In the summer of 2015, Jim and Judy Hughes were close to experiencing an empty nest: One daughter was in college and the other would soon be graduating high school. But as Judy remembers," I didn't feel like I was quite ready for that yet."
Although the couple of 24 years knew they wanted to change something, they didn't know what. "It was obvious to me that we had something to give, and we could be there for someone," says Judy. It was a feeling that would soon turn into an idea and take on a life of its own, whisking the Hughes far away from their comfortable home in Pennsylvania to an orphanage in Xi’an, China.
As it happened, a friend of the Hughes had recently begun doing outreach for a Chinese orphanage for older children who needed to be adopted.
"These children are generally over the age of 10. They are called 'waiting children' as they desperately need a home," says Judy. "In China, you are no longer adoptable at the age of 14. You'll be on your own."
Their friend shot a number of short advocacy videos of some of these older children in the orphanage and sent two to Judy saying: "Just take a look and see what you think."
And on her laptop, Judy watched a six-minute video, shot thousands of miles away. It's when she first met the boy who would become their son, Dax.
Judy shared the video with Jim. "He thought, 'He seems really cool." Jim’s next thought was, "What do we do to make this happen?"
The Hughes contacted the adoption agency, Living Hope Adoption Agency, who then sent them a packet of information about the child. It contained about 10 pages of everything that was known about Dax… how he was abandoned…how he came to the orphanage... how he was spending his time there, and a bit about his medical background. It also included their best guess at his birthday (when his mother left him, she did not leave any information about him, so the doctors had to guess.)
They had already had their daughters' blessing to bring on a new family member.
"It was important we did this as a family," says Jim.
"We saw this as a very unique way to grow a family because we were growing our family as a family; it was not just as something Mom and Dad wanted to do," remembers Judy. In addition to their daughters and their church, there was another support network involved who helped bring Dax come into their lives: Merck.
"Our local Merck family was able to help us and support us through the whole thing," says Jim, who has worked for Merck for 30 years, most recently as an associate director in Global Security at our West Point plant (Judy is a bit ahead of that milestone; she's worked here for 31 years). "People just come alongside you and say 'How can I help? What can I do to help you get there?' There was nothing but encouragement."
Merck's family leave benefits provide six weeks of job-protected paid time off to spend with a new child, in addition to 20 weeks of combined unpaid child care leave and (for birth mothers) short-term disability. These benefits apply to employees no matter how one chooses to expand their family: parents through birth, surrogacy, adoption, and foster placement.
Since the Hughes adopted Dax, financial assistance for adoption has more than doubled, and has been expanded to include surrogacy.
"[Merck’s benefits] helped us overcome a huge obstacle. Not just the benefits of having friends that were supportive -- you can find that pretty much anywhere you go. But to have the company come back and support us financially and also support us with a leave of absence…it just made me feel like, 'OK, so they really are understanding about what it takes to build a family,'" says Judy.
It's been over a year now since Dax's "gotcha day" (the day when a child is officially adopted into a family). Adjustment is happening and going at its own pace.
"It took a while for him to get comfortable; it's a huge adjustment to come to a country where you don't know anything and to come into a family where you don't know anybody," says Jim, who has taken on a large role in raising Dax. "He needed time to feel safe in our family."
Both Jim and Judy say the biggest surprise in bringing Dax home is watching him experience new things. "He's not had many life experiences," says Jim. "But this first year has been very exciting to witness Dax's firsts. His first time going on an airplane. His first time bowling. Seeing the ocean for the first time." Judy smiles. "It's so joyful to think about the opportunities he might not have otherwise had."
Jim echoes this sentiment. "It's definitely an adventure. One I’m so glad we've been able to go on together."