Reece’s Rainbow Report #48: Guarino Family

Maria is delightful but does have an aggressive side to her.” 

Nancy Guarino considered the woman’s emailed words carefully. Was Guarino crazy, even just a little, for considering international special needs adoption at her age and in her life circumstances? 

Yes, she was successfully parenting her son Nicky, who had Down syndrome, as a divorcee. And she had a huge heart overflowing with love for children who needed a mother. But Guarino was in her mid-50s and worked full-time. And now she was considering adding a 12-year-old Bulgarian girl with Down syndrome to the mix — one who had been turned down by multiple prospective families for aggressive behaviors. 

“I thought, okay, I’ve seen some crazy behaviors with my son, so maybe something that someone else would consider aggressive for them might not be aggressive for me,” Guarino says. “Let me just consider her.” 

That was in 2014. That one-time consideration of the girl once known as “Margit” on Reece’s Rainbow has turned into a delightful mother-daughter relationship between Maria, now 22 and Guarino, an IT manager for the city of Philadelphia. 

“She is bubbling with personality now,” says Guarino, 64. “All those signs of aggression really diminished shortly after she was home, and within a few months, I stopped seeing any sort of aggressive behaviors.”

Blame it all on Nicky, now age 29. It was the experience of raising him that opened Guarino’s eyes to the idea of taking on another. She first looked into domestic adoption of a child with Down syndrome but began considering international programs upon the suggestion of someone at the National Down Syndrome Adoption Network. So she searched the term “international Down syndrome adoption” on the internet, and Reece’s Rainbow popped up. 

Guarino wanted an older child, given her own age, and spent weeks agonizing over the profiles of approximately a dozen boys. After all, she already had one son, so wouldn’t another make sense? But for some reason, the idea that a girl would be better wouldn’t leave her alone. So she looked and found Maria from Bulgaria, an older-parent-friendly nation. 

Maria started making her mark on the Guarino home before the car was even put in park. 

“I so vividly remember Nicky and Maria sitting in the backseat on the way home from the airport, and they were already singing and playing in the backseat,” she says. “Maria was just so happy to be out in the world and not behind the institutional walls that had been her 24/7 life.” 

That doesn’t mean that everything was lollipops and roses. Maria’s vocabulary included several obscenities — and she wasn’t afraid to use them, frequently. She defied her new mother on occasion, as any pre-teen will do. She also had to learn how to express her emotions in gentler ways.

But there was progress and success — so much so that Guarino began dreaming of adopting again. How could she forget the children left behind at Maria’s institution? 

“I always say if I had been younger when I started that I’m sure I would have adopted more,” Guarino says. Even so, she knew she had it in her for one more. In 2017, she returned to Bulgaria for 14-year-old Niko, code-named “Mikale” on Reece’s Rainbow. Like his siblings, Niko, now 20, also has a third copy of his 21st chromosome. 

“He really is a sweetheart and wants to please,” Guarino says. “Him and Nicky are the best buds ever and get along wonderfully.” 

Before the Nicky and Niko show, however, came a tough-but-right decision. Guarino flew to Bulgaria the year before adopting Niko to meet a boy named Kayden. If he was a good fit for the family, she would accept his referral. 

But then Kayden punched Guarino, knocking her tooth loose. 

“I knew in my circumstances, being a single parent, already having Maria and Nicky, having to rely on outside services to be with my children while I was working, that the issue of physical aggression was going to be a really difficult challenge,” she remembers. So she turned down the referral, realizing that she could not give Kayden everything he needed. 

It was a poignant reminder that just as Maria was meant for her and not the families who rejected her referral, Kayden was not supposed to be a Guarino. And that was okay. 

Guarino still thinks about Kayden, of course. But she rests secure in the knowledge that her three children are thriving under her care. Their days are replete with laughter — “delightful chaos,” she calls it — and constant reminders of what Guarino could have missed out on. 

“When everything feels wrong in the world, I can spend one minute with my children and it all feels right again,” she says. “It’s so rewarding to see them and the changes that have happened, to see how well they’re doing.” 

The family of four spends their summers on the New Jersey shore, where Maria is the unofficial mayor of their street. People specifically drive by their house just to see her dancing on the porch. The trio delights over their time at the beach and in the water, happy to just be in each other’s presence. 

Their mother takes it all in, well aware that the fear of what-if back in 2014 could have prevented this scene from ever happening. “Having these three with me to share my life’s journey…they just give me purpose,” Guarino says. “As much as I can do for them, they give back to me.” 

Aggressively, delightfully so. 

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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