Warren family named Easter Seals ambassadors

Parents join their adopted children to address childhood trauma through LUNA program

By: Brian Louwers | C&G Newspapers | Published February 18, 2016


WARREN — For newborns and young children, a warm and loving home where they are nurtured and cared for is the foundation for healthy physical and emotional development early in life.

That certainly wasn’t what Gabby and Duncan Smith experienced when they were born, or as they grew as infants and toddlers in Russian orphanages.

Their adoptive parents, Laurel and Steve Smith, of Warren, said the children were negatively affected by early-life trauma. The family is now participating in Easter Seals of Michigan’s “Look, Uncover, Nurture, Act” program, an initiative aimed at addressing childhood trauma and creating positive intervention for children and teens negatively affected by it.

The Smith family has also been named Easter Seals of Michigan’s Ambassadors of the Year for 2016.

“I initially contacted them last May for the LUNA program. The kids’ testing was in August and September,” Laurel Smith said. “They gave us very, very comprehensive testing so that we knew what direction to go with the kids as far as therapies.

“My kids really connected with the people there. We’ve met with other therapists and doctors. The more clinical setting was off-putting for the kids. They really connected well (with the LUNA program). It was kind of like, if my kids are connecting well, that’s going to really help them.”

Gabby and Duncan, now 13 and 12, respectively, weren’t born sister and brother. They were born in Russia’s Kaliningrad Oblast, an exclave on the Baltic Sea, north of Poland and west of Lithuania.

When the Smiths adopted them in 2004, they were living in separate orphanages. Gabby was 2 years old, yet she weighed just 15 pounds. She weighed only 10 pounds at 8 months, when her single mother left her at the hospital.

“She was about the size of a thin 4-month-old when she came here,” Laurel Smith said. “She could run, babble and climb things, but she was wearing zero-to-4-months clothes.”

She said Duncan was left at the maternity hospital by his mother, who already had three boys and apparently felt she couldn’t afford a fourth. For a baby, the conditions in the orphanage nursery certainly weren’t optimal.

“They (the orphanages) were both clean, but they only had one worker for 12 kids,” Laurel Smith said. “Duncan, being 8 1/2 months old, was not mobile. They had him on a linoleum floor in like five layers, and he couldn’t bend. They made their bottles in the morning and just left them on the counter.”

Years later, Laurel said both Gabby and Duncan have grown to become “amazing” kids.

Still, as a result of their experiences, they’ve been presented with a variety of challenges that the family continues to address.

“They just exemplified, from a variety of ways, the need, and how childhood stress and trauma affects kids,” said Brent Wirth, president and CEO of Easter Seals of Michigan. “It comes out in a lot of different ways in the kids’ development. I think that the kids and their parents, they’re at a point where the family is certainly interested in breaking through and trying to find the right services to help their kids.

“The children are very vocal about where they came from and where they’re going, and they’re excited about getting healthier,” Wirth added.

Laurel Smith said Gabby and Duncan will be the program’s true ambassadors as they continue to grow this year.

“They’re the two that are representing Easter Seals. Steve and I are kind of in the background,” she said. “Easter Seals has really just done a great job of helping us learn to help our kids more.”

According to statistics provided by Easter Seals of Michigan, children who experience trauma are three times more likely to develop depression or serious employment problems.

They are also four times more likely to become alcohol dependent and 15 times more likely to die by suicide.

The LUNA program is supported by a $4.1 million grant from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.

All Macomb County families are eligible to participate in the LUNA program, which begins with a free online assessment. The free screening tool is available at www.lunamodel.org.

Appointments can be made by visiting the Easter Seals of Michigan Service Center at 6900 E. 10 Mile Road) in Center Line.

For more information, call (800) 75-SEALS.