up joining with my brother Alex, his girlfriend at the time, and another couple from the church for the evening. Alex wanted to include me in that experience with him and it was fun to share that with him.
The mission was a good experience. I’m grateful that I was able to have a chance to serve. I learned social skills and other life skills that I’ve found useful in my life since I served, but most importantly I learned a lot about myself. My mission was a journey of self-discovery. The mission was a completely different experience for me than it is for many people in the church.
Serving on Temple Square was a different experience all together. I didn’t get to experience a typical proselyting experience of knocking on people’s doors. Instead, people were coming to us and approached us if they had any questions. To me, that sounds better than knocking on their doors! We still had to approach people at times to get them to share with us what their thoughts were about what they were seeing at the Visitors Center. We also talked to people on the phones and online.
The most meaningful thing about my mission was having talks with people where I got a chance to connect with them in some way. I had a lot of people that I had conversations with, mostly on the phone, who would tell me how appreciative they were for just listening to what they had to say or being so understanding about what they were sharing with me. It made their day to have someone who they could talk to and it made my day more worthwhile and meaningful. I loved being able to make a meaningful connection with someone. My companions appreciated that I could often connect with people in a way that they couldn’t.
I am no longer a member of the Church, but my belief in God is as strong as it ever has been. I have fully accepted it and have made peace with God with that.
It has been a great experience working side by side with my mom on something that she has been passionate about for years and something that was started because of one of my favorite people, my dear sister, Amber.