words by: Sabrina Schlabach
I’m sure each of us has met someone, whether it’s a stranger or a treasured friend, whose smile radiates with joy. It’s a contagious smile, full of light and devoid of any judgement. We can’t help but smile in return. In that moment, the lighthearted feeling of pure delight brings an unmistakable peace amid all the other thoughts clamoring for our attention. Those are the kinds of moments, and people, that we are drawn to and cherish.
For Brice and Amanda Wurdeman, they experienced that remarkable joy when their youngest son Rusk was born. While all of their children are special and bring joy to the family, Rusk has the distinction of being born with Down syndrome. “We didn’t really know anything about caring for a child with special needs, but what people say is true—they really do bring an extra joy,” shared Amanda. This also spurred something in Brice’s heart, and he was ready to adopt.
Children have always been a part of Brice and Amanda’s life. They spent 15 years in the mission field growing hearts for Jesus and growing their family. In Haiti they lived near orphanages, in St. Vincent they assisted with a preschool, and they have often cared for the children extended beyond their four walls. All throughout her life, from a very young age, Amanda was interested in adoption, however Brice did not feel that same call. So, Amanda remained content in ministering to her children and all the kids she encountered.
In April 2020, Rusk was born with Down syndrome. Together the family began learning how to care for a child with special needs, and as they did so, they discovered just how precious and full of joy Rusk is. Even though the Wurdemans had worked with children and orphanages, Amanda shared, “I’m so sad to say that we avoided and ignored those kids that had special needs, just like everyone else. We didn’t know how to ‘handle those kids.’ Once Rusk was born, he really changed our hearts.”
For Amanda, having six children and not getting any younger, it had settled in her heart that they were done having kids; it was time to close that chapter. However, Brice’s heart began stirring and he told Amanda, “We should adopt.” After the initial surprise of finally hearing those words, she was all in. Amanda shared that they didn’t choose to adopt so that Rusk could have a “buddy,” it was because they saw the need out there and knew the joy that children with Down syndrome bring. “There’s other kids that need a family and we know how to do this,” she said.
Throughout their missionary service, the Wurdemans had learned to pray: God, whatever Your will is for us, we want to be there. “But this time we prayed very specifically. We asked God that if there’s a little boy with Down syndrome for us, to please show us,” said Amanda. For several months, they were actively reaching out to NDSAN (National Down syndrome Adoption Network) and the countries they served in, seeking that child.
This was not an easy road, and quite frustrating—to the point that they thought perhaps this is not what God had for them. Foster care told them they had too many kids and weren’t a good fit. NDSAN said the chances of being picked were slim because of their age and six kids. Haiti had such a long wait that they hesitated to go that route; and the woman from the orphanage in St. Vincent told them it was never going to happen. Had they misheard God? Was their desire to adopt never going to be realized?
In May 2021, having just moved back to the U.S., the woman from St. Vincent reached out to Amanda. She wrote a letter saying that she had the perfect little boy for them; he had Down syndrome and was only one week younger than Rusk! This was exciting news, and they began picturing their little Caribbean boy. What Brice and Amanda didn’t know was that this woman worked with orphanages from several countries, and their little boy was actually from Serbia.
The Wurdemans, after seeing a picture of a cute, healthy, round-cheeked boy—and praying—quickly said yes to Sutter. The adoption process in Serbia is a little different than in the States: First a child is matched, and then the home study process begins. Now that Brice and Amanda said yes, they had to submit a letter to the Serbian government about their family and their desire to adopt Sutter. Serbia said yes and the long paperwork task began.
“We initially received two videos, five pictures, and some doctor’s notes,” stated Amanda. “Then we got nothing—for 13 months.” It was a difficult waiting period, but they were committed to Sutter. It helped that Amanda was able to connect with a group of women who had also adopted from Serbia. “It’s a very small group since Serbia only allows 4-6 adoptions per year [to outside countries],” she said, “but they were able to give tips and advice on how everything worked.” They learned that only one family can travel at a time, it would be a three-week trip requiring both Brice and Amanda, and that Serbia shuts down during the summer. Which meant it was unlikely that they would be allowed immediate entry—even after months of waiting.
Our God, however, is not limited by worldly restrictions. He opened the doors for the Wurdemans to travel to Serbia in July. Amanda was excited to meet Sutter and talk to the orphanage, to find out how they cared for him. What she found was not at all what was expected. After Sutter had been matched with them, he moved from the baby floor to the older children’s floor. In that time, he basically reverted to an unhealthy newborn. Sutter was unable to hold up his head, he laid in his crib all day, and only got a few syringes of pureed food. Sutter only weighed 17 pounds at the age of 2. (Amanda was just glad they got him when they did, as there were much older children laying nearby that weighed about the same as Sutter.)
As the Wurdemans prepared for the adoption finalization, the orphanage disclosed that Sutter had epilepsy. This resulted in him receiving medication which heavily sedated him. “He could barely wake up when we were there,” Amanda said. “They told me that it was normal, but we thought ‘no, this is not how a two-year-old should be.’ Something was wrong.” The Wurdemans knew that they wouldn’t be walking into a perfect situation with over 200 children in the orphanage, but it was worse than they had expected.
Brice and Amanda visited Sutter at the orphanage for one week, then they spent two weeks getting to know each other while waiting on paperwork and going to doctor’s appointments. The plane ride home brought its own challenges. “Sutter didn’t like to be touched. He wasn’t used to it,” shared Amanda. “So, we laid him on the seat between us to try and keep him calm, all while others were shouting at us in Serbian to pick up our kid.” And changing his diaper has been a trial, too. He just screams, making Amanda fear what had been done to him. “The mom’s group told me that was normal. At the orphanage they strip off the diaper and spray them down with cold water,” she said. Naturally, that is a traumatic experience.
In the few months since they’ve been home, they took Sutter to several different doctors and specialists to find out exactly what he needs. They’ve been adjusting his medication, and since July, he’s begun to improve. The doctors told them to treat him like a newborn. Take it one step at a time and surround him with love. Sutter can now hold his head up, is beginning to eat more food, goes to speech, occupational, and physical therapy (along with Rusk), and enjoys interacting with his family.
The Wurdemans pray that more people’s hearts would be opened to adoption. Amanda shared that they felt called to adopt and trusted that God would provide—so much so, that they didn’t really look into the cost of adoption. They were astounded that it was nearly $42,000. “But there are so many grants available, and God absolutely did provide. Don’t let the cost of adoption scare you off. If God calls you to it, He’ll provide for it.” Every twinkly eyed smile that warms our hearts with joy far outweighs the cost.
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