Reece’s Rainbow Report #16: Jolly-Lee Family

Rusty Lee was once terrified of a toddler. 
Well, perhaps not of the toddler ― after all, he was an experienced father of three small children ― but of what this specific toddler represented. 
It was June of 2018, and Lee and his wife, Tierra Jolly, were in Ukraine to meet a 14-month-old named Sasha whom they hoped to adopt. Less than a year earlier, the parents had lost their four-month-old daughter Rocket. It was a maelstrom of emotions that Lee barely had time to process: grief, excitement, sadness, anticipation. 

And fear. 

“I was genuinely terrified to make another emotional connection to a child, for fear that he, too, might die,” explained Lee, a high school math teacher. 

Both Rocket and Sasha (code-named Kellan on Reece’s Rainbow) had an extra copy of their twenty-first chromosomes, otherwise known as Down Syndrome. There had been many positives to Rocket’s diagnosis, Lee says, including sudden membership in a tremendous “wide-ranging community” of families of children with Down Syndrome. But now, getting ready to meet his new son, he felt frozen to the orphanage floor. 

“Initially, I was extremely nervous about adopting Sasha – not because of his diagnosis, but because of the trauma associated with losing a child,” says Lee. “I was afraid to form another strong parental connection. My grief over Rocket definitely manifested itself as fear.” 
But then Lee and Jolly walked through the door to Sasha’s room. For the first time in real life, the couple saw “his honest eyes, his perfect little fists, and the genuine innocence in his face” that they had fallen in love with in photos.

“It’s hard to capture in words – but he radiated love and kindness,” says his new dad. “There was something altogether lovable in his affect.” 
Rusty and Tierra had become interested in adopting a child with Down Syndrome once Rocket came along. When she died, the door opened wider, culminating with Jolly spotting Sasha’s photo on Reece’s Rainbow and announcing, “I know that we’re supposed to be his parents.” Lee agreed, in spite of his fear. 
And then he met his son, nerves fraying. “Once meeting him on our first visit, however, I was immediately swayed,” he says. “I walked into his room, and I wanted nothing more than to love this little guy forever and ever.” After four trips in total to Ukraine, it was so. 
The Jolly-Lee family brought him home in October of 2018, freshly in love with Sasha’s home nation. Lee has traveled the globe extensively but had never seen anything like Ukraine. 

“Ukraine is, hands down, my favorite country I’ve ever visited,” he asserts.
“The people of Ukraine are fierce, but kind; serious, but funny; and unshakably loyal.”
That last trait was thankfully passed down to Sasha. Though he struggled when first coming home ― at 18 months old, he could barely hold his head up ― he quickly gained ground, spurred on by the love of a family. Today, he uses hundreds of American Sign Language signs, speaks, runs, dresses himself and knows all of his letters, numbers, colors and even some sight words. His pitching and door pong prowess are also quite impressive, his dad brags. 
But all his accomplishments pale in comparison to how he loves. 

“He loves being a part of a family, and he is certainly the glue that binds ours together,” Lee says. “He is, without question, the beaming light of our world.” 

Sasha, now five, has two younger earthside siblings (and Rocket, of course). One of them, three-year-old Malcolm, is a cancer survivor. Jolly is a first-year medical student at Western Michigan University. It’s a lot of action for the Kalamazoo family, but Lee doesn’t see it as chaos. More like “a lovely tableau of happy moments,” he says. 

“My favorite part of being his dad is watching him be the cornerstone of our family,” says Lee. “I love that he loves being loved, and that he loves loving us.”
“I never, ever think about the fact that Sasha is adopted.
He is my son…full stop.”
Crystal Kupper
Crystal Kupper is a freelance writer specializing in magazines and special projects. Since earning her journalism degree, she has written for clients such as Zondervan, Focus on the Family and the Salvation Army, among many others.