Local couple adopts son and assists children with disabilities in Jamaica.
A quote by Joseph Campbell reads: “You must give up the life you planned in order to have the life that is waiting for you.” This couldn’t read more true when it comes to the life of Hope and Michael Harms. These two amazing people are living their best unplanned life, and it’s more than they could have imagined.
In the fall of 1999, Hope was headed to the high school football game with friends when they stopped to pick up Michael. They both felt an attraction at this initial meeting. Hope remembers Michael as this cute, funny, and crazy guy whom she helped to face paint and dress up for the game. She wasn’t able to get to know him right away because he spent the evening running around cheering and doing backflips on the sidelines. From Michael’s perspective, the chemistry was instant and he immediately began asking his friends about her. Michael says she was “remarkably genuine, humble, fun, athletic, strong, and absolutely beautiful,” — and this was even before getting to know her. After he competed in the state tournament for wrestling — a task he wanted to completely focus on with no distractions — he asked her out and, as they say, “the rest is history.”
After getting married, this adventurous couple made plans to see the world. While teaching special education, they would spend their summers traveling — one of the best parts of being a teacher, they say. But then that crazy guy Hope describes from high school developed an interest in hiking the Appalachian trail.
They sold their car, moved out of their first house, packed up all their belongings, and even took leaves of absences from their jobs to embark on an exciting, open-ended journey. While their plans included possibly hiking the Trail, they were also considering working on organic farms in Australia or New Zealand. Basically, they wanted to travel wherever their hearts led them. But then their hearts developed other plans leading them in a completely different direction. In the middle of their adventures, they were given an opportunity to volunteer at West Haven Children’s Home for children with disabilities in Jamaica, where things took a drastic, wonderful turn.
West Haven Children’s Home
This initial invitation to West Haven had come from family friends Bob Klima and his daughter Beth, who had been Hope’s college roommate. When Beth’s younger brother Ethan was born with Down syndrome and autism, the family learned how to care for his special needs and became sensitive to the needs of people with disabilities. “When you learn to love one of these special people, you find that you have learned to love all of them, and to be drawn to them,” explains Bob.
In 2009, Bob had taken advantage of an amazing opportunity to travel with a mission team to Jamaica to see firsthand how individuals with disabilities live in that country. Bob says, “What I saw really got to me. There weren’t enough resources or staff to adequately care for the children. Some would lay unattended all day on mats, or be restrained or closed in rooms with barred doors. I knew I had to do something, and all I could think of was to take a group down with me, including people with therapy and special education training. We did that for the first time the week after Christmas 2009.” Also on that trip was Bob’s daughter Beth, a special education teacher at Battlefield High School. In 2010, when the Klimas were planning another trip to Jamaica, Beth invited Michael and Hope and that’s what set the Harms’ hearts, and lives, in different direction.
Hope and Michael were special education teachers at the time, with no plans to start a family yet. And while they previously discussed the potential for adopting children, there were no concrete plans. The invitation to visit West Haven Children’s Home was appealing to them in many ways. People with disabilities already had a special place in their hearts, and they were excited to be able to use their talents to spread love and help others.
“It was the closest thing to love at first sight,” says Hope. While at the Children’s Home, at separate times, both Hope and Michael met a little boy named Donald with cerebral palsy. Hope remembers holding this joyful, playful boy on the floor of the cottage and realizing how smart he was and completely fell in love with him. Michael’s first impressions describe Donald as “one of the strongest people he’s ever met despite his physical disabilities and being seen as weak or frail.” During the course of their trip, neither Hope nor Michael spoke to each other about how they were feeling about Donald. That was, until the third night when Hope’s emotions spilled over and she began to cry. Michael asked her why she was crying although he already knew the answer. Without even needing to speak Donald’s name, Hope could only offer the words “I just love him” to which Michael answered “I know, I love him too.” This moment was a defining one for the pair, who spent that night researching cerebral palsy while discussing adoption and their future plans.
“Donald has changed our lives and continues to amaze us every day. Just when I think, there can’t be anything else to top his accomplishments so far, he does something new and challenging and amazing. 🙂 I love sharing Donald’s character and life with people because he truly is remarkable, inspiring and one of a kind. But I’m his mom, so I know I’m biased.” – Hope Harms
But there is more to the story. “While falling in love with Donald and changing our lives, something else was happening,” says Hope. The small group of people who had been visiting West Haven envisioned doing more and helping in a bigger way. They knew that without help these children would never be able to reach their full potential or thrive in life. They began to brainstorm about ways to help.
