- Associated Press - Sunday, April 20, 2014

LYNCHBURG, Va. (AP) - His infectious smile lights up the room from atop a shelf in Todd and Tobey Thurston’s Campbell County home - the face of the couple’s daily prayer to one day become blessed with a son.

Present in spirit, the reality is Mahesh Patatam, the boy in the photo, lives thousands of miles away from the Thurstons, in a village in India. The husband and wife, determined to bridge the gap in distance and bring the 10-year-old to Virginia and raise him through adolescence, have launched an international adoption process that they say friends and supporters have rallied behind.

By the end of the year, they hope Mahesh will be living in their home on Winebarger Circle near Wards Road - which would make them one of only a couple hundred Virginia families likely to internationally adopt this year.

In 2013, the number of overseas adoptions in the state dropped to 254 - the lowest level they’ve been in 14 years.

The thought of helping Mahesh build a tree house and restore an old bike that will be his to ride around the neighborhood brings smiles to the couple’s faces like those of kids waiting to get on a ride at a carnival.

“I’m super excited to teach him everything and anything I can,” said Todd Thurston, 34. “I love to teach.”

The couple met Mahesh in the spring of 2011 during a missions trip to India through a local church, after years of trying to conceive a child.

The two met in Lynchburg in 2004 and were wed a year later. They longed to be parents, undergoing six years of infertility treatment and exhausting many options, Tobey Thurston recently said in an interview.

The overseas mission trip to help add a second floor to the school Mahesh lives in was a chance to get away, she said. Meeting him among a group of children, she said they were drawn to his happy demeanor that shone through despite his harsh living conditions.

“He kind of stood out to me,” said Tobey, 40, referring to him as her “buddy.”

His parents were poor, his father had died and he was the youngest of three children and suffering tuberculosis, which crippled his left arm and left him an outcast in the eyes of his peers, the couple said. Due to the cost of medicine and the family’s poverty, his mother decided to give him up to the school, Tobey said.

During a following 10-day trip to India in 2013, Tobey said she had the privilege of spending much one-on-one time with him during a period when she and Todd were considering adoption. And the idea clicked in her head: “Why don’t we adopt Mahesh?”

They prayed about it and realized there was a “world of difference” in raising a boy nearing teenage years as opposed to a newborn child.

Brooke Patel, a Lynchburg attorney helping the couple with the adoption, said it is the first international case she has worked and a rarity since the parents are seeking out a specific child.

“That is what is making their case complex,” she said. “Usually the family or parents are matched with an adoptive child.”

She described the process as “very technical” and heavily dependent on government agencies. The main concern of India authorities, and a reason international adoptions overall in the United States have been decreasing in recent years, is because of child trafficking and countries tightening their controls, Patel said.

In the U.S., there have been nearly 250,000 international adoptions since 1999, according to State Department statistics; the numbers of overseas adoptions have dropped in recent years.

In the 2013 federal fiscal year, the total number of international adoptions nationwide dropped to a 14-year low of 7,092, and in Virginia fell to a low in the same span of 254.

On choosing international adoption over domestic, Todd said the opportunity to adopt Mahesh “fell in our lap,” and they are at peace about it.

Tobey added she did not know if she could emotionally handle a foster care adoption scenario where she could possibly lose the child - plus her heart is set on taking in Mahesh.

After researching the topic, they found out he is adoptable as part of a “pre-identified” process, which is different from couples or individuals picking children they do not know, Tobey said. At first, Mahesh’s biological mother had concerns of “snotty rich Americans” taking in her son, Tobey said, but leaders at Mahesh’s school explained that would not be the case.

The mother signed over her parental rights, so now the issue is securing the money and necessary paperwork with the Indian government, said Tobey.

Patel, a church friend of the Thurstons, said the couple will have to undergo an intense “home study” process in which an agency comes in to go through an exhaustive list of background checks.

She said she the couple is “very persistent” in seeing the process through.

“I’m very excited for them,” Patel said. “I think it’s amazing. We are just praying everything goes smoothly and they can bring him home soon.”

Since November, the couple has raised nearly $9,000 in their quest to secure approximately $20,000 to complete the adoption. They have held fundraisers, yard sales, “Girl’s Night Out” gatherings and similar events to generate support without simply asking for donations, Tobey said.

“People came out of the woodwork to help us,” Todd said of the support.

Coming to America will be a major environment change that the couple says they are fully prepared to help him with. He eats with his hands rather than silverware, does not have toilets or showers, has never been to a movie theater or had his own room, Tobey said.

“In a lot of ways, it will be like having a child that we need to bring up and teach,” she said.

Currently, he lives with about 25 to 30 other children in dorms at his school that is about an hour from Hyderabad, a city in central India. The Thurstons maintain regular contact with Mahesh through the school’s leaders and ministers.

“Every day he tells them that he is dreaming about his life in America,” Tobey said.

He had never had a birthday party before, she said, and last month she was pleased to wire $25 for the school to throw him a party. The money stretched to get him a new outfit, a cake and a special catered dinner and chocolate that he shared with the other kids, she said.

Todd said Mahesh carries all his possessions in a small box he views as “sacred.” The couple dreams of helping improve his life with sustained health care to improve his arm, health nutrition and a support system waiting with arms wide open. Church friends who also have been to India and have invested into his life, including paying for a physical therapist that treated his arm, will be friendly faces celebrating his arrival, Tobey said.

“He’s not coming to a place where he knows nobody,” she said. “For six years, teams from Lynchburg have been in his life.”

Todd said of Mahesh coming to America: “His eyes are going to be so wide and he’s going to be in wonder and happy for every little thing, because he is happy where he is, in the poorest of places.”


Information from: The News & Advance, https://www.newsadvance.com/

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