But this year, with the addition of one more Vitter, 3-year-old Maxim, whom they adopted from Ukraine in May, the joy is multiplied.
“This is like a fairy tale for us and a huge blessing,” said Robert Vitter, the dad of the family of now six children: Annabella,13; Priscilla,11; Lydia, 8; Samuel, 6; James, 4 and Maxim.
“He needed a family and we have one, and now we’re all together,” Robert said.
As Lara Vitter, the mom of the family, explained, “The plan was always to adopt, and at one time we were house parents at a children’s home in Alabama, but we never thought about adopting a special needs child.”
Maxim was born with Apert Syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by deformities of the skull, face and limbs.
Among other things, Maxim has fused fingers and toes, an elongated skull and prominent eyes.
He’s also smart as a whip and loves everyone and everything, especially bananas.
“When we walked out of the orphanage to take him home, he walked with a swagger, swinging his arms, like he was heavyweight champion of the world,” Vitter said.
“The whole time he was in the car, he just sat there smiling, like he was thinking, ‘You love ME,’” Lara said.
“Priscilla and Annabella are the reasons we have him,” she said. “When we were missionaries in Italy, they kept asking if we could adopt a child with special needs. They prayed and prayed, and it took four or five years for Robert to come around.”
When Annabella was 6, they were at the airport in London, heading home to the U.S. from Italy, and Annabella asked, “Mommy, where do babies come from?”
A couple nearby started laughing and the Vitters struck up a conversation with them, which grew into a friendship. And when that couple adopted a child with special needs, that stirred something inside them, Lara said.
They found Maxim on the Reece’s Rainbow special needs adoption support agency website.
When they saw his picture and read his story, they knew he was the one they wanted as their own.
First day in America
The Vitters had heard from other adoptive parents that transitioning from orphanage to a forever home can be challenging, especially with children who have spent their entire lives in an orphanage.
But when Maxim got out of the car and entered his new home in Inverness, he acted like it was always his.
“He was running around, exploring the whole house,” Priscilla said.
The only problem they had with him was bedtime. He didn’t want to go to sleep.
So, Priscilla would lie down with him every night for about a month so he would be calm and eventually go to sleep.
“He loves everyone, but he’s especially close to Priscilla and Robert,” Lara said. “They’re the ones who can calm him.”
Maxim’s two big brothers, James and Samuel, said they love their new brother.
“He’s the cutest brother in the whole world,” James said.
“I like to play blocks with him,” Samuel said.
Samuel, the artist of the family, made Maxim a bunch of drawings, and Maxim loved looking at them.
“He’s changing us,” Lara said. “I had wanted to go to Africa to be a missionary, but when we were in Italy, I would complain about not having a dryer or a washing machine. I didn’t realize how much of a spoiled American I was.
“And now, here’s Maxim who has difficulty using his hands, yet he’s so happy,” she said. “So, he’s teaching me to be thankful for the ease that we have.”
She said they all realize that life isn’t going to be easy for Maxim.
Samuel was especially upset one day because of the way people stare at his little brother.
“Everywhere we go, people always comment on how cute my kids are, and now they’re aware that Maxim looks different, and that bothered Samuel,” Lara said.
So, she told her kids of her plan: Whenever someone was staring, she would ask them if they wanted to meet Maxim, because once he starts smiling and interacting, he wins people over.
“We’ve met so many people by opening it up,” she said. “With kids, I tell them, ‘Sometimes I stare at things that are weird or different. Do you want to meet Maxim? Let’s talk about it.’”
Facing the future
This past Nov. 9, Maxim was at UF Health Shands Hospital undergoing cranial surgery to open space in his skull, which also makes his head more round and less elongated.
By the second day after his surgery, he was smiling.
On the third day when he came home, it was as if nothing had happened.
He wears a protective helmet, and that’s not even an issue for him.
“He’s one of the easiest kids I’ve ever been around,” Lara said. “He’s full of joy.”
In 2022, Maxim is set to have six more surgeries, including four on his hands.
Eventually, he will need jaw and dental surgeries and surgery on his eye sockets, and around age 9 he might need a face extension surgery.
Most people with Apert Syndrome have between 40 and 50 surgeries during their lifetime, although the doctors estimate Maxim will need less than 20.
“We thought that he had heart problems, but the cardiologist said he doesn’t,” Lara said.
For the Vitters, who are part of Christ Community Church in Lecanto where Robert is associate pastor, the entire congregation has cared for them and prayed for them through every step of the adoption process and continues to do so.
“We’re just so excited for the whole community to get to know him, because adoption isn’t just you take a kid in. It’s being a part of his life, playing with him and praying for us,” Lara said.
“We are so grateful, and we’re sure thankful he’s a part of our family,” Robert said. “He’s my little shadow. His favorite thing is to work. The highlight of his day is to help Dad. It’s pretty amazing.”