Ethiopian adoption: One family's story

Raised in a family largely built through adoption, the question wasn't whether Tom DiMartino would adopt, it was when. Photo: Tom DiMartino

EASTON, Md. — For Tom and Mary DiMartino it wasn’t a question of if they’d adopt, it was a question of when. 

Soon after Tom, a New Jersey-based human resource director and his wife Mary, a social worker, met in 2001, they began talking about adoption.

Tom was raised in family that was built biologically and through adoption.  As the first child born to his parents, Pat and Joe, in Rhode Island, Tom soon welcomed a sister, Gina, who was adopted as an infant from South Korea, then a biological sister, Lisa, came along, and next a brother, Micky, adopted from South Korea.   Later, when he was 12 years old, his parents adopted two boys, Mauricio and Erick, from Guatemala, who were 11 and 5 years old at the time.   “Needless to say, I always knew that when I grew up I’d adopt,” notes Tom.

Tom DiMartino and his siblings at his wedding/Photo: Tom DiMartino

By 2006, Tom and Mary had begun the significant paperwork required to adopt from Vietnam.  At the time, the program was newly reopened to Americans.  “One of the main reasons we chose Vietnam was because we thought that the program was a safe one since it had been investigated and reopened,” Tom notes. 

But in 2008, the American government shut down adoptions from Vietnam as the country pursued efforts to join The Hague Convention.  “We didn’t know what we were going to do,” says Tom.

Prior to getting this news, Tom’s brother Micky died from a brain tumor at 32 years old. “2008 was the worst year of my life,” he said.  “With the exception of Mauricio’s wedding, it just was filled with unbearable sadness.”

Mary uncovered a different international program for them that she had noticed prior to entering the Vietnam program.  Wide Horizons For Children was processing Ethiopian adoptions for Americans.  Ironically, this was the same agency that Tom’s parents had used over 30 years ago to adopt.  “Our dossier and home study had to be tweaked for Ethiopia, but most of the paperwork had to be gathered all over again,” says Tom. 

By 2009, things began to look up and in December of that year, the DiMartinos had a referral for a 24-month old boy named Mender. 

In the two short years of his life, Mender had lived in two orphanages, the first of which he was removed from after a deadly outbreak of the measles.  By the time the DiMartinos met him, he was living in a facility in the busy city of Addis Ababa, hundreds of miles from the rural village in which he was born.

Tom and Mary, who traveled to Ethiopia to process the adoption, grew to love the country.  “It’s a beautiful place with friendly, welcoming people, a rich culture, and a vibrant history,” Tom says.  “But there is dire poverty.  The kind of poverty most can’t even imagine here in America.  We saw children with little or no clothing.  We saw and heard packs of wild dogs running in the streets at night.  Many areas have no safe drinking water.  It’s common to see shanty homes of corrugated iron in the city and grass built huts in the countryside.  A person can die merely because of a mosquito bite in most of the country.”

Tom, Mary and Mender DiMartino at Christmas/Photo: Tom DiMartino

One of the most important aspects of the DiMartino’s trip was when they were taken to a rural area about four-and-a-half hours from Addis Ababa, the area where Mender began his life.  There, they met with Mender’s uncle, who had relinquished Mender to an orphanage in the hope of a better life for him after both Mender’s mother and father died in quick succession of malaria and tuberculosis.   “We brought pictures of our home in New Jersey to show him our community, where Mender would be going to, and his uncle’s eyes lit up.  I think he was very glad that Mender had found a family,” says Tom.

For Tom and Mary this link to Mender’s biological family is an important one, and one they will encourage Mender to pursue if he later wants to connect with them.  Although not all of Tom’s adopted siblings had sought out their birth families as adults, Micky, who was adopted at five years old, did.  

As a soldier in the U.S. Army, he requested that he be stationed in South Korea.  When he was granted his request, he then asked his family to join him in exploring the land of his birth and locating his birth family.  Tom was one of the family members able to make the trip where Micky introduced his recently found biological mother and sister.  “I was glad to be part of something so important to him and want Mender to have the same kind of opportunity if he decides he wants it,” notes Tom.

DiMartino family on a visit to South Korea, brother Micky’s birth country

Today, Mender is at home in northern New Jersey, where he’s an active preschooler.  Like many children adopted internationally, Mender has become something as an ambassador for international adoption. “Mary and I are both true believers in the importance of diversity.  With our family background, I can’t imagine living any other way,” notes Tom.  “People meet us, this multi-racial family, and see a close, loving family and respond to that positively.” 

Currently, Tom and Mary are in the process of adopting another child.  They have requested an older child or a sibling group.  “Coming from a big family, I’d love for Mender to have siblings like I did,” notes Tom.

Although the DiMartinos have heard rumblings about adoptions from Ethiopia shutting down, they remain hopeful that they will be able to adopt from that country because of the strong connection they and their son have to the African nation. 

“After spending time in Ethiopia, we know firsthand how dire the situation,” Tom says.  “There are so many children who are growing up without parents, security, or love, wishing and waiting for families to belong to.”

The DiMartino Family at Disney/Photo: Tom DiMartino

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Andrea Poe

Andrea Poe is a veteran journalist, whose work has appeared in thousands of publications, including Town & Country, Marie Claire and Entrepreneur.  She is the author of several books and her work has appeared in many others, including anthologies and college textbooks. 

Andrea serves as editor of the Travel & Food section at The Washington Times Communities.  Her love of travel has led her to cover everything from remote villages in the Andes to her hometown of New York, from Paris to Pittsburgh, from Beijing to the Bahamas.  No matter where she travels, she likes to uncover the unusual and share with readers those often-overlooked aspects of a place and its people.  She dubs her column Raven’s Eye as a nod to her illustrious (and, yes, infamous) relative, Edgar Allan Poe, a writer who knew more than a little something about the quirky and unique.  

Andrea is also mother to Maxine, who was adopted from Vietnam in 2006, and is the inspiration for The Red Thread column on adoption at The Washington Times Communities.   Andrea is currently at work on a book on international adoption.

In addition to her work as mother, writer and traveler, she is the founder and president of Media Branding International, a consulting firm that helps individuals and organizations craft and promote their image in media outlets around the globe.

Find Andrea at andpoe@Twitter, on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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