By Robin Greenspan
Reflecting on being featured at a recent ceremony commemorating the U.S. Postal Service’s adoption stamp, Tammy Tavernia said she and her husband could never have adopted their Romany twins from Slovakia if it hadn’t been for the mail service and the newest form of messaging, the Internet. It also would not have been possible without a social worker who supported Tammy becoming a mother in spite of her having leukemia.
When Tammy Saloomey and Lee Tavernia married about six and a half years ago they were certain they wanted children. Tammy is the eldest of five daughters born to Carol and Ziter Saloomey, who operate Berkshire Home Supply hardware where Tammy worked. The Saloomeys also own Saloomey Construction Company where Lee is employed. The are an established East Otis family and are known for being unusually close.
After about three years of marriage Tammy and Lee planned to start a family, but first they wanted to find out if anything was wrong with Tammy?s health. She hadn’t felt well for months and couldn’t understand why she had gained weight. After a regimen of tests in December of 1997 she was diagnosed as having acute, rapidly progressing leukemia. She and her family were devastated. “It was heart-wrenching,” she said.
There was good news?the leukemia had been caught early, before it had spread to her spine or brain. That meant she didn’t need radiation treatment; she could be treated simply with chemotherapy and if that was successful her prognosis was good.
“Never in a million years did I think that at age 28 I would be getting chemotherapy, but you just deal with the cancer. You have no choice. You look around and you always see someone worse off than yourself,” she said.
Tammy began eleven months of intravenous chemotherapy, which was followed by her current treatment – oral chemotherapy. The treatment was intense. Over a ten month span she spent 67 days at Baystate Hospital in Springfield. Typically she received chemotherapy for five days on and then two days off. She had over fifteen blood transfusions.
The therapy was successful. At a certain point the doctors told her they thought they had gotten the cancer, and she would have a normal life expectancy. With most types of cancer, if patients have no symptoms for five years, they are deemed cancer free; however, with leukemia it takes longer, said Tavernia.
She said she had a lot to live for. “I am a very lucky person. Within an hour of my diagnosis I had 30 friends and family in my hospital room, and they have stuck with me through the whole ordeal.”
Another drama was occurring in the family. In August of 1997 Tammy’s mother, Carol Saloomey, the granddaughter of Slovakian immigrants, found an uncle who lives in Slovakia though the Internet. That led to Saloomey traveling to that country the next year. She met relatives and made new friends, including a young woman, Lenka, who was the fiance of a cousin. Lenka was fluent in English, something rare in her family. Saloomey invited Lenka to spend a year in Otis, which she did. The two women became fast friends.
At the end of Lenka’s stay Saloomey received a letter that startled her, but not for its content. Lenka?s mother had written to offer thanks to the Saloomeys for caring for her daughter. Rather she was surprised that the letter was written in perfect English. When Lenka returned home she immediately asked her parents who wrote the letter. They said it was written by an American missionary who was in the process of adopting a child from Slovakia. Lenka phoned Tammy who echoed Lenka’s reaction?neither knew that children could be adopted from the country. They wondered if the answer to Tammy and Lee’s prayer to be parents could be met through adopting a child from the country of Tammy’s mother?s heritage.
Lenka learned that virtually all adoptions were handled by one facilitating agency called European Connection International Adoptions. After Tammy phoned the facilitator she couldn’t wait to get started, but there was a problem. The facilitator needed a home study, which in Massachusetts must be written by a licensed social worker. Would a social worker approve Tammy as a prospective mother once she revealed her medical condition?
After trying some other agencies, the Tavernias met with Marla Allisan of Full Circle Adoptions of Northampton. “We had a great talk that afternoon. That night I called her and said ‘I have something to tell you. I have cancer, which my doctors feel they have under control.’ She said, ‘Okay, do you feel your cancer will prevent you from being a good mother’”
A relieved Tammy said “No.” The Tavernias had their home study within 30 days, the minimum time allowed by the state.
Partly because Tammy has twin sisters and because “If I’m going to be home with one child I might as well be home with two,” Tammy had her mother ask the facilitator if twins were available. Yes, there were twins – a boy and a girl who were about two years old and who were from Romany stock.
Said Tammy, “Sometimes I tell people my kids are gypsies even though that’s supposed to be a derogatory word, but if you say they are ‘Romany,’ people don’t know what you mean.”
