Reece’s Rainbow Report #41: Etter Family

A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. ~ John Steinbeck 

Tara and Justin Etter had a plan: they were going to adopt a daughter from Poland in 2019. Instead, the New Jersey couple brought home a son from Bulgaria. 

“There’s nothing super-human about us. We just said ‘yes’ to what God called us to do,” Tara says. And what they were called to do, it turns out, was not to be Jenny’s parents, but Niky’s, a boy just 41 days younger than their biological daughter Vivien. 

The Etters’ hearts were opened to the plight of vulnerable children when Vivien came along in 2015. She was so loved from conception onward that the idea of another child not having that same fiery parental passion struck them as grossly wrong. They gradually accepted, then, that their second child would arrive via adoption. 

But how? From where? Justin, a partner and managing director at a business valuation firm, and Tara, a program and management analyst for the federal government, weren’t sure. It all seemed a bit overwhelming. 

Then came the November 2016 issue of Citizen magazine. In it was an article about another New Jersey family who had adopted from Armenia via Reece’s Rainbow. Providentially, the families only lived 25 minutes apart and eventually formed a friendship. 

Even before that, the Etters eventually began scrolling through the profiles of waiting children on Reece’s Rainbow. That’s how they found Jenny, a four-year-old with chronic respiratory failure. They committed to adopting her and began preparing.

But then Poland shut down international adoptions. “After 14 months, Jenny’s case went to court in Poland and we were finally given her referral,” says Tara. “However, by that time a local family in Poland had stepped forward to adopt her, and priority was given to them.” 

They were thrilled for Jenny but sad for them. Plus, what should their next step be?

Their adoption agency had an idea: would they consider another child with special needs from Eastern Europe? The Etters said yes. 

“We were initially focused on adopting a girl, as we had experience with raising our biological daughter. However, the adoption agency kept sending us files for boys,” Tara said. “After praying about this, one photo of a boy just clicked with us and we felt, ‘This is an Etter.’” 

That was Niky, a four-year-old diagnosed with infantile cerebral palsy, albinism and developmental delays. Especially because of the cerebral palsy label, Tara and Justin were expecting some mobility issues when they met Niky in March of 2019. 

That expectation turned out to be false. 

“Although he was somewhat slower-moving and displayed issues with balance, he had the nickname ‘go-go Niky’ and was constantly on the move,” Tara remembers. “Niky loved being outdoors and enjoyed exploring.” 

But as good as he was on his feet, Niky struggled to communicate. Though he learned a few signs on that first trip, he was effectively non-verbal. After arriving home that August, he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It was frustrating for everyone, especially Niky.

“In the beginning, the communication issues that stemmed from Niky not being able to tell us his needs, wants and fears were tough. There was plenty of screaming and head-banging from him when he felt frustrated that he wasn’t being heard,” Tara says. “Once we learned to understand his ‘Niky-isms,’ and we could put his thoughts and feelings into words for him, it really helped him feel like we understood and cared.” 

Slowly, the youngest Etter made progress. Niky began gaining vocabulary, eventually repeating everything he heard, and being able to mostly be understood. He discovered the joy of pizza. He and Vivien, now both eight years old, established an amiable brother-sister relationship, playing imagination games and enjoying playground time. His adoptive parents, meanwhile, amassed a team of healthcare specialists, educators, therapists, relatives, church volunteers and friends to cheer him on from one milestone to the next. 

“We know that it truly ‘takes a village,’ and God’s answer to our prayers comes in the form of many people coming alongside us,” Tara says. “There are many people praying for us and also directly working with Niky. We try to see the blessings and support when times get difficult.”

That support shows up during good times, too, so much so that Niky has earned the nickname “The Mayor” for his popularity. Placed in a self-contained ASD classroom at the local elementary school, Niky knows and is loved by nearly everyone. People who recognize him at the grocery store or running errands make sure to say hi, a greeting which he will happily return. Fellow church-goers may even know Tara and Justin as “Niky’s parents” instead of by name. 

“He has such an amazing, curious and dramatic personality and loves being the center of attention,” says Tara. “Niky has a helper’s heart and loves to do things for other people.” These include holding the door open for others, assisting with laundry and reminding Tara, Justin and Vivien to take their daily vitamins. 

The Etters still think about Jenny, of course. There are pictures of her around the house; they still follow her former orphanage on social media; they pray for her and her new family regularly. She will always be a part of their family’s story, Tara says. 

But there is still an abundance of joy in the everyday, alongside a trust that each child went exactly where they were supposed to. 

“There used to be hard days; now there are hard moments, and each one makes us stronger for the next,” Tara says. “Once we surrounded ourselves with the professionals who want the best for Niky as well as a supportive church family and friends, it was clear that God’s plan was for us to make a difference in Niky’s life, but also for Niky to make a difference in our lives and the lives of so many others.”

A trip that took, indeed ― and gave back a thousand times over.

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.
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