By Scott Morris/Daily Journal
TUPELO – Channing Steward has been an American for less than a year, but Mickey Mouse and McDonald’s french fries are old friends.
Now, the 2 and a half year-old is acquainted with all things Christmas. If her reactions on Sunday were any judge, it was the beginning of a long love affair with the holiday.
“We had to take her to see Santa,” said her mother, Lauren Kitchens, 46.
“She handled it pretty well,” according to her dad, Robin Steward, 45. “She handled it better than the kid behind us.”
“She understands Santa,” Kitchens said.
Less than a year ago, the treasures under the family Christmas tree would’ve been unimaginable to the young orphan from Nepal.
“She was found under a bush under a bridge when she was three days old. She had pneumonia,” Kitchens said. “A policeman found her.”
She was treated for her illness, then ended up in an orphanage. That’s where Kitchens found her in 2010.
“I went over there, and I was going to bring her back home,” Kitchens said.
That straightforward plan was interrupted by a bureaucratic nightmare. The U.S. suspended adoptions from Nepal. After more than a month of trying to bring Channing home, Kitchens and other parents who’d flown for 25 hours to adopt children in need left empty-handed.
“We were in tears,” she said. “What could we do?”
Kitchens didn’t have to deal with the pain alone. She had family and friends around her, and thanks to her postings about the ordeal on Facebook, total strangers were offering their prayers and support.
“All of these people pulled together,” she said. “It was amazing.”
But a time came when Kitchens had to accept that the adoption probably wasn’t going to happen. She didn’t give up hope, but she had the rest of her life to live.
Steward and Kitchens first met when they were teenagers, and they reconnected years later thanks to Facebook.
“We were able to have a relationship before Channing got here,” Kitchens said. “It just goes to show you God has a plan.”
“Who knows what would’ve happened with us if things were different?” he said.
“It probably would’ve been great,” she said, “but in hindsight, it was a blessing to have that time.”
Officials with New Beginnings adoption agency in the U.S. and Nepal continued working their channels, and Kitchens hired an attorney in Nepal to satisfy the adoption requirements. The long-awaited approval came in late February.
“I called my dad. I called Robin. ‘We’re going to get her! We’re going to get her after all!'” Kitchens said.
Compared to the first trip to Nepal, it was like a red carpet had been rolled out. Kitchens still had to wait in long lines to get the official paperwork to bring Channing home, but it became more and more clear that the adoption was going to happen this time.
That feeling evaporated moments before boarding the plane. In the U.S., kids under 2 fly for free. In Nepal, they need a lap ticket. Kitchens didn’t have one.
“I lost it right there,” she said. “I just started weeping.”
Just before the airplane door closed, a deal was worked out and Kitchens was able to bring Channing home.
It’s been busy since then. Kitchens sold her house in Los Angeles. Channing was along for the ride when Kitchens and Steward drove a van filled with stuff across the country.
“People have asked us how we did it, but we loved every minute of it,” Steward said.
“Just having her with us,” Kitchens said.
Friends threw a baby shower in June, and that turned into an engagement party. Kitchens and Steward were married in August.
“My dad walked me down the aisle, carrying the baby,” Kitchens said.
Channing’s granddad is Dr. W.L. Kitchens, and she calls him “Papoo.” That’s a type of dog in Nepal.
“He doesn’t mind,” Kitchens said. “My dad loves animals.”
Channing also has a new sister, Olivia Steward, 20, and two brothers, Miller Steward, 16, and William Steward, 8.
“She loves William. She loves him maybe too much,” Kitchens said. “She follows him around and tries to do everything he can do.”
Steward had the privilege of introducing his new daughter to McDonald’s, where she quickly became addicted to french fries.
She’s also a fan of the animated “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” on the Disney Channel. One of her favorite toys to open on Christmas was a “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” talking book.
“Hello, Mickey,” she said, waving to the book.
Channing has a passion for opening presents, and wasn’t shy about helping others to open theirs. She also was as precise as a 2 and a half year-old can be when putting items away in her new kitchen play set.
“She likes to be organized,” Steward said.
From singing carols at a church vigil to visiting with her new family and friends, the past few days have been a whirlwind of Christmas cheer.
Through it all, Channing was learning something that her parents certainly won’t take for granted anytime soon: There’s no place like home for the holidays.