The first priority, Hope says, was to ensure that all children at West Haven had access to education, an integral step in helping the children reach their full God-given potential. Bob organized and began Children With Disabilities Fund International (CDFI), a nonprofit organization dedicated to meeting the needs of children with disabilities living in developing countries. This allowed them to begin the process of communicating with the Jamaican government to start a school there. After finding a building that was only being used for storage at the time, the organization raised enough funds to open the school and hire two Jamaican teachers.
The goal of this organization is to make a difference in the lives of these children, and that’s exactly what happened. This year, CDFI was even able to employ a teacher’s assistant and a nurse to care for the children’s medical needs. The children were dying from preventable causes, but now they are getting the best health care which we can get for them, says Bob.
“The residents are reaching their potential intellectually, socially, emotionally, and spiritually,” says Hope. The children who are mobile go to the school for their education while the more severely disabled receive visits from the teachers. And maybe most importantly, the children are excited to learn each day. Sometimes there are even opportunities to go on field trips to the beach or the zoo. These things would not have been possible without CDFI. “It is a beautiful thing to see,” says Bob.
The organization’s success has even led to requests from groups in other countries asking for assistance in meeting the needs of children with disabilities. CDFI is currently working in Kenya, but does not have sufficient funding to move into other countries at this time.
Bringing Donald home
After their initial meeting and decision to begin the adoption process, Hope and Michael made more trips to Jamaica to see Donald and make sure the feelings were mutual. Once the papers were submitted, the wait began.
The long two-and-a-half-year process included a few denials which sent the couple on a rollercoaster of emotions, they say. But Hope and Michael knew this was what they were meant for. When Donald finally came home, his room was painted and decorated, ready for the life that had waited for him for so long.
Hope says that some changes in Donald were immediate, especially physically. He gained weight, began to look healthier, and grew so quickly the couple found themselves needing to buy their son new clothes and shoes every few months. But his intellectual progress was astounding for them to see. From the beginning, both Hope and Michael realized that Donald had so much potential and intelligence but it was locked inside of him. New opportunities began to allow him to share his mind through the use of a communication device. He also gained more independence through his powered wheelchair.
Taking on marathons
Within the first year home, when looking for some kind of activity to do with his son, Michael showed Donald the video of Rick and Dick Hoyt, a father/son team who competed together in marathons and Ironman triathlons starting in 1977. The son, Rick, had cerebral palsy just like Donald. Donald was inspired. Little did they both know this would be the beginning of a successful running journey together. That next weekend they ran a 5K with Donald riding in the biggest stroller they could find. That very first race was eye opening for both Michael and Donald. This new dad could see that when Donald was racing, his whole face would light up. But even more than that, Michael says other people were then able to see Donald the way he and Hope see him — strong, athletic, competitive, and determined. Team Donald stepped up their athletic adventures with the help of Ainsley’s Angels, an organization that helps individuals with special needs to participate in these types of endurance events. The organization provided Donald with a custom running chair to make him comfortable while running with his dad. They now help to raise money for Ainsley’s Angels so they can help other families create this bond together. They were even finalists in a cover search contest for Runner’s World magazine.
In his first few years with his new family, Donald was very attached to them and didn’t want to leave their sides. But Hope laughs when she conveys that he now loves to do things on his own, or with the help of friends. After all, no matter what his challenges are, this is typical behavior for this now 20-year-old whose smile still beams in every picture. Donald can be seen at his high school’s football games, attending as a fan or cheering them on as a member of the Sparkle Cheer Team where he is a captain. A senior this year, he proudly took on a new role as big brother in 2014 and then again in 2016 when the Harms’ sons Oliver and Ethan were born. The Harms family is enjoying life to the fullest, feeling blessed beyond measure and living the unplanned, wonderful adventure that is their life.
How you can help:
- Donate $35 per month, which will help a child attend school for an entire year
- Monthly donations help provide needed funds to continue this mission
- Join a team to work directly with these kids and make a difference in their lives
- Pray for the volunteers and the children at West Haven
- Find out more information about CDFI at www.thecdfi.org
“West Haven Children’s Home is a residential facility located 30 miles from Montego Bay in Copse, Jamaica. It is home to approximately 80 children and young adults with moderate to severe special needs, including those diagnosed with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism and other developmental disabilities. The staff is adequate to meet only the most basic needs of the residents, such as bathing and feeding. The open air dormitories are over-crowded and funds are needed to help with renovations. There is no hot water available.”
“The government of Jamaica provides only about one-half of the budget necessary to meet these most basic needs. West Haven depends on charities such as CDFI to help bridge the gap in this funding deficit.”
Funds from CDFI help provide:
- Adaptive wheelchairs
- Educational and recreational equipment
- Sensory toys
- Clothing and diapers
- Salaries for three teachers and a nurse
- School supplies and medical supplies
- Occupational therapy
- Maintenance and building projects
- Utility expenses
Photos courtesy of the Harms family