A special knack for special needsFor the children with special needs Russell and Marlene Sahr adopted, they did more than open their home to an orphan. They opened the world.
By: By Wendy Reuer , Forum Communications Co., The Jamestown Sun
HORACE, N.D. — For the children with special needs Russell and Marlene Sahr adopted, they did more than open their home to an orphan.
They opened the world.
The Sahrs adopted four children with special needs, working to one day give them a life of independence. Throughout the years, the couple has also been foster parents to newborns.
The couple — who will soon celebrate 42 years of marriage — always wanted a big family. Marlene gave birth to two daughters, Sherry and Amanda. But after she was forced to have an emergency hysterectomy, they decided to adopt children with special needs.
They were first introduced to John, who was 6 years old but functioning at a toddler level.
“He was a handful,” Marlene remembers.
Now, at age 36, John still functions at a child’s level but lives at a group home that helped him find work and friendship.
The couple then adopted Peter, a 6-week-old who suffered from Down syndrome and heart defects.
“He probably spent about a fourth of his life in the hospital,” Russell said.
After a hard fought battle with his many health issues, Peter died at age 4.
A few years later, the family agreed to welcome 15-year-old Alla into their life. Alla lived in the Ukraine, but with the Sahrs’ adoption, she was eligible for a much needed cranium and facial reconstruction surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Although Alla’s physical characteristics improved after the surgery, she suffered from attachment disorder and culture shock, Marlene said.
So when Alla turned 18, the Sahrs agreed to help her return to her home country, where she remains today. She hopes to find work as a teacher, but without family there it is difficult for Alla, who the Sahrs say they continue to support.
In 1996, Russell and Marlene — then in their 40s — weren’t planning on more adoptions. That was until Marlene got a phone call from a woman in South Dakota looking to place a Haitian boy with cerebral palsy.
Although apprehensive to adopt at that age, Russell said it didn’t take much to convince him it was the right thing to do. It was a matter of giving a boy a chance to grow and develop or sending him back to a life of poverty and upheaval.
As Jonas grew, the couple thought allowing him to live somewhere else might be difficult, as he can be physical at times. The couple eventually agreed to allow him to try living at the Anne Carlsen Center in Jamestown, a residential facility designed for those with disabilities.
“That was initially hard to do. We love him, but how can anybody else do that,” Marlene said.
Jonas is now thriving in Jamestown, Russell said.
“You have to be an advocate for your children. If necessary, you must fight the system for them,” he said.
Inside the Sahrs’ vividly colored farmhouse, the retirees are looking forward to having their children home for Christmas.
Russell said he happily tells others he has a daughter who is a surgeon, one who is a mother and a son who wraps silverware. He is equally proud of them all.
Although the journey for each child was difficult at times, the couple says it was well worth it.
“It’s not a Hallmark movie. Love won’t fix everything,” Marlene said.
Letting go and allowing the children to be more independent has most often been the most difficult part, they admit. Finding the right teachers and caregivers for the right child is the key to their success.
“Those are the folks who are the heroes,” Russell Sahr said.
Wendy Reuer is a reporter at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.