In a photo she shared on her Facebook page, Jennifer Hays smiles brightly as she holds two squirming babies. “I am literally holding in my arms the answers to so many prayers,” she wrote, describing her daughter, Ava Joye, and her son, Harvey Ross.
Since Harvey was born almost a year after Jennifer and her husband, Matt, adopted Ava, the two have been inseparable – Harvey, at 18 months, blond and blue-eyed and long-legged like his daddy, and Ava, whose thick black hair is almost as long as she is tall and who wears little lilac-colored glasses.
Ava was born in California to Chinese parents. After her birth parents learned that their baby would have multiple physical abnormalities, the family traveled to the United States on legal visas prior to her birth in order to get the medical attention she needed. They intended to deliver the baby and return to China, but they felt that Ava’s special needs were too severe to be treated there.
Meanwhile, in the fall of 2017, Jennifer and Matt, who had tried for a couple of years to have a baby of their own, were approved quickly through Special Angels Adoption to become adoptive parents. They weren’t specifically looking to adopt a child with special needs, but when they saw two pictures of tiny, 1-month-old Ava, just before Christmas that year, they fell in love with her.
“She fell in our lap,” Jennifer says. “We didn’t have to search. We’d been praying for it for so long.”
The couple flew from McCalla to California, met Ava’s parents and proceeded with an adoption that gives both sets of parents an open relationship. “They visit every birthday,” says Jennifer.
When they adopted her, the couple knew that Ava was missing her left femur but had no idea about her many other medical issues. Jennifer explains that Ava was born with no hip sockets; her left leg is frozen at a 90-degree angle; she lacks muscle tone below her waist; she has many vertebrae abnormalities; she must be fed through a J-tube in her stomach; and she has a heart condition. She sees “at least 25 specialists,” says Jennifer, and she faces many surgeries and unknowns.
Despite all that, Ava is thriving in the loving environment her parents have provided for her – especially since the birth of her younger brother, Harvey, who came as a surprise to Jennifer and Matt. A month after they brought Ava home from California, they found out Jennifer was pregnant. Harvey has been a “huge blessing” to his parents and to Ava.
During her first year, Ava seemed like a serious baby who would stare intensely. She was probably just taking it all in, because now her spunky, sassy personality has emerged. “Harvey has helped with that,” says Jennifer. “She’s much more animated now. They really are bff’s. Obviously, she’s older than him, but physically they’re like two peas in a pod. They adore each other.”
As her little brother achieves milestones like eating solid food, rolling over and crawling, Ava seems determined to follow. Once, Jennifer and Matt were told that Ava probably wouldn’t be able to sit up because of her lack of muscular strength and balance. This past fall, she started crawling, and recently Ava shocked everyone when she pulled herself up onto a walker and started walking, a huge smile on her face. “We thought she couldn’t walk, but she could,” Jennifer says. “I cried and cried.”
Her speech has picked up recently, too. A favorite phrase is, “Walk, please?”
For now, Ava’s medical team is in a wait-and-see mode regarding treatment for her abnormalities and the possibility of prosthetic legs in the future, Jennifer says. “She’s surpassing everything they thought was possible,” she says. “It’s like, ‘Let’s wait and see what Ava can do.’
“She still has a lot ahead of her,” she says. “The beautiful thing is, she was born this way. This is her normal, and she just makes the best of it.”
On her Facebook page, where Jennifer often posts updates on Ava’s progress, she once wrote: “I see it as a privilege to be Ava’s advocate when she cannot be. I see it as a privilege to make sure that she has every possible opportunity in life to succeed. I see it as a privilege to love her. I do not take this lightly.”
Whatever is ahead for Ava, her mom will be there to support her. “I hope she has a healthy life and that she’s able to do everything she sets her mind to do,” Jennifer says.
On Facebook, she often refers to her daughter as “a warrior” who’s “small but mighty” and “moving mountains.” “Daily, she hits obstacles, but she keeps fighting! Nothing will stop her!” she wrote proudly.
One day, Jennifer hopes to take Ava to China, to show people her amazing progress. “I would love for them to see that these lives are valuable, and God doesn’t make mistakes.”
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This story was first published on AL.com.