In God’s perfect timing

Family’s adoption journey came with hurdles and unconditional love

by Lauren Hartsell Dowdle, content director
photos courtesy of Payton and Ashleigh Thomas

The first time parents lay eyes on their child is a moment they’ll never forget. For Payton and Ashleigh Thomas, that moment came when they saw a photo of their daughter, who was in a Bulgarian orphanage.

Payton and Ashleigh met when she was a freshman at the University of Montevallo on a blind date — having a discussion not normally had when first meeting someone.

Merit, who is 3 1/2 years old, was an answer to Payton and Ashleigh’s prayers.

“Our first conversation was about our desire to one day be parents,” she says. “We had both traveled overseas and seen firsthand the need for loving and nurturing homes. We both said from that conversation that we wanted to adopt.”

They obviously hit it off, getting engaged a year later and married seven months after that. A year into their marriage, the couple was told they wouldn’t be able to have children, which was fine with them since they knew they wanted to adopt to help vulnerable children.

They began the adoption process, but things fell through. The day they decided they wouldn’t continue pursuing adoption is the day they found out they were pregnant.

“We were told we would miscarry, and even if he was born, he would never make it,” Ashleigh recalls. “He was born perfectly healthy, and nine months later, we got pregnant again.”

It’s easy to see Merit’s two brothers love her.

With two boys — Turner, now 5, and Griffin, 3 1/2 — they decided to keep their plans of adoption on hold. However, when they came across a photo of a child with Down syndrome, they said they felt the Lord tugging on their hearts.

“We prayed about it and called, but she had been matched,” Ashleigh says. “We knew the Lord was still pushing us in that direction of international adoption.”

They began looking at children from Bulgaria, which has a high need for special needs adoptions. The majority of children born there with special needs are put in orphanages.

“We saw the need, and I had recently taken a position as a preschool special education teacher,” says Ashleigh, who teaches at Trace Crossings Elementary School. “I felt that was preparing me to mother a child with physical needs.”

That’s when they found their daughter, Merit.

They were set to travel to Bulgaria in March 2020 to adopt her, but COVID brought those plans to a halt. Then in July, they were able to do a video call with their daughter, though the connection was blurry at best. During their court meeting in November of last year, they found out they needed to be there in 12 tickets to bring her home.

The Thomas Family brought home their daughter, Merit, at the end of last year.

“We bought plane tickets and flew across the world during the middle of a global pandemic to pick up our daughter,” she says.

Up to that point, they had only been given a single photo of her, which they held onto through the whole process. They didn’t have updates, which they say was gut-wrenching. But, then came the moment they met Merit.

“It was exactly like them laying my two boys on my chest after I gave birth. She was mine. It was love at first sight,” she said. “To finally have her in my arms was indescribable.”

As with bringing home a new family member, there can be some adjustments. Their oldest son struggled at first to understand how she could be so small but not a baby. But those feelings quickly turned into ones of a strong bond for both of their boys.

“I think they would climb mountains to help her,” Ashleigh says. “They love her. It’s crazy how much they love her.”

Merit, who is 3 1/2, has Down syndrome, institutional autism, and other cognitive delays. “She’s very much like an infant or 1-year-old,” Ashleigh says.

Merit goes with Ashleigh to her school two days a week, along with participating in different therapy services.

“We knew we were welcoming a child with medical special needs,” she says. “We cast our fears to the Lord. That was his plan for us and our family. It really opened our eyes to growing our family in this way. The more we leaned on him, the easier it would be.”

In the months since bringing her home, their love for their daughter has only grown. Merit is resilient, sassy, determined, and a fighter, Ashleigh says. She likes everything pink and purple, and they’ve enjoyed all of the girly activities like playing dress-up and fixing hair.

Ashleigh says they’ve also been able to talk with so many other families who have gone through adoption, giving them a special circle of friends who truly understand what they’re going through.

“This process has made us grow closer as a family and spiritually,” says Payton, who is the director of communications and operations at the Shelby County Chamber. “We’ve seen how things work in God’s perfect timing if you allow him to take the lead.”

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