West Kootenay residents P’nina Shames, Chuck Bennett and Sandy Leonard all have radically different adoption stories, each with light and dark elements, but all three are eager to talk about their families and the love in their lives.
Shames, who has worked for years as an adoption professional with prospective parents, believes most people don’t realize how ubiquitous adoption is.
“Adoption is everywhere but most people don’t know it.”
In honour of National Adoption Month, Black Press met with each of them to hear their stories.
‘It’s the best job I ever had’
Shames had just landed in Honduras, single and 45, to pick up a six-week-old baby boy she adopted, when she found herself overwhelmed by the gravity of her situation.
“I didn’t speak Spanish and I decided that the best thing to do would be to start crying. Surely someone would help me. I was genuinely like ‘oh, my God’ but then these incredible people helped me find a taxi to get where I was going. They took me to where Michael was.”
The child of an impoverished woman Shames never met, Michael was removed from his family home after the deaths of his siblings. She was in love with him.
“His birth mom was not in a position to raise him — she was very poor and she’d already lost some of her children through malnutrition and poverty. So he was her sixth, I believe.”
Shames realizes that under the same circumstances in 2015, the same adoption would be “way more difficult and costly,” but she’s pleased she acted when she did.
“It’s the best job I ever had. It’s the hardest job I ever had. If I have one regret in life it’s that I only adopted one child.”
Michael is now 28 and is studying history and cultural anthropology at Kwantlen University. And though he’s firmly situated in his Canadian context, he still had an opportunity to see where he came from.
“I always told him if you ever want to go back and see where you came from, we can do it. We went back when he was 12,” Shames said.
“We looked for his birth mom but it was shortly after Hurricane Mitch. There was still lots of rubble and fallen down buildings, and the people in the poorest places were worst affected. It’s very possible whatever biological family members Michael had were swept away in the hurricane.”
But Shames doesn’t like to think of Michael as being lucky, but rather counts herself as the one who is blessed.
“I get choked up thinking about how lucky I am that I got to raise him.”
‘Adoption is an individual journey for everyone’
According to Chuck Bennett, “adoption is an individual journey for everyone.” Adopted when he was seven days old by Nelsonites Doug and Carole Bennett, the second of three adopted children, his Australian mother left the country shortly after his birth.
“I’ve always known I was adopted. For as long as I was old enough to know, I knew. I struggled with it when I was a kid, a lot. For me it was a form of rejection — somebody in the world gave me away — and I don’t think people talk about that because they don’t want to.”
He spent a lot of his youth feeling angry.
“I was really angry and it was hard on my parents. I ran away from home. I had challenges.”
And a lot of that anger was directed at his birth mother, who had another son 13 months later and decided to keep him. Bennett ultimately tracked the pair down shortly after the Sydney Olympics, and invited his brother Ken to visit him in Canada. It was during a family Christmas with him that he was struck by a realization: “I had the better gig.”
“I was a typical middle class kid — Dad worked hard, Mom was at home. We were a traditional, Catholic, loving family…that’s about as good as it gets in a lot of ways. I have an awesome life.”
That was huge for him to figure out.
“All those years fixating on the rejection, it was so stupid. That changed everything for me. Suddenly I wasn’t angry. I was grateful. It could’ve been totally different.”
And though he hasn’t maintained a relationship with his biological mother, and feels no desire to find his birth father, he feels like he’s moved along and can now focus on the real important relationship in his life: the one with his adoptive parents.
“They are my parents. There are no other parents. We’ve always been the Bennetts.”
‘My Mom is my Mom’
Sandy Leonard was one of the last two First Nations babies adopted by non-native families in Saskatchewan, and ultimately went home with Mary-Lou and Paul Leonard when she was less than a month old — who already had a son, but hoped to have a daughter as well.
“They’re fantastic people. With my brother there was a really long birth and they wanted another kid but didn’t want to go through that again. She wanted a baby girl and she got one.”
Leonard can remember the moment her mother told her she was adopted.
“I was four, sitting in a shopping cart in K-Mart, and I kept noticing people asking my Mom ‘who’s this?’ I asked her what adopted meant and she said ‘I didn’t give birth to you, you have another mommy elsewhere.’”
Though that made her sad, it wasn’t until her teens that she started to wonder about her biological mother.
“I was wondering ‘do I look like her?’ and I wanted to know where she was at. It wasn’t the best experience meeting her, but it certainly answered a lot of questions I’d accumulated over the years. That all got put to rest.”
When all is said and done, Leonard is glad her mother made the decision to give her up.
“She wasn’t ready. I’m glad she did because otherwise I would’ve had a very different life. Northern Saskatchewan, I’m not saying it’s better or worse, but it would be different. And I’m really thankful for the life I have now.”
That includes an intensely close relationship with her parents.
“My Mom is my Mom. I’ve never thought of her any different. She’s the one who taught me how to smile, how to laugh, how to pick myself up and dust myself off and carry on. She’s my Mom, and it’s the same thing with my Dad.”
And she demonstrated a selfless lifestyle Leonard would like to emulate, as evidenced by Mary Lou’s willingness to take in one of her troubled friends during a hard time.
“That’s my Mom. She’s a true Mom to everybody.”
This story will appear in this week’s issue of the West Kootenay Advertiser.