Yet here was Matiwos Rumley sitting the other day among his robust, loving family in a double-wing colonial in Hebron, fidgeting with my iPhone, laughing and trading words in sturdy English with his brother and sisters. Perhaps even more remarkably, Matiwos Rumley, 7, will be on a flight to Atlanta on Friday — cast on his right thumb — with his dad, Mark, and brother Luke to compete in the NFL Pass, Punt & Kick National Finals.
In October, Matiwos won the sectionals in Hebron and the state title of the 6-7 division in Berlin. He went to Gillette Stadium before the Patriots' game against the Bills on Nov. 11, beat the other New England state champs, and during a timeout in the second quarter, accepted his trophy from Andre Tippett in front of 68,756 fans.
Then Matiwos, the waiting child, waited. Only the top four from each age group of the 32 NFL team winners would advance to the national finals. When all the results were finally in, Matiwos had finished first among the qualifiers.
Not bad for a kid who had never picked up a football until a week before his first competition. Not bad for a kid who, when he arrived in Connecticut last Jan. 28, knew one word of English.
"Apple," Matiwos said, smiling.
Mark and Jodi Rumley already had four sports-crazy biological children when they decided on Christmas Day 2010 that less talk and more action would be needed for a fifth. So they reached out to Wide Horizons For Children, passed all the background checks and began to think about adopting a child who was 2 or 3 years old. Then they made their first visit to the Wide Horizons facility in West Hartford.
"We were waiting for an appointment when we picked up a photo book," Mark said. "The first picture we saw of any child was Matiwos. We looked at that face and said, 'What a wonderful smile!' On our way out, we said something about the boy and our case worker said, 'Oh, he's a waiting child, an older child, and that's where there is the greatest need.' Most people want to adopt an infant.
"We went home and started talking, 'If we're going into this for all the right reasons, to give someone the love and protection of a family, maybe we should rethink this.''
"It was meant to be," Jodi said softly.
"Perhaps," Mark said, "reading our story will motivate some people and make the lives of the poorest a little easier."
Mark and Jodi went to Addis Ababa in November 2011 to meet Matiwos and gain court approval. They had to wait another few months for the U.S. embassy to clear the adoption. In January Mark returned with his two older daughters for a two-week visit. They visited the area of Matiwos' birth.
"It's a beautiful area, but the level of hunger and disease is so pervasive, resulting in innumerable deaths of adults, children and infants," Mark said. "It's overwhelming."
Before they left with Matiwos for the Addis Ababa airport, a coffee ceremony was held in celebration. The family cleared customs, and that's when Matiwos faced a great obstacle.
"He stopped, looked and went 'uh-uh,' " Mark said. "We couldn't find any stairs. Finally we convinced him the escalator was OK."
Mark bought bottled water for the kids. He gave one to Matiwos. He dropped it. Mark picked up the bottle.
"Matiwos dropped it again," Mark said.
He could speak Amharic and Sidamo languages, but he had no way of explaining in English he had never touched anything cold in his life.
"Even when he got home, he wouldn't drink anything out of the refrigerator for a time," Jodi said. "We had to leave it on the counter to get to room temperature."
Matiwos even had to learn how to come down the stairs.
"It was slippery," Matiwos said.
He would retain his given name. And about a month after his arrival, Mark and Jodi started Matiwos in the second grade at Gilead Hill Elementary for an hour or two a couple of days a week. One day his teacher called and said the class was watching a movie and Matiwos wanted to stay. This was a great sign. He's in the third grade now. Reading and spelling are still a challenge. He loves math and art.