An Addition to the Family

Kirstin with her dad Kirby in Kazakhstan
By Jordan Griffith, Student Programs Media Intern

 

A heartwarming and inspiring story: About two parents and their love for children and how it led to the adoption of three special needs children from around the world, including their second eldest Kristin, who was born with a cleft lip and palate in Kazakhstan, Russia. Kristin and her family are the second guests to be featured in our “Beyond the Smile” month spotlight.

 Mr.Daras first came to my attention when I was looking for an advisor for my own Operation Smile high school club. After hearing his story I knew he was the perfect person for the role. He was able to give a perspective I was unable to give our members, and I know they appreciated it as much as I did. I never would have imagined that by starting an Operation Smile club in a small county in Virginia would lead to the discovery of two people’s amazing stories. If you haven’t read Daniel’s story yet, click here to learn more.

Mr.Daras and his wife always knew they wanted more children after having their first son. After Mr. Daras was deployed for two years due to the 9/11 attacks, they came to the conclusion that it was finally time to make an addition to the family. Little did they know it would lead them all the way to Kazakhstan.

Mr. Daras explained Kristin’s adoption process as “particularly difficult”. For the reason being the U.S wanted proof of Mr.Daras’ identity. This involved lots of paperwork, fingerprinting, talking to congressmen he had met while serving in the army, and then going to the local police station in Atlanta, Georgia, where he was posted at the time. He believed that the lengthy process was the result of the political tension the U.S. had with the former Soviet Union. However, with everything in order, Mr. Daras and his wife went to Kazakhstan and visited the orphanage where Kristin was living. Having played with Kristin for a few minutes, the Daras family decided they wanted to spend more time with her. After watching her try on all the pretty dresses they bought her, they decided to bring her back to the States.

When the trial court hearing was set, Mr.Daras learned that Kristen had a cleft palate that was not repaired, in addition to her recently repaired cleft lip. Mr. Daras spent four weeks in Russia as a result of this. Mr. Daras and little Kristin traveled to Albany, where Australian doctors repaired Kristin’s palate. Immediately following her recovery from surgery, her adoption was finalized and the Daras’ were able to take their daughter home.

After returning to the USA, the Daras’ noticed Kristin was having difficulties in school, so they took her to a doctor where she was diagnosed with a learning disability. She also had hearing loss as a result of her cleft, which led to her needing hearing aids, speech therapy, and dental care. Following the cleft palate repair, Kristin underwent five to six more surgeries, mostly involving orthodontics. In the past, Kristin wore a number of retainers, but because she forgot to wear them, her teeth didn’t develop as expected. Braces are now helping to correct Kristin’s teeth’ alignment.

Due to her newly discovered learning disability, Kristin was enrolled in special education classes. As a result of her lack of English and shyness, the Daras’ said it was difficult to communicate with her initially as well. The problem was they didn’t know how to help her when she was afraid of not understanding them and vice versa. As a result, she also struggled at school but once she began to learn English and received help from her speech therapist, she developed a new level of confidence. Due to her learning disability, Mr. Daras had several meetings with the school about not challenging her enough with her studies. He said, “that was what she needed to grow, so she could believe in herself.”

After serving in the U.S. Army for 21 years, Mr. Daras was inspired by his children to become a special education teachers. As a father who has seen his children struggle, he expressed the desire to be that support for not only them, but also other children and their parents. Special education is a rewarding field, but it requires dedicated people. In his previous schools, Mr. Daras did not receive much assistance when it came to meeting the needs of the students. Mr. Daras has now relocated to a new school where his staff supports him and his students.

As for Kristin, she is now 24 years old and has been helping local facilities in her area during the pandemic.

What is one thing you wish others realized about cleft conditions?

Mr.Daras emphasizes that he wants people to know it is not just the ascetic. Most people hear cleft and their first assumption is a cleft lip. It’s not just what appears on the outside. He also wishes that more people understood how long the process is for treating cleft conditions. It’s not a one-and-done. It’s usually several surgeries. Finally, he wishes that people wouldn’t assume just because someone has a learning disability, or has to do things another way that it means you treat them differently than you would your friend for instance.

What is something you want people to take away after hearing your story?

Mr. Daras encourages everyone to be a part of anything bigger than themselves, that’s how you find your purpose he said. By educating yourself on an issue you are helping someone out there you may not know and they may not know you, but your effort and contribution will never go unnoticed.

Jordan is a Student Programs’ media intern and president of Virginia Tech’s Operation Smile chapter. She has been involved with Operation Smile for almost six years; she first learned about the organization through one of her best friends when she lived in Southern California. Since then, she has found a passion for assisting others and engaging with individuals who share an interest in being leaders in their communities.