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Adoption quest ended in smiles for Taillon family

by Mohammed Adam, Ottawa Citizen

Devlin and Peggy Taillon

In 2007, then-Ottawa Hospital executive Peggy Taillon embarked on an improbable year-long quest to adopt a child from Kenya. Against overwhelming odds, amid conflict and violence, she succeeded. The unlikely story of Taillon and son Devlin was told in pages of the Citizen in 2008. Six years later, Mohammed Adam catches up with the family to see how things turned out.

It is sundown, and I am sitting in Peggy Taillon’s kitchen sipping tea and listening to her talk about how adopting a child can change a life in a way one would never imagine.

She pauses to deliver a snack to her son Devlin, who is in the living room engrossed in his computerized basketball game. Mother and child have grown up a lot since I last saw them six years ago, when Taillon brought her adopted 15-month-old son home from Kenya. She often wonders about what kind of person she’d be today if the adoption had failed – as it nearly did.

“A lot of people have said to me ‘you saved his life,’ because he came from a poor family. But really he saved mine. I couldn’t imagine not having him in my life,” says Taillon, now president of the Canadian Council on Social Development. “The universe opened up for me in ways I had never imagined. I thought I was happy but I didn’t realize how lonely my life was. Yes, his life would have been a struggle, but his family would have cared for him. My life would have been pretty empty without him.”

Devlin Taillon’s remarkable journey began in Asembo Bay on the shores of Lake Victoria in western Kenya where, when he was 11 days old, his 14-year-old mother, traumatized by a pregnancy she neither expected nor wanted and incapable of taking care of the baby, gave him up. Devlin, who’ll be eight years old next month, has grown into a normal, if somewhat shy Canadian kid who likes math, enjoys basketball, and hopes one day to play for the Toronto Raptors.

Adoption is often something of a gamble. The thought of a new child coming into the family is exhilarating, but you never really know what you are getting. Joy can turn into misery, and dreams can be shattered. And a white person adopting a black child brings along its own unique challenges. Ebony and ivory may live in perfect harmony on the piano keyboard, but life is not a musical instrument nor a song, as Taillon discovered.

Though only a tiny minority, there are online bigots and the odd nasty kid at summer camp to contend with. And then there is the delicate question of when and how to broach the subject of different skin colours, which, sooner or later, must be addressed. Taillon says people in Ottawa were often curious but welcoming, and mother and son were greeted with affection and well-wishes everywhere they went.

But anticipating bumps in the road, Taillon schooled her son very early on about his roots. She constantly showed him his baby pictures, including ones of his birth mother, Anaygo. They participated in Kenyan and other African activities and watched black movies. They also talked on the phone with Anaygo.

“I started telling him when he was very little that he has beautiful brown skin and mommy has beige skin, but we are the same inside. When he started to get a little older and ask questions, I explained that Anaygo carried him in her belly so we could become family,” Taillon says. “I wanted him to know his story – who he is, where he is from, and be proud of his culture.”

But why then talk about brown and beige, instead of black and white? “I wanted to be true to the colour of his skin and mine but realized also that there can be a lot of negative around black and white, and it can be very polarizing,” Taillon says. “But I knew that as he starts to get older, he’ll understand.”

Devlin started to become aware of skin colour around four, just as he started junior kindergarten. He came home from school one day and told his startled mother that he didn’t want to be brown anymore, and wanted instead, to be beige. Obviously, something in school had unnerved him. Taillon says she sat him down and told him he is lucky to be brown, that brown is beautiful, and she wished she were brown. This became a constant theme at home.

“I had to build his confidence, I had to make sure he understands that the colour of his skin doesn’t matter. I tried to instill pride in his colour and I still do,” she says. “Now he appreciates who he is and made it a point of pride.”

One of the most profound events in their lives was their return to Kenya last January, for the first time since the adoption, where they met Anaygo, now 21.

“It was overwhelming for the three of us when we met. He gave her a big hug, it was really emotional. There were a lot of tears. Anaygo shed tears of joy because she was happy to see how well he is doing,” Taillon says. “Now Devlin knows he is loved on two continents.”

Interestingly, Devlin sees his natural mother as a sibling. “She is sort of my sister,” he says. “But she carried me in her belly.”

But is there a danger in having an adopted child maintain such close ties to a birth mother? Perhaps, but for Taillon, letting children know their identity and helping them become comfortable in their own skin as they grow up is paramount. Devlin has lived his young life virtually in the media spotlight, but Taillon is gratified that things have turned out so well. Devlin is well-adjusted, healthy, active in sports and happy at home and school, and the future looks bright.

“A day doesn’t go by that I don’t feel grateful for what happened,” Taillon says.

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