When Zebadiah Chaves first learned how to walk at age 6, it was a cause for celebration. When he first brought a spoon to his mouth without help, it was a milestone. When he survived long enough to possibly grow up as a normal-functioning child, it was a miracle.
Zebadiah Chaves is not his original name. First known as Dima Kalekin in Ukraine, he was born in a hospital room and left there on the same day. Diagnosed with hydrocephalus, also known as “water on the brain,” Dima’s enlarged head was swollen with fluid. His biological parents, whether unable to care for him or unwilling, relinquished him to an orphanage.
He was shipped off to eastern Ukraine, where he lived at Antoshka, a home for disabled children.
At age four, his development was sluggish. He couldn’t walk, eat with utensils, or speak more than a few words. Though surprised that he had hung on for this long, his caregivers continued to see a bleak future for him.
Then, in early 2014, as political strife and unrest broke out across the country, Dima’s life became threatened by more than fluid build-up in his skull. Bursts of shells shook walls as skirmishes surrounded the children’s home.
War had come to eastern Ukraine and the orphanage, located on disputed territory, stood on splintering ground.
In Antoshka, there was no water, light, medicine, or money. While the staccato of bullets ripped through the air outside, nurses and caregivers sang and danced. When the tremors of explosions rattled their home, they held the children tight and said it was just thunder.
Anatoliy Romanov, the head doctor of the orphanage, knew that they couldn’t survive there. Soldiers used the home as a barrier between them and enemy forces, thrusting the disabled children into the path of war. They were human shields, as Ukrainian newspaper Fakty i Kommentarii reported. Children abandoned by parents, like Dima. Lives without consequence.
An evacuation was ordered, and the orphans were transported by ambulance to safe hospitals for treatment. For Dima, as chief doctor Roman Marabyan recalled, it was a precarious situation.
“Even if we held him in [our] arms, any [bump] on the road would threaten the child with a fracture of the cervical vertebrae,” Marabyan told Fakty i Kommentarii.
They had to fashion a makeshift gurney with a garden trough, pillows, and blankets to secure Dima’s head. When they finally reached the hospital, he was malnourished and exhausted from the journey, but the doctors nursed him back to health.
While there, Dima shocked all of his caretakers.
One morning, a nurse came into his room, and recognizing her, he said, “Hello.” She nearly fainted. Children like him were usually quiet, their speech underdeveloped like their other cognitive functions. But from this, the doctors discovered that even with his condition, the swelling in his head didn’t damage the frontal lobes responsible for intellect.
Dima, simply put, had a chance!
Even though he was well-loved at the hospital, his time there was limited. Thus came the question: who would a sickly orphan go home to?
“In his condition and with his illness, Dima didn’t stand a chance in our country,” one of his doctors told Hefty.
The hospital workers decided that he would be put up for adoption.
“God, give Dima parents.”
Marabyan recalled praying, Fakty i Kommentarii reported. He asked a priest, Pope Ernest, to join their efforts, to grant Dima a respite from a war-struck childhood. “Let him have a family and a chance for a better life.”
He was taken to a new orphanage. There he stayed, just another orphan in Ukraine’s adoption database, until Ernest and Ruth Chaves, a couple from Vermont, saw Dima’s picture.
There was an instant connection between Dima and the Chaveses.
The Chaveses flew to Ukraine to see Dima in person and knocked on the orphanage door.
When Ernest and Ruth first met Dima, he was afraid like a “little mouse.” Then, these strangers began to hold him and kiss him, a gentle gesture uncommon to disabled orphans like him. An hour later, when workers came back to check on them, they found Dima playing with the Chaveses, throwing them a ball of rope back and forth.
“This is a precious boy,” Ruth told Fakty i Kommentarii. “God blessed us when He gave us this child.”
But when the Chaveses left to return home and collect the documents necessary for adoption, Dima was distressed.
“Imagine the state of the baby; just now he was loved, and now he was abandoned,” Marabyan said.
Marabyan flipped through an album of pictures of the Chaveses with Dima, reminding him of their faces and saying that they would come back for him as promised. And when they did, two weeks later, Dima still remembered them, the way a child never forgets his parents.
“We used to think that if a child does not look like everyone else, then it does not hurt him and he does not understand anything,” Marabyan said.
“But such children feel more and more than many others.”
When the Chaveses took him home and introduced him to his family of 11 siblings, 7 of whom are also adopted, the love he first felt proliferated. His siblings played with him, cared for him, and stayed diligently by his side.
The Ukrainian child once known as Dima, who showed up to a hospital strapped to a garden trough to save his life, found his refuge in the arms of the Chaves family.
It was there he was christened with his new name: Zebadiah Chaves, Hebrew for “gift from God.”
His foster parents find a blessing in each small improvement that Zebadiah makes.
Now, the child who shocked a nurse by saying hello is bilingual, speaking both Ukrainian and English. He’s slowly learning to walk, to communicate, to eat food.
“In Ukraine, we could give Zebadiah only 100 grams of food, and even with a syringe,” Ernest told Fakty i Kommentarii.
At his new home, Zebadiah ate breakfast with a spoon and drank a bottle of apple juice for the first time. Such moments are small achievements for most parents, but for the Chaves family, it’s a vital sign of him adapting to his new life.
“We did not know how the baby would meet a huge world outside the walls in which he lived, ” Ruth said.
“We ask all prayers so that God will give us wisdom, so that we know how to help the child. We will learn and grow with him.”
American doctors examining Zebadiah have found no significant damage to his brain, meaning that he has the potential to grow up like any other 5-year-old. In the Chaves family, Zebadiah has found laughter, care, and, rarest of all, a future.
“The boy was very lucky,” Marabyan said. “Now he has parents. And most importantly, there is a chance.”