By DEIRDRE C. MAYS
AIKEN A chat with Shelley and Cole Lindell is to hear, see and experience the word family.
In the early ’90s, this retired Navy couple had successfully raised five children and were enjoying their retirement when they responded to a call of faith. While living in Washington, D.C., the Lindells decided there was more to life, they took more literally, and adopted a 17-month-old special needs baby from a Russian orphanage.
So taken were they with their new child, that Maggie, now 7, was soon joined by two brothers, Colen, 9, and Will, 15 months.
“We felt blessed and wanted to give something back,” Shelley, 55, says of their decision. “We decided we had raised five children and we could raise more.”
The second chapter of the Lindell clan is now a vibrant and familiar part of their community.
They have received their share of limelight because the loving couple have many tiers to their story: adopting at a time of life when most people are enjoying an empty nest; their children come with special demands of care; and the attention has spurred the adoption of 24 other children from the same orphanage into Aiken area families through Child Hope, Inc. based in Tucson, Ariz.
The Lindells have even organized a group, Families for International Adoption, which meets every month to keep the Russian children in touch with one another.
“I get at least one call a week from people interested in adoption,” Shelley said.
Lindell, 61, is a nuclear engineer and retired Navy captain who converted to Catholicism shortly before the first adoption. He often speaks to Kiwanis and Rotary groups about the adoption process and their touching story.
Maggie was born with arthrogroposis, she was unable to move in the womb which resulted in her hip sockets and knees not forming, and club feet. The Lindells brought her home in February 1993 and were told that she would probably not walk, but with determination and hope, Shelley helped her sunny daughter find the determination to walk without the help of crutches or support. Now, the active second-grader at St. Mary Help of Christians School enjoys swimming, playing the piano, and coloring just to name a few of her favorite activities.
When the couple first traveled to the orphanage in Russia, it was a heart-breaking and heartwarming experience. It was difficult, Shelley says, because there were so many orphans, yet the staff had not been paid in a year and were entirely devoted to the children in their care.
Colen was in three orphanages in his first five years of life. Before his adoption in July 1993, he was in a home for mentally handicapped children because he was born with a radial club arm and was missing a thumb. He has some auditory learning disabilities which Shelley believes are a result of a lack of stimulus as an infant. He has had surgery on his arm and doctors replaced his thumb with his index finger.
After a young lifetime of living in a room full of other children without the stimulation of parents, Colen had a significant adjustment to work through when he came to the Lindells. He did not identify immediately with Shelley but did bond to his father. The mother/son relationship eventually cemented. Colen also deals with attention deficit, hyperactivity, and auditory processing and memory disorders.
These days, however, Colen is a bright and active student at the Gateway Academy who loves soccer, basketball, karate and swimming. He is a polite fellow who even tries his best to keep his busy little brother in tow.
Will was named in honor of family friend and surrogate grandfather Bill Cunningham who, with his wife, and surrogate grandmother, Ann, are fellow parishioners at St. Mary Help of Christians. The toddler came to the Lindell family this February and is without handicap. Though the Lindells specifically asked the Russian adoption agency for children with orthopedic conditions, they could not turn down another child without one because it was their last trip. Little boys are not adopted as readily as girls.
There are more children under age 5 in Russian orphanages than after World War II, Shelley said. All adoptions in Russia are handled through the equivalent of their supreme court and entail mountains of paperwork. The Lindells worked through an agency in the Province of Komi in Siberia.
Shelley, originally from Charleston, is a former employee of Catholic Charities and credits that past experience with bringing the concept of adoption into their midst.
It’s a busy household for the Lindells school, activities, and active little people. Shelley said they take it day by day. Cole recently had hip replacement surgery, and Maggie occasionally experiences pain when she has had a busy day. Her challenges will continue as she grows while the condition of her hips and knees does not improve. But, like Shelley says, they just don’t know.
The children were born with Russian names and the Lindells incorporated them into their middle names. They are very open with the children who have Russian keepsakes and, every night, pray for their birth parents.
The first five Lindell children, ranging in age from 29 to 36, were shocked at their parents decision at first, but were supportive.
“They just worry,” laughs Shelley.
The Lindells haven’t stopped surprising people. They have applied through the Archdiocese of Chicago to take in a Kosovar refugee couple to help them get established in the United States.
It could be rather tiring to think of the Lindell energy expenditure but Shelley smiles easily through it.
“Sure, we’re tired but there are wonderful days and days when we want to pull our hair out,” she relates. “That is typical for anybody with children. We may have given some things up, but we got back a thousand times more.”
Their pastor, Msgr. Thomas Evatt, says they set a good example. “It is so easy for us to talk about it but it is much more difficult when we see someplace the Lord wants us to put Christianity into action,” he said.
As Cole runs out the door to a meeting, Colen chases his younger brother and Maggie plays with the dog, Shelley rushes to answer the phone saying: “Life doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to be about the family.”