If Greg and Gina Altenburg include a review of 2012 with their Christmas cards, it may not be a letter. So much has happened in their lives that it might take a small paperback to tell the story – a story of love, patience and faith in God.
After Gina suffered her first miscarriage in 2010 – the year after they were married, the couple did not accept doctors’ recommendations to do in vitro fertilization, opting instead to try international adoption. But the process, its expense and the time needed to go to a foreign country made it prohibitive for the Altenburgs.
“We wanted a baby that wouldn’t otherwise have a good home and might be more difficult to place. So then we just started talking about special needs,” said Gina, who has taught children with special needs for 18 years – the last 13 in the Whitefish Bay School System. Her best friend has a child, Caleb, with Down syndrome, so Greg also had an opportunity to see “some of the joys and challenges” that a special needs child brings.
Familiar with the National Down Syndrome Adoption Network in Cincinnati, they contacted the organization about adopting a child with Down syndrome in early 2011. When Gina got pregnant, they put the process on hold. However, five weeks later, she suffered another miscarriage. By September 2011, the NDSAN had completed a home study of the Altenburgs.
Hope, disappointment, joy
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Several times the couple thought they had been matched with a baby, only to learn the birth mother had changed her mind about giving the child up, or some other complication had prevented their adopting a baby.
“I had a harder time dealing with it than (Greg) did. It felt like forever to wait. I was constantly checking emails. It was rough. I hardly remember it,” Gina said. “Wondering ‘When?’ was the biggest question.”
The Altenburgs found comfort in what they heard from their social worker.
“She told us, ‘Your baby finds you.’ Two other friends adopted and that’s what they said, too. That was helpful,” Gina said.
Their daughter almost didn’t find them.
“The birth mother already had a family that was going to adopt Gracyn,” Greg said. “They found out she had Down syndrome, and they went the other direction. They didn’t want anything to do with Gracyn. That’s why it happened a little faster than it typically does. We were called on Thursday (Jan. 12) and (were) driving to Ohio on Saturday (Jan. 14).”
While the parents of the birth mother hoped the adoptive parents would have lived closer, they were pleased to learn something else about Greg and Gina.
“They were relieved that we were (Catholic),” she said. “They were very happy about that.”
The couple plan to join St. Eugene Parish, Fox Point, and have their children baptized there.
‘She’s one of us’
Initially, adoption was not an easy decision for Greg.
“I struggled with adoption in the very beginning. I think it’s the man … the woman is more nurturing. The man – it’s my blood line…. I was having kind of hard time with the adoption at first – just adoption in general,” he said. “And then I thought about it a little more, talked about it a little more, argued a little more about it….”
That period of doubt passed.
“We went out and went through this. She’s one of us. I don’t even look at her like that (as someone else’s). I thought I would; I thought I would look at her as not blood related. I don’t even look at her like that,” Greg said. “I thought I was going to have difficulties with that, but I’d protect her no matter what in any shape or form.”
While receiving and adapting to life with Gracyn occupied much of the first part of the year for the Altenburgs, the last few months have been filled with transitions.
When they outgrew their Milwaukee condo, for which they found renters, they purchased a house in Fox Point and moved in September. Greg changed jobs, becoming an employee of the FedEx contractor to whom he had sold his business, and …
“I’m pregnant!” said Gina when the couple was interviewed in August. She added that while she hadn’t made it past five weeks in her two pregnancies, they had just received a 12-week check up and heard their son’s heartbeat. He is scheduled to arrive near the end of February.
They still have concerns.
“There is higher risk for Down syndrome because of my age, but we’re not going to do the screening,” Gina, 40, said. “Whatever happens, happens.”
They see the hand of God in their growing family.
“It was God’s will that we had to have her, I feel that for sure,” she said about adopting Gracyn, who will be 1 on Jan. 10. “Now she needs a sibling. It’ll be great for her to have a sibling close in age.”
The Altenburgs hope their son will look after his sister as they get older.
“We’re dealing with financial advisors,” Greg, 41, explained. “We’re establishing a special needs trust. You have to designate trustees. You have to do homework on your family in terms of who you think is going to be responsible. Here, we’ll have someone closer to her age.”
Yet Greg and Gina do not want Gracyn to become entirely dependent on help from others.
“I want her to be able to live on her own, to be self-sufficient. That’s my goal and Gina’s,” he said. “We want to get her to a level where she knows what’s going on so people don’t take advantage of her when she gets older, to make sure she knows to say no or to make a decision for herself.”
Gina added, “We’re going to push her to be independent in everything.”
Importance of faith, family
Greg credited Gina’s “large and loving family” as the reason they have Gracyn, whose adoption was finalized in the courtroom of Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge John J. DiMotto on Tuesday, Nov. 20.
“That’s why she’s in our arms now. God sees that, knowing that there are so many people who would care for her if anything would happen to us,” he said, noting that Gina’s aunts and uncles looked after Gracyn when Gina returned to teaching in spring. “That plays a huge role. If it was just my family alone, all spread out, it wouldn’t work. If Gina had a smaller family, it would have been very difficult.”
Gina said a mother of one of her students was good with children so she approached her about taking care of Gracyn a couple of days per week.
“(This mother) was talking about a homily she had heard at church in which a woman was up in heaven, and all these gifts were around that had her name on them. She was in the waiting room and asked about the gifts. ‘Those were all the gifts you were given by God but that you never opened’ she is told,” Gina said. “This mom said to me, ‘Gracyn is my gift; I need to do this.’”
There is no doubt in the Altenburgs’ minds that God is working in their lives.
“With God and Gracyn, we’re making up for years of partying and being rowdy, and now God has given us this girl to take care of, and he realizes we are good, nurturing people. And I realize that myself now. I never thought I really could be,” Greg said. “But God is looking over us and looking over little Gracyn.”
For those who are trying to adopt, and who wonder if it will ever happen, Gina has advice.
“It does happen. Your baby finds you. That I feel more than anything. She was so meant to be ours.”