Saturday was one of those almost but not quite days for the Campbell County boys soccer team. Top-ranked and consensus favorite to win the Class 4A state soccer tournament, the Camels fell just …
LARAMIE, Wyo. — Two children climbed and clung to jungle gym equipment the night of Sept. 7 at Washington Park, their 50-pound frames a blur among the local kids at play, but their smiles fitting right in.
They wore matching gold T-shirts with the phrase, "I am the pot of gold at the end of Reece's Rainbow," stenciled on the front.
The scene at the park was a stark contrast from what Vlad, 10, and sister Anna, 9, had once known, a difference almost as wide as the 5,000-plus miles separating their native Ukraine from their home in Laramie.
Whereas once life was in an orphanage with substandard conditions, it's now lived in a comfortable home and in schools they love.
Whereas once siblings were other children in the orphanage, strangers themselves without families of their own, it's now filled with doting big brothers and sisters — Lindsay, 19, Austin, 15, Allie, 9, and Noah, 8.
Perhaps most importantly, whereas once they were abandoned by their biological parents at the hospital because of a disability, Down syndrome, Vlad and Anna now live under the care of adopted parents Kevin and Andrea, Laramie residents who spent a year trying to bring them home.
"We just knew immediately that's what we were called to do," Andrea said of adopting children with a developmental disability. "We kind of always felt like this was something we wanted."
That desire, or calling as the Watkins describe it, was born of the family's Christian faith and experiences with their own siblings. Kevin's brother has Down syndrome and Andrea's brother also has developmental disabilities.
Vlad, Anna and most of the Watkins family participated Sept. 8 in the 12th annual Wyoming Buddy Walk, an event at the park designed to bring families together and raise awareness about Down syndrome. It was the family's second year participating.
Vlad was the poster child for the event.
"He's the poster child," Andrea said, referring to her son being front and center on promotional fliers for the walk, "and he thinks he's the bomb."
Vlad and Anna also participated in the afternoon in pre-game ceremonies between the universities of Wyoming and Toledo at War Memorial Stadium. The children stood at midfield, among the football players, their names announced over the public address system, the crowd's cheers washing over them, the center of attention for thousands of people for a brief moment.
"They were really happy being out there," Andrea said. "They would have never even had the opportunity to be acknowledged (back in the Ukraine). They soaked it up."
The day's recognition for their children made Kevin and Andrea proud parents.
"They did awesome," Andrea said.
With a firm desire to adopt at hand, Kevin and Andrea found Vlad and Anna through Reece's Rainbow, an adoption ministry for children with Down syndrome. They spent almost a year navigating international red tape before going to the Ukraine in September 2010 to meet the children.
Vlad, by then living in his third orphanage, was quiet and reserved. Anna was more boisterous.
The children weighed roughly 40 pounds, and the only English they spoke was "momma" and "papa."
Kevin said he and his wife knew before making the overseas trip they'd adopt the children.
"There was no going and not coming back with them," he said.
They spent every day for 10 days with Vlad and Anna.
In public, the children drew long looks or stares from other people, Kevin said, a memory that continues to rankle him two years later.
"That still kind of bothers me to this day," he said.
In the Ukraine, odds are stacked against children with Down syndrome, Kevin and Andrea said. From their abandonment at birth to systems in place that overlook their needs, a good percentage of children slip through the cracks, they said.
They wanted to get Vlad and Anna out of the country and back home so they could have "every opportunity."
Opportunities like being part of a family, like being able to play at a park with parents, siblings and other children.
"I don't think they see themselves as different than anyone else and that's what we try to foster," Andrea said. "We haven't placed any limits on them."
Lindsay, a sophomore at UW, said she and her biological siblings embraced Vlad and Anna immediately.
"They were my siblings once my parents said they were bringing them home," she said.
"They were always on board from day one," Andrea added.
Lindsay's been so moved by her younger brother and sister, she's considering special education as a future career, one of many signs of how Vlad and Anna are as entrenched as anyone in the Watkins family.
Andrea said she and her family agreed to be featured because they want to raise awareness about Down syndrome and that there are thousands of other children around the world in need of loving homes, kids like Vlad and Anna, the gold at the end of the Watkins family rainbow.
She said anyone thinking about adopting shouldn't be intimidated.
"If we can do it, anyone can," she said.
Information from: Laramie (Wyo.) Daily Boomerang, http://www.laramieboomerang.com