After the Tavernias viewed a video of the twins they signed a contract agreeing to adopt them. Then began the process of filling out and filing lots of paperwork. The biggest logjam was the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service, which is quick in many parts of the country. Tammy said, “In California it takes six weeks; and I know someone in New Jersey for whom it took four weeks, but Massachusetts has the slowest INS office in the country. It took us six months to get INS approval and that was with congressional help.”
That’s where the East Otis Post Office came in. Postmaster Susan Derryberry and Postmaster Relief Joelle Dale were aware and supportive of the Tavernias’ plans. “They would call me and even though they couldn’t tell me what mail I had, they would say, ‘Your postal box is full. Why don’t you come pick up your mail?’ They were great,” said Tammy.
Tammy discovered a coincidence. She and Dale had been born on the same day and their mothers had shared a room in the hospital following their births.
In less time that it takes to have a child biologically – seven months – Tammy and Lee, along with their friend, Paula Hiller, traveled to Slovakia last March. They spent the first two days getting to know the children in the orphanage. “When we left the orphanage, the twins were crying because they wanted to go with us,” said Tavernia.
The next day they traveled three hours to a court where they were awarded custody. The day after that Lee made it to the police station one hour before closing time and was able to get passports for the children. The four Tavernias and Paula spent the weekend at Tammy’s cousin’s house. On Sunday they flew to Prague in the Czech republic to file the necessary paperwork with the U.S. embassy there, a process that took seven hours.
On April 13th they flew home. “My husband jokes that our labor was the airplane ride home?eight and a half hours with two two-and-a-half year olds who didn’t sleep at all,” said Tammy.
The flight landed at Newark where they were met by relatives. “My daughter ran up to my mother. It was like she knew that was her grandmother,” said Tammy.
The children did sleep during the three and a half-hour car ride home. Winding through Sandisfield the group stopped for a favorite dinner – pizza at Tucker’s Restaurant.
The Tavernias changed the twins? names. “We named the boy Blaze because when my great-grandfather came from Slovakia his name was Anglicized to Blaze. For the girl, my two nieces wanted to name her, and their last name is Bailey plus my husband?s name is Lee so we decided to name her Baylee,” said Tammy.
“What is really awesome is our physical similarity. I took the twins with me to an appointment I had at my oncologist’s, and all the workers in the office said ‘they couldn’t look more like you if you had given birth to them.’ I take after my father who is Lebanese so I have dark skin, hair and eyes, and the kids have the same coloring,” said Tammy.
“Everybody fully accepted them. It’s like the kids have been part of my family forever,” she said.
“My nieces, Darby and Keelin Bailey, ages four and five, were so much looking forward to the kids coming. When their Berkshire Country Day School teachers came for a home visit they said, ‘we’re going to get cousins through adoption.’ They live next door, and they love being big cousins. They love to tell Blaze and Baylee what to do,” said Tammy.
Now the twins attend pre-school where the Tavernias hope they will perfect their mastery of the English language.
Tammy estimated the whole process including airfare cost to be about $20,000. She guessed the fee for adopting a single child from Slovakia might be $12-15,000.
“Adoption is such a great thing. There are so many kids in America and overseas who need a home. We could have gone the route of my getting all sorts of fertility treatments but for us it felt more natural to go with adoption,” said Tammy, who added that she hopes to adopt another child at some time.
“I’m so glad the postal service drew attention to adoption with a special stamp. People should know there are options if you want to have a family”, Tammy said.
The arrival of these new town residents was celebrated at a presentation of the adoption stamp held at the East Otis Post Office a couple of weeks ago. An enlarged adoption stamp was presented, and cake and punch were served.
Recalling the event, Postmaster Dewberry said, “The adoption of these children is not only a special event for Tammy and Lee and their family but it is special for all of us in the East Otis community. Dedicating a stamp to adoption is part of the postal service’s continuing tradition of raising awareness of social issues.”
(Editor’s note: There is both federal and state help in covering adoption costs. In Massachusetts all costs related to an adoption are deductible. The federal government provides a $5,000 adoption credit for all adoptions that are completed by December 2001. A credit provides more savings than a deduction because it is taken off the bottom line tax owed to the government. A deduction, in contrast, is subtracted from taxable income).