Adopting Older Children Adoption Adoption Stories

Older Child Adoption: An Expert Adopts

Holt’s director of clinical services — Celeste Snodgrass — shares about adopting her son Max from Thailand at 9 years old. While an adoption expert by profession, Celeste affirms that no older-child adoption goes perfectly smoothly. But it’s the perfect option for many families, and for children who have been waiting so long.

“Are you hungry?” Celeste asked her son, Max.


“Are you hungry?” he asked her back, slowly.

“No. But are you hungry?” Celeste asked him again.

“No. But are you hungry?” he repeated back to her again. This exchange happened every mealtime, and in between, for the first three days that 9-year-old Max was home from Thailand.

Weird, Celeste thought. He must not be hungry. Maybe it was the new-to-him American food, the jetlag … it could be anything. But then she realized. He was hungry.

“What he was trying to say is ‘I am hungry.’ But what I was telling him is, ‘No, you can’t have food!’ This was such an awesome parenting moment for me,” Celeste says, laughing, a tone of sarcasm in her voice.

Celeste Snodgrass is Holt’s director of clinical services, and in October 2017, she and her husband, John, adopted 9-year-old Max from Thailand. An adoption expert by profession, Celeste is the first one to say that no parent is perfect, and that adopting an older child has a unique set of challenges. But she knows, without a doubt, it was the right move for her family.

While still in Thailand, the Snodgrass family visited an elephant sanctuary!

Celeste and John had considered adoption for years. But they didn’t feel the timing was right until about three years ago, when both their work schedules lightened up a bit — and their two biological children had also grown older and more independent.

They decided to adopt an older child, which in the adoption world is any child over the age of about 2 or 3. 

“We were older parents,” Celeste says. But this wasn’t the only reason they decided to adopt an older child. As someone who had devoted her life to helping children join loving families, Celeste had developed a heart for one particular group of kids — the kids who wait longest.

“I always knew [we’d adopt from the waiting child photolisting],” Celeste says. While the needs of kids on the photolisting vary, she knew that so many of them have special or medical needs that are truly no big deal.

“Maybe they have a medical condition that is really hard to treat in their country of origin, but here, it could be handled,” she says. “Or maybe they’re just an older kid.” With this perspective, both she and John felt confident moving forward.

“None of it scared us, I guess,” she says.

Celeste has worked at Holt for over 14 years. Today, as Holt’s clinical services director, she provides adoption-competent counseling, therapy and support to adoptive families and adoptees at every step of the adoption process and beyond. But when she and her husband started the adoption process three years ago, Celeste worked as an adoption social worker in her home state of South Dakota. She completed families’ homestudies, helped throughout the matching process and guided families through all of their adoption paperwork.

In her role, which included helping to match waiting children with the best family based on their specific needs, she became very familiar with all of the children on Holt’s waiting child photolisting. And one day, while scrolling through the photos and short descriptions of children waiting for families, she paused when she came to Max.

“His face. His little smile — oh, he was cute. When we read about him, we were like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s nothing,’” Celeste says, referring to the special needs highlighted in his profile. “He was an older child, but there was nothing in his history that was scary.”

‘We can handle it,’ she and John remember thinking.

Holt had been searching for the right family for Max for over a year. And finally, just three weeks shy of his tenth birthday, he came home to the Snodgrass family. This is when the adventure really began.

“I think one of the biggest things to remember with older child adoption is that kids have culture shock!” Celeste says. “If their family can keep this in the forefront of their mind — that this child is going through a huge transition and huge amount of grief without a trusted person — then they can hopefully continue to approach the child with compassion and understanding.”

For Max and the Snodgrasses, the efforts they took to help ease Max into their family and his life in the U.S. took a lot of different forms.

Before Max even came home, Celeste made for him a series of photo books so he could familiarize himself with his adoptive family and new life in the U.S. Each book contained information about their home, family, weather and more, and each one increased in detail as the time came closer for him to come home.

Once he came home to South Dakota, one of the first things they did was visit an Asian market. “He visibly relaxed,” Celeste says, “and purchased nearly all the food in the store!”

Max had never slept in a room — or even a bed — by himself before, so at first, he shared a room with his brother Bobby. Over time, Max transitioned to his own room, but still falls asleep with their family’s big black Goldendoodle snuggled up against him.

Max falls asleep every night snuggling the family dog.

