Reece’s Rainbow Report #46: Nelms Family

Tiffany Nelms has never followed a normal life path.

“My mom raised me to do what I wanted,” she says. “If it was something I wanted to accomplish, I just did it.” To that end, she traveled the world in young adulthood, studying abroad and falling in love especially with Central and South America. 

“Colombia, at the time, was one of my favorite places,” says Nelms. In her early 30s, she found herself single but very much wanting children. So she began exploring international special needs adoption, initially committing to a boy in Russia. She had never really known anyone who had adopted, but why shouldn’t she? 

The Russian adoption ban at the end of 2012, of course, halted Nelms in her tracks. Heartbreakingly, her hoped-for son eventually passed away in an adult institution. 

Yet her desire to adopt and mother a child who desperately needed her remained. It stayed steady even after a few friends and relatives questioned her sanity. “Why are you doing this? You’re ruining your chance to get married!” they protested. Still, she pressed onward. 

Nelms learned that Colombia’s international adoption program is very single mom-friendly. Her adoption agency began sending her plenty of profiles of waiting children. All were cute, but none felt right. 

That is, until she saw a photograph of “Pepe,” an eight-year-old boy with Williams syndrome. 

“I don’t know even know what it was,” Nelms says. “I just knew immediately that he was my kid.” 

Williams syndrome is a developmental disorder that affects several areas of the body, including facial features, blood vessels and the heart. It often comes with learning delays but also makes the affected person incredibly sociable and musical. Nelms soon found that “Pepe,” who was really Elias, was all that and more. 

“He has a good sense of humor, is very friendly and has lots of friends,” she says. “He’s fun and a good kid.” 

Nelms brought Elias home to Virginia in 2015. The transition, his new mom says, was surprisingly easy, made so in part by his excellent Colombian foster mothers. 

“It’s really important to be well-prepared for all the things that adopted kids might experience, and it’s true that my lifestyle changed significantly overnight,” she says. “But he adapted really well when I brought him home, because he had been really well taken care of by his foster mothers. You could see it in the pictures and little mementoes from his life they sent with him that Elias had always been with people who cared about him in foster care.”  

In the years after Elias and Nelms became a family, she gave birth to two more sons. Ruben, now age three, has Down Syndrome, meaning that Julian, age five, is the only Nelms child without a disability.

“People might think I’ve ruined Julian’s life [by giving him siblings with special needs], but I think his brothers make him a better, more compassionate person,” she says. “He’s just kind and understanding.” 

These days, the little family of four calls West Virginia home. Nelms is the program director at a social service program for unaccompanied children, most of them arriving from Central America. 

It’s one of the multiple reasons why she is still passionate about Elias’ homeland. Nelms, now 41 and fluent in Spanish, makes it a point to keep the family connected to Colombian culture. Elias, at nearly 17, also has had many schoolmates who spoke Spanish as their first language, like him. 

“I think not having that barrier with me and his new community really helped to support his transition,” she says. “It wasn’t such a drastic change to him like completely losing his culture and country, because he still had that language connection.” 

As is typical with Williams syndrome, Elias, a freshman in high school, excels in the social arena but sometimes struggles with academics. Real-life progress, however, happens constantly — including his growing ability to operate independently. 

Nelms lists off her oldest’s latest accomplishments: “He rides his bike by himself around the block. He’s learning to make himself a snack and wash his own clothes. He wants to have his own apartment, he wants to work, he wants to have a girlfriend.” 

Sometimes, Elias’ desire for independence leads to some heart-stopping situations. Nelms is often busy with online meetings for her work-from-home job, meaning that the teenager knows just the right time to mischievously get into trouble. 

“A few times he’s nearly caught the house on fire,” Nelms laughs. “He’s smart and probably thinks, ‘I’ll wait to use the microwave until she’s in a meeting’ and keeps increasing the time until something starts burning.” 

Their days are full of Special Olympics practices, medical appointments, family time and brutally honest laughter (“You need to eat more salad,” Elias will joke as he pats Nelms’ stomach). There are hard days, especially when seeing that other kids his age have already achieved much of that longed-for independence. 

But there are far more happy days — so much so that Nelms often forgets that two of her sons even have disabilities. And when she remembers, it’s for a positive reason, like when Elias approached a homeless bucket-drummer in Baltimore to give him a hug. 

“He sees everybody as the same,” she says. “It gave me pause, like, if only we could all be like that.” Seeing people for who they are and loving them where they’re at — that would certainly be an abnormal path for most in today’s world.

But if Elias has learned anything from his forever mama, it’s that making your own way often leads to the most beautiful destinations.

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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