Last Christmas, newly adopted Angela Owens sat motionless in her toddler-sized wheelchair, unable to interact with her new family because of her disabilities, which include cerebral palsy and a genetic disorder called 1p36 deletion, which renders her unable to speak.
But a few days ago, the three-year-old accidentally knocked over the family Christmas tree as she tested her little legs on a walker. As her "frazzled" mother tried to grab the tree, she saw that Angela was laughing.
"Those things are just miracles for us because last year, she had no mobility whatsoever," said Karen Owens, who brought Angela home to stay on Dec. 10, 2011. "This year, she's going to steal the show."
Now, Angela can use her hands to communicate with an iPad and she's learning some basic sign language. She even vocalizes a little bit.
Karen and her husband, Adam, have adopted two children with disabilities since their son Gavin died of mitochondrial disease at age 3 in 2009. They didn't want the skills they'd honed taking care of him to go to waste, so they requested to adopt children from the foster care system who had special needs, Karen said.
The Owens brought home the newest addition to their family over the summer, a little boy named Jayden. He has injuries from shaken baby syndrome, and came to the Owens with "broken bones from head to toe." He, too, was introverted back then, but now he's "spunky" like his sister, Karen said.
"He's finally starting to understand what it means to have a mommy," Karen said. "Adam and I feel like we were destined to do this, and Maddy, too."
Maddy is the Owens's firstborn, who is now seven years old. She's embraced her new siblings and doesn't see their disabilities, Karen said.
On Thursday, Maddy posed with her brother and sister for Karen's blog, GavinOwens.com, hanging onto the back of Angela's pink wheelchair and Jayden's green one.
In an older photo on the site, a younger Maddy gives baby Gavin a one-armed hug as he sucks on a pacifier from his throne of medical equipment.
"We always know that someone's missing," Karen said. "But then stepping back and taking a look at our family, it's just amazing. God used the darkest situation to create the most beautiful situation. We hope other people can see the hope."
Six months after Gavin was born in June 2006, he began experiencing intestinal failure, liver dysfunction and pancreatic dysfunction, Karen wrote on the blog. In 2008, he was finally diagnosed with mitochondrial disease, which affects his cells' ability to convert sugar and oxygen into energy. He required up to 10 intravenous fusions at once, several drainage bags, oxygen tubes and more.
"He was a hot mess," Karen said.
The Owens spent most of Gavin's short life with him in the hospital, but they were determined to make the most of it. Eventually, they realized they had to put quality of life before quantity because they knew they couldn't have both. Once or twice, Karen and Adam gathered up all Gavin's equipment and took him to New York City to ride the subways.
"Life was not easy," Karen said. "I always hate to say that because I also want people to know that it didn't matter how difficult it was. We would do it all over again because we loved him so much. But anyway -- it was so, so hard."
A few months after Gavin's death in November 2009, Karen and Adam contacted an adoption agency and told them they would accept anybody. In fact, they would prefer children with special needs because not everyone had the skills they'd learned with Gavin.
About 104,000 foster children nationwide were waiting to be adopted in September 2011, according to the most recent report from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System. Although the report tracks children's ages, genders and other factors, it does not track how many children have disabilities. This is largely because the definition of special needs varies from state to state.
"If you have a good heart, it can work," Karen said. "There are so many kids out there that just need one person to love them. It's an easy choice. It's not an easy life but it's an easy choice."