Just before Cynthia Meeks was ready to adopt 1-year-old Arielle, doctors told Cynthia chances were high that Arielle, whose biological mother abused drugs, would never be a normal child.
That was old news to Cynthia.
The first time Cynthia met 5-day-old Arielle, she knew the little girl was special. Since becoming her mother -- first foster, then adoptive -- Cynthia has only grown to appreciate more just how special Arielle's strengths and challenges make her.
With rosy, round cheeks, curly brown hair and a heart-melting smile, Arielle is beyond cute. Whether its getting pictures taken at Wal-Mart or at an all-day conference on foster care, Cynthia said, Arielle attracts attention.
"I think her difficulties make her just exactly who she is," Cynthia said. "There is something special about her that is more than just being cute. I hope that continues, because she may need help."
Doctors predicted Arielle would have developmental challenges, but no one knew exactly how severe they would be.
What doctors and Cynthia did know was that shortly after Arielle was born, she tested positive for methamphetamines and marijuana, indicating her mother used those drugs during her pregnancy. Doctors also suspected alcohol use during the pregnancy.
Arielle was born at Yampa Valley Medical Center almost two years ago. Her biological mother was on the run from the police for crimes committed in another state. Shortly after giving birth, the woman was transported to an out-of-state jail.
For the 18 months before Arielle's birth, Cynthia had been the foster parent for a young boy. At one point, she thought the boy might stay with her permanently. Eventually, though, he was returned to his biological parents. It was a painful separation for Cynthia.
"I don't know how you can be a good foster parent and not fully love and care for them," Cynthia said.
Nursing a broken heart and almost ready to give up on fostering, Cynthia was asked by social service workers just a few days later if she would take care of 5-day-old Arielle.
At first, Cynthia said, there was a little door in her heart that was not ready to open all the way, afraid of having to say another goodbye.
"I was waiting for the other shoe to fall," Cynthia said. "It's a good thing I changed my mind."
By the time Arielle turned 1, Cynthia had adopted her and, as the fear of having Arielle leave subsided, her heart opened fully.
Today, the two live in Hayden. Cynthia works in the radiology department at the hospital. Arielle, who is four to six months behind other children her age, faces the challenges that are a result of her mother's drug use.
Easy to burst out in giggles and not afraid to give strangers a smile, Arielle will celebrate her second birthday Dec. 8.
Close to walking and still unable to talk, Arielle has been helped through Horizon's Early Intervention Program. Early developmental screenings when she was 4 months old identified Arielle's need for further help. She has progressed from one-on-one therapy sessions to help her learn to speak and walk to being a part of the playgroups.
Arielle is one of 65 children Horizons worked with this year in efforts to try to prevent early childhood developmental delays from turning into lifelong problems.
'I had already fallen in love'
Arielle's first two years have not been without difficulties.
She had to battle being cross-eyed and severe ear infections. She underwent numerous surgeries to fix both issues.
Walking is a difficult task because of neurological damage, which causes her to stiffen easily, and a lack of depth perception, a result of the recent eye surgeries.
She is struggling to speak, having only said "mama" for a brief period. Instead, she communicates through hand motions and facial expression and an occasional gurgle.
When she adopted Arielle, Cynthia was aware of the problems that could come with babies whose mothers had used drugs. Behavioral issues, tremors and seizures are among the problems documented in research, and babies whose mothers used methamphetamines typically show signs of withdrawal.
From the moment Cynthia received Arielle, one thing was for certain: The little girl was not withdrawn. She wasn't a fussy baby, either. In their first three months, with Arielle rolling over on her own and developing strong neck muscles, Cynthia, who had a background in child care, believed her daughter might even be a little ahead of schedule.
But Arielle's development started to slow down. She no longer rolled over on her own. Being cross-eyed, she had to fight seeing double.
At the one-year mark, as Cynthia was preparing to adopt Arielle, the child underwent neurological tests at The Children's Hospital in Denver. In her mind, as the MRI tests were being done, Cynthia had nightmarish images of a Swiss cheeselike brain.
It was after those tests, Cynthia said, that the doctors told her Arielle would never be a normal child. She had neurological damage, ran the risk of having seizures and could even one day become brain dead, doctors said.
Doctors warned her, saying the decision to adopt was not a light one. For Cynthia, however, it was easy.
"I had already fallen in love (with Arielle). She had been in my home all this time, before I knew all the really bad details. By then it's just not a baby. It was Arielle," she said.
At the one-year mark, unable to crawl or talk, Arielle started working with the Horizon's program.
Jodi Glaisher, a pediatric occupational therapist, began visiting Arielle, using focused play to help improve her movements.
By 15 months, Arielle was able to crawl. Today, thanks to her therapy through Horizons, she is close to walking, needing only a hand to hold or nearby wall to steady her.
Every Friday, she participates in a playgroup in which other children her age with development delays come to play.
Working early on problems helps, said Cynthia, who questions what would have happened if Arielle had not started crawling until she was 3. At 3, children with delays have the option to attend the school district-funded Northwest Colorado Board of Cooperative Educational Services program.
"They may have saved her from who knows what. From never moving at all, from having to be way behind in class, from having no confidence in herself because she is so behind everybody," she said.
The Early Intervention Program, in its 26th year, works with children who face developmental delays caused by genetic syndromes, premature birth, low birth weight, a difficult birth or frequent ear infections. The Horizons program also provides free screenings to test children for developmental delays.
Focused on children from infancy to 3 years of age, the Early Intervention Program is designed to prevent further delays as the child ages and offers therapy before they are old enough to use the specialized child care provided through BOCES.
"(Diagnosing children) with delays or disabilities in the first three years of life lessens the need for services later on," Horizons Development Coordinator Kay Borvansky said.
The screening and therapy sessions are free, and no child is put on a waiting list.
"The money -- not having to pay for this as a single working mother -- that is a huge deal," Cynthia said.
Funding the program
To help maintain the program, Horizons has started the Little Points of Light fund-raising campaign. For every donation made, a light bulb will be lilt on trees outside each of the five county offices. The goal is to match last year's amount of $18,000.
With a tight state budget, Horizons served 65 children using state funding meant for only 28. Borvansky said state funding was insufficient for the five counties -- Routt, Grand, Jackson, Moffat and Rio Blanco -- the program reaches.
Funding for the program is $104,000 per year, and the average cost of monthly services is $