When Laura Wishik’s daughter Daniela entered first grade, one of the first things Wishik did was mention to her teacher, Tina Taylor, that Daniela had been adopted, and asked her to be on the lookout for any issues that might arise from that fact.
But Taylor didn’t react to the news as though it was anything unusual.
“’Well, I was adopted, and 15 of the kids in my class were adopted,’” Wishik remembers being told by Taylor.
Vashon’s seemingly large numbers of children who came into their families through adoption is something that Wishik, who adopted both her children in Guatemala in 1999, has noticed repeatedly over the years.
“When my son was about 10 and still playing softball, one year his entire team was adopted boys,” Wishik said.
Statistics on the actual number of children who were adopted into their families on Vashon don’t exist. But a phenomenon does indeed seem to be in play on the island.
Last Sunday afternoon, a large group of families, all bonded by their varying experiences with adoption, came together for a potluck. The party, organized by Mary Margaret Briggs, was the latest installment of a annual gathering that Briggs has hosted for the past 10 years, since moving to Vashon.
The noisy party, which took place on a rain-soaked afternoon in Briggs’ spacious artist’s studio, provided a snapshot of the melting pot that is Vashon’s adoptive family community.
On the guest list were children from the ages of 4 months to teenagers, of varying ethnicities, who were born in the United States and many other countries. Their mothers and fathers represented an equally diverse population: single parents, gay and lesbian partners and husband and wife pairings. The children’s adoption stories, too, were different, with adoption taking place at different ages and some children being brought into their homes through the foster care system.
But according to Briggs, the entire group has much in common, and it has been important not only for her, but also for her children to stay in touch with other families like hers on the island.
“The goal is for our kids to see that the family they’re in is like so many other families in the community — to normalize that for them,” she said.
Like many other families
on Vashon, Briggs adopted children who were born in another country. Her son Sam, now 13, was born in Hong Kong, where Briggs and her husband Daniel lived at the time of Sam’s adoption. After moving back to the United States, they adopted their daughter Flora, who was born in China in 2002.
Other children on Vashon have been adopted from places, including Cambodia, Vietnam, Taiwan, Korea, China, Haiti, different countries in Africa and Europe, and throughout South and Central America.
According to Laura Wishik, these children have added much to the island.
“It has a positive cultural implication for Vashon to have so many connections to so many parts of the world,” she said. “We have more diversity of appearance and we have diversity in that people know more about other cultures.”
Vashon’s demographic of transnationally adopted children is part of a national trend — the number of transnational adoptions reached a high of nearly 23,000 in 2004. Many of those children are now in middle school and high school.
Islander Nancy Murphy and her husband Mark Rutherford adopted their daughter Anaca, now 17, as an infant in Guatemala in 1996. She said that Vashon has been a good place to raise her daughter, who is Mayan.
“I chose Vashon because I knew it would be a gentle and tolerant place to raise an adopted child,” she said. “I think many people would agree with that.”
Still, she said, her daughter has now expressed an interest in attending colleges where more people might share her ethnicity.
“She’s interested in colleges that have a critical mass of other Native Americans and offer indigenous studies — to have some cultural immersion in that,” she said.
Both Murphy and Wishik, like many other parents on Vashon, have encouraged their children to embrace their heritage. Both families have made trips to Guatemala so their children can spend time with their biological families and learn more about the culture of the place they were born. Briggs, too, has traveled with her children to China. And for Murphy, the exchange will soon go both ways — she’s currently planning to welcome one of Anaca’s birth siblings for an extended visit on Vashon.
Open adoption is a trend that helps all families, said Jill Dziko, an islander whose own family of four children has been brought together by adoption.
“There is a move towards openness, which is how it should be,” said Dziko, citing laws in Washington that give adoptees ages 18 and older a chance to access their original birth certificates and/or discover critical information about their biological family’s medical history.
Dziko has both a personal and professional interest in adoption. She runs her own fully licensed non-profit adoption agency, Your Adoptive Family, from an office in West Seattle. The business provides services, consultation and therapy for adoptive families as well as those who are seeking to adopt domestically. She is also exploring the idea of offering training to personnel at Vashon schools.
“I’ve talked to the school about coming in and doing an in-service day with teachers and school psychologists to better serve adoptive kids,” she said. “I think that would be huge.”
The issue of race and ethnicity is important to Dziko, as well. Her own children — three of whom were adopted as infants and another who is her birth child, but adopted by her spouse, Trish Dziko — are African-American. She is concerned that her own children, and some other multicultural children who live on Vashon, don’t have enough role models of their own backgrounds on the island.
“You have a lot of kids of color here, but very few adults of color,” she said. “For kids to do something, they need to see an adult who looks like them doing it.”
Kathleen Johnson, executive director of Vashon Youth & Family Services, was herself an adoptee, and she said her agency strives to provide services to adoptive families.
“There are a myriad of needs that come into play when you talk about adoptive families,” she said. “We’re here to really react to what the clients are identifying as their needs.”
And as last Sunday’s boisterous potluck at Mary Margaret Briggs’ studio proved, there are many people on Vashon whose lives have been touched by adoption who are eager to network with other parents and encourage others to begin the process of adoption.
“It’s not uncommon for someone (who is interested in adoption) to call up with questions,” said Nancy Murphy. “I meet them with a lot of enthusiasm, because this is the best thing I’ve ever done.”