Sunday’s Columbus Dispatch had the first part of a heartbreaking story about neglected little girl named Danielle. Neglected? No, ignored. Nearly seven years old, likely never seen the sun, never hugged, never shown any affection. Still in diapers, living in a closet, surrounded by filth, roaches and a 4 foot pile of dirty diapers. Heartbreaking, anger inducing, words fail:
The police officers walked through the front door, into a cramped living room.
“I’ve been in rooms with bodies rotting there for a week and it never stunk that bad,” Holste said later. “There’s just no way to describe it. Urine and feces — dog, cat and human excrement — smeared on the walls, mashed into the carpet. Everything dank and rotting.”
Read part one Sunday about what she was like when she was found and where she was found and how, because of the lack of affection and attention, the doctors’ big hope was that she’d learn to sleep through the night and feed herself. You should also read today’s part three as well. It’s the sad story about who her mother was (her IQ is “borderline range of intellectual ability.”) and how she still doesn’t understand why her daughter was taken away. “Part of me died that day,” she says.
What I really want to point you to is yesterday’s part two, inspiring story of the family who found her and believed in her in a way that no one else did.
The lead in is the decision by Luanne Panacek, executive director of the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County to put the girl’s picture among many others as kids needing adoption.”Who, Panacek wondered, would choose an 8-year-old who was still in diapers, who didn’t know her own name and might not ever speak or let you hug her?”
Bernie and Diane were at Gameworks, looking for a girl to adopt. A older girl, but younger than their 9 year old son. Through the chaos at Gameworks that night, they caught sight of a picture of Danielle:
Diane stepped out of the chaos, into an alcove beneath the stairs. That was when she saw it. A little girl’s face on a flier, pale with sunken cheeks and dark hair chopped too short. Her brown eyes seemed to be searching for something.
Diane called Bernie over. He saw the same thing she did. “She just looked like she needed us.”
Despite learning all of Danielle’s many and serious issues, they went to meet her:
Diane walked over and spoke to her softly. Danielle didn’t seem to notice. But when Bernie bent down, Danielle turned toward him and her eyes seemed to focus.
He held out his hand. She let him pull her to her feet. Danielle’s teacher, Kevin O’Keefe, was amazed; he hadn’t seen her warm up to anyone so quickly.
Bernie led Danielle to the playground, she pulled sideways and pranced on her tiptoes. She squinted in the sunlight but let him push her gently on the swing. When it was time for them to part, Bernie swore he saw Danielle wave.
That night, he had a dream. Two giant hands slid through his bedroom ceiling, the fingers laced together. Danielle was swinging on those hands, her dark eyes wide, her thin arms reaching for him.
They brought her home Easter weekend, 2007. It was a disaster at first, she wouldn’t sleep she threw tantrum after tantrum, she couldn’t even hold a crayon. Everyone told them they were crazy, but they wouldn’t be deterred. “So what if Danielle is not everything we hoped for, Bernie and Diane answered. You can’t pre-order your own kids. You take what God gives you.” Despite months of severe challenges as her caretakers, they officially adopted her last October. They gave her the name Dani.
And they proceeded to love her, like she – literally – had never been loved before.
Bernie and Diane were told to put Dani in school with profoundly disabled children, but they insisted on different classes because they believe she can do more. They take her to occupational and physical therapy, to church and the mall and the grocery store. They have her in speech classes and horseback-riding lessons.
Once, when Dani was trying to climb onto her horse, the mother of a boy in the therapeutic class turned to Diane.
“You’re so lucky,” Diane remembers the woman saying.
“Lucky?” Diane asked.
The woman nodded. “I know my son will never stand on his own, will never be able to climb onto a horse. You have no idea what your daughter might be able to do.”
Bernie and Diane had a son, about a year older than Dani, when they adopted her. Her doctor says having someone close in age around the house s invaluable for her development. How does William feel about his older sister and the extra attention she gets?
William says Dani frightened him at first. “She did weird things.” But he always wanted someone to play with. He doesn’t care that she can’t ride bikes with him or play Monopoly. “I drive her around in my Jeep and she honks the horn,” he says. “She’s learning to match up cards and stuff.”
He couldn’t believe she had never walked a dog or licked an ice-cream cone. He taught her how to play peek-a-boo, helped her squish Play-Doh through her fingers. He showed her it was safe to walk on sand and fun to blow bubbles and OK to cry; when you hurt, someone comes. He taught her how to open a present. How to pick up Tater Tots and dunk them into ketchup.
William was used to living like an only child, but since Dani has moved in, she gets most of their parents’ attention. “She needs them more than me,” he says simply.
He gave her his old toys, his “kid movies,” his board books. He even moved out of his bedroom so she could sleep upstairs. His parents painted his old walls pink and filled the closet with cotton-candy dresses.
They moved a daybed into the laundry room for William, squeezed it between the washing machine and Dani’s rocking horse. Each night, the 10-year-old boy cuddles up with a walkie-talkie because “it’s scary down here, all alone.”
He trades his walkie-talkie for a small stuffed Dalmatian and calls down the hall, “Good night, Mom and Dad. Good night, Dani.”
Some day, he’s sure, she will answer.
Here was a girl that perhaps should have died, was rescued only to face a likely life in institutions. The folks in her life held very modest expectations for her, she would survive but little more.
But one woman took a small chance – take a picture and put it on a poster and maybe … And two simple people with simple ambitions were paying attention when God was calling and gave of themselves beyond what they expected that they could. They have been the hands of Jesus to this little girl when the rest of us would have likely clenched our fists in anger at the injustice and wept at the tragedy – but then went on home.
Because they loved her, now she’s riding a horse, playing at the beach and feeding herself. She’s learning and growing. Who knows what she may become – because they loved her.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails.
1 Corinthians 13:4-8
UPDATE (8/17): Dani’s family has a website where you can contribute to Dani’s care and send a message of support. There’s also a link to the original article in the St. Petersburg Times where you’ll find a slide show. Lastly, read the article on the response to Dani’s story and an update on how she’s doing:
The Heart Gallery of Tampa Bay, which found an adoptive family for Danielle, is receiving 2,000 hits a day on its Web site, up from the usual 500, said Carolyn Eastman of the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County. The Heart Gallery has also received 100 e-mails and 80 phone calls from people commenting on the story or inquiring about adopting a child.
Imagine if just one more child gets adopted that otherwise wouldn’t have … all because they decided to love.