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Our Journey with Eli by Ricka Kelsh

It was a Sunday in July and we were on our way out to the beach to meet up with friends when the phone rang. The caller ID said, “Durand Cook.” My heart began to race with excitement. I picked up the phone to hear that ever joyful voice of the man who would indeed change our lives forever. Our baby had been born!

At the time our son was born, our family consisted of my husband Glenn, myself and my twelve-yearold niece Alysa, who was transitioning from being my niece to becoming our daughter after my sister passed away some years before. That too is quite a story. But that summer day was about our son being born and our family needed to mobilize quickly as we had a plane to catch and a baby to greet.

The years flew by and we went through most all of the milestones. By age one, Eli already had a strong sense of humor and we loved his sense of curiosity. But by the time he was ready for preschool we began to realize that something wasn’t quite right. His speech was delayed and then other concerning signs started popping up. We started with speech therapy and that is where the journey began to get interesting. Our sweet, funny, curious child was now having challenges socially and physically. As it turned out, he was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, sensory sensitivity and other issues. The good news was that there were myriad of therapies and modalities that Eli was able to access that could help. But it was a long journey ahead. What we came to learn was this was not just a journey that Eli was going to go through. It was a journey that our family was going to go through together. And as it turned out, it was the best thing that could have happened to all of us!

As with all families, not every day is “Disneyland.” And when you have a child with challenges, especially anxiety, you have to completely surrender to the process of making the home a safe and relatively calm place. For us it meant I would leave one job and opt for a part time job that would allow me to be there should his school call for any reason…which they did, often, in the early years.

From preschool until second grade, school was very challenging for Eli. Even at that young age of six, Eli knew he was different and was very frustrated about it. I felt so badly for my son who was trying his hardest to fit in. In time though, Eli began to realize how resilient he was and hope began to take the place of frustration.

As Eli went from second grade to fifth grade, he began to find his stride, although still behind socially. He no longer talked about wishing he could be “normal,” which was music to our ears. I started a support group for other parents who had children with challenges, which grew rather large when word got out. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only mom at the school who was facing these issues and it came as a welcome relief. Eli also started to take tap lessons so he had a fun place to make noise. As it turned out, he was quite good at it!

Our family went through our struggles during this time. Differences of parenting styles and having another child who had her own anxiety issues meant being present and flexible in mindset. It was the only way we were going to make it as a family. What kept us whole was Glenn’s and my willingness to really listen to each other and guide our children forward to the best of our abilities. We never gave up hope that things would work out. Even on the toughest of days.

By the time Eli was in middle school, we were able to find the perfect social skills program for him to be in. And that was the last therapy we ever had to do. Eli had caught up socially and just like that, he was so much better! Now he was a typical teenager! LOL! He was at the point where he could begin to thrive and not just survive. He quickly changed from tap dancing to playing the drums, which he has stuck to and continues to play. Eli has found a way to turn all of what were challenges into assets but using things like his sensory sensitivity to pick up every day sounds and turn them into music or cool beats when he produces music.

As parents, when we committed to leaning in and working with Eli, we gave him the space to discover his true authentic self. We would reason with him and let him talk and share his feelings so that he had ownership of his progress. I think it is because of that approach that Eli is able to articulate his feelings so well. This is not to say that he got his way. Just that he knew his feelings were validated.

As Eli began to make it over one hurdle after the other, we reflected on those experiences and recognized one very special pattern. We discovered that Eli was a catalyst for change. For all of the teachers and even school administrators he encountered that wanted to give up on him, Eli’s growth demonstrated why you never give up on a child. Eli would change these people he encountered, even endearing those who were his toughest critics, some of them becoming his biggest fans. Without even knowing, Eli had changed these people for the better as they all became more patient and compassionate towards students with challenges that came after Eli. Our family always believed we were in the presence of someone very special and now he was able to let his light shine brightly for all to see!

Eli is now getting ready to graduate high school with a 3.9 GPA and he’s now “Mr. Cool.” He has tons of friends and is happy, which in the end is what all parents want for their child. We just learned over the weekend that he was accepted to his number one choice for college, CalArts! As for the rest of us, our daughter Alysa received her masters degree in social work in New York, has a great job, and is married. Glenn is a personal trainer and life coach, changing lives every day through teaching how to live healthy and fulfilling lives even when you are very busy, and I started a non-profit arts organization called “Dance and Dialogue“ which serves about 1,700 teens in Los Angeles. Eli influenced all of us and the paths we are on are far more fulfilling than the ones we were on before he came in to our lives.

We think of Durand often and are so grateful to him and Edith for taking us through the adoption process with such grace and compassion. We are grateful for all of the hard work they put in to matching people with the right families. A day doesn’t go by still where we wonder what if Eli hadn’t come into our lives? Thank you, Durand, for giving us the greatest gift of all, connecting us with our son!  

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