In addition, Max has started creating a lifebook — a digital scrapbook of sorts that helps him connect his life in Thailand with his new life in the U.S.

As an adoption professional, Celeste knew a lot about what to expect when adopting an older child. But that doesn’t mean that the process and transition has been perfect.

Between the language barrier, cultural differences, past trauma and more, older-child adoption presents unique challenges — and major changes — for every older adopted child and his or her family.

For nearly ten years — his entire life — Max lived in Thailand. He lived first with his birth mother, then at an orphanage for a couple of years, then back with his birth mother for a time, then in a foster home for several more years before joining the Snodgrass family.

Finalizing Max's adoption.

And as a 10-year-old coming to the U.S. for the first time, there’s a lot to get used to.

“Bathrooms are tough,” Celeste says, recalling the very first hurdles of culture shock her son experienced in the U.S. Max was used to squatty potties, no indoor plumbing, and taking a “shower” with a bucket of collected rainwater while still partially clothed on the street in front of his foster home or orphanage.

“These,” Celeste says, “the activities of daily living that are just so different — they were just huge things to adjust to for him.” Just as it would be, she said, if anyone from the U.S. were to go to Thailand and try to navigate the very same everyday activities.

Then, of course, there’s the language barrier — a challenge that Celeste says she doesn’t know how children and families overcame before technology like Google Translate!

“He’s still learning,” Celeste says today, almost a year and a half since Max came home. But the learning process has required their entire family coming around Max to support him. “It’s a constant explaining of why we’re doing this, why we’re going somewhere, why you can’t do this, or should do this,” she says.

Max exploring the family's lake house.

In the process, they’ve encountered countless concepts that go beyond the syntax of language. Concepts that fall more in the category of cultural differences — such as why it’s important to wear a seatbelt — that require a lot of extra explaining to a child for whom it is completely new.

“All children come to us with a history,” Celeste says. “And this is something that all parents of older-adopted children need to understand and implement in their parenting.”

For Celeste, this means that she is “Mom Number Three” — as Max calls her. Max has years’ worth of memories of living with his birth mother, Mom Number One, and his foster mother, Mom Number Two.

“So we get to share him,” Celeste says. “And that’s totally OK.”  

Max still writes letters to his foster mom, and as a family, they talk openly about the important people in his past.

“It’s our job to honor who they are,” Celeste says, “and help them grow into fully functioning members of society.”

While adopting an older child requires flexibility and openness and unconditional love through what can be a difficult transition, it’s not as scary as most parents might initially think. Because more than anything, what older-adopted kids need is consistency, care and the love of a family.

Max being his silly an goofy self.

Adopting an older child isn’t always easy, and it is always a transition. But it’s one that is well worth it. Over the year and a half that Max has been home, it’s been a joy for the Snodgrasses to see his personality come out more as he grows more and more comfortable as part of the family.

“Max is a goofy kid,” Celeste says, “his laugh is the greatest.” 

Adopting Older Children Adoption Adoption Stories Special Needs Adoption

Letting Love Win: A Down Syndrome Adoption Story

When Jade and David Presnell felt called to adopt an older boy with Down syndrome, they learned to overcome their fears — and let love win.

Sometimes, all it takes is a sleepless night scrolling through social media to change your life forever.

Well, at least that’s how it happened for us.


I had been following the Facebook page of Reece’s Rainbow — an advocacy organization dedicated to finding families for children with Down syndrome and other special needs — for many years. I always felt drawn to these children, largely because of my work as a behavioral clinician supporting adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

Occasionally, I would check their waiting child photolisting and scroll through photos of amazing, resilient children waiting to be united with their forever families.

Micah with his parents on their adoption day in China.

One random night in July when sleep was hard to come by, I scrolled through the photolisting and felt “something” when I saw the picture of an adorable Chinese boy wearing a yellow T-shirt, denim shorts and a large, mischievous grin. Though still gawking over his cuteness, I ignored that “something,” shut off my phone and went to bed.

Except when I woke up the next morning, that “something” came back. So I returned to the photolisting and took a screen shot of his picture. Not knowing why or for what reason.

For the next two weeks, I found myself looking at that photo daily. Unbeknownst to my husband, David, I would cry every morning while getting ready — thinking of this precious boy, Micah, with the mischievous grin, and of all the other precious children in China waiting to find the security and love of a family. THEIR very OWN family.


When people say that God “calls” them to do something, I always imagined it to be a gentle nudge — a sweet, tender hand on the shoulder urging you forward, steady and loving. But for us, it felt a little more uncertain and unsettling — scary even.

We questioned if we were ready to be parents, how our families would respond to our decision, could we come up with the necessary funding, and whether we were truly capable of providing the best possible life for an adopted child, particularly one with unique needs. To be transparent, adoption had come up occasionally over the years, but we had never sat down and had a real discussion about it.

But the more we prayed and opened our hearts to this child, the more we knew that we could not ignore this part of God’s plan for us. We pushed aside our fears, worries and uncertainties and moved forward in trust and faith.

It was the best decision we ever made.


Fast forward and our sweet son, Micah, has been a part of our family for five months now and it has been the most incredible adventure! Micah is so full of light and love. He has changed our lives for the better and the hearts of all of those who know him. He is incredibly loved by our families and friends. He is full of joy and laughter. He works hard and loves to help others. Micah is a warrior, a comedian, a helper, an empath, a learner, a mover and a lover of all.

“When we think about Micah’s future, we feel an incredible sense of excitement for what is to come and the successes and joys that he will experience.”

He is truly our most precious gift. He also just happens to have an extra chromosome! Down Syndrome is an integral part of who Micah is, but it’s not the whole part. Every day, his strength, capabilities and resiliency shine bright. And at the end of the day, he’s just like any other 5-year-old kid — strong-willed and fighting for just a few more minutes of his favorite show before bedtime.

Micah helping his mom pot flowers.

In hindsight, the seed for special needs adoption had been planted years earlier. Investing our lives and careers in education (David) and mental health (me) has naturally led us to have hearts for service, but most importantly people.

Special needs adoption just seemed to be a natural extension of all the things we valued and worked so hard to advocate for in our community — human worth and dignity, respect for all people, social justice, human rights, and the importance and value of relationships. And when the timing was right, that seed sprouted and our special needs adoption journey unfolded.

It doesn’t take an extraordinary person or people to adopt. It just takes love, perseverance and patience — like ALL great things. I am thankful for a God whose plan is bigger, better and more incredible than anything we could ever imagine. Adoption is so special, but it doesn’t take special people to adopt — only imperfect, faith-filled people who are willing to take a chance at something magical.

Micah with his dad in their first few weeks together in China.

We strongly encourage other families to not shy away from special needs adoption! What you don’t know or understand, you will learn. What skills you lack, you will gain. What fears you have will be erased when you pray and seek the support of others, especially those who have made a similar journey. In fact, our support system has grown tenfold since we brought our son home.

And the funding, whatever you do, do not let this deter you.

God will provide in the most miraculous ways. He will bring in the funds to you through amazing family, friends, agency grants, fundraisers and even complete strangers. Most importantly, please remember that ALL of the scary stuff will fade away the day you meet your child and look into their eyes for the first time.

Micah playing in the snow for the first time!
Micah playing in the snow for the first time!

Without hesitation, growing our family through adoption has been the most incredible journey of our lives. Our faith has been strengthened in so many ways. There is not a day that goes by that we do not feel humbled and grateful for the people that loved so big on us as we worked to bring our son home — and that still do today.

There is also not a day that goes by that we are not in awe of our son. He began attending preschool for the first time in November at 5 years old and is thriving. He loves to learn and have fun with his friends. He is saying some short English phrases and loves to sing and dance. He loves his family and showers his “mama” and “dada” with hugs and kisses daily.

Micah holding a sign that says, "Extra chromosome! Equals extra awesome!"

When we think about Micah’s future, we feel an incredible sense of excitement for what is to come and the successes and joys that he will experience. Those with Down syndrome continue to break barriers and demonstrate limitless capabilities in the areas of relationship-building, education, employment and independent living.

These individuals are challenging the status quo and changing how we understand “disability.” They are integral to their families and communities, and continue to contribute to the world in meaningful ways. They are showing that they have nothing to prove, that they are valuable and worthy just as they are. And we continue to celebrate that Micah is valuable and worthy just the way he is.

At the end of the day, when we tuck our son into bed under an animal print quilt that was specially made for him when we were still waiting to meet him, we are so thankful that we allowed love — and not fear — to win. Thankful that our son, so fearfully and wonderfully created, finally made it home to us, his forever family.

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