GAUTIER, MS (WLOX) - In a true "Kodak moment," you can see the love in their eyes in a photograph taken exactly one year ago today. It hangs in a young girl's pink princess room in Gautier. It's a photo of Darlena and Andy Stratton holding their little girl for the very first time outside an orphanage in Eastern Europe.
"We actually watched her walk across the grass to us," Darlena Stratton remembered. "And it was almost like as soon as she saw us, it hit her. She jumped in our arms and it was smiles from then on out."
Seven-year-old Ivanna Stratton was born with Down Syndrome in the Ukraine and was given up at birth. In many countries, special needs children are a stigma.
"Basically, they're embarrassed, and they would rather give them up than face that," Stratton said. "And when they're put in the orphanages, they have to strap them to their beds. The back of Ivanna's head is flat where she laid in a crib for her entire life."
There they are left unstimulated with no music or books, thought to be unable to learn, communicate or thrive.
"They just stick them in an orphanage and they don't give them a chance to learn, to be independent and to be their own individual."
Just then Ivanna stepped into our camera's view to ask her Mom for a little afterschool chocolate. Her Mom giggled in delight at her excellent ability to communicate her needs and desires.
Looking at this innocent, golden haired, blue eyed angel, you see how quickly she has blossomed in such a short time. The Strattons said within just two weeks, Ivanna began to understand English. Just a year later, she is now fluent in sign language, even giving special names to her three big brothers: Steven, Ryan and Kevin.
In sign language, and with a smile, Ivanna also told the camera, she likes her big, boy brothers and ice cream.
The Strattons found Ivanna through Reece's Rainbow. The adoption ministry was started by the mother of a Down Syndrome child who learned the plight of these precious, lovable children in other countries.
"So far, they have been a non-profit for five years and they have found homes for over 500 orphans in other countries, and it's amazing. And everybody that we run into, they're like, 'Oh, y'all are special people. And we're not special. It's our child and she is such a blessing to us."
It's a blessing the Strattons wish for every family as they dream about adopting even more children like their Princess Ivanna.
Darlena Stratton said with a big infectious smile and laugh, "If we had the funding, we'd do it again yesterday!"
To find out more about the adoption ministry Reece's Rainbow go to reecesrainbow.org.
Even if you are not able to adopt a child with Down Syndrome out of orphanages overseas, you can find out how you can sponsor a local family trying to do just that. The Gulf Coast Down Syndrome Society is also very active in South Mississippi. For support and advocacy information, visit gcdss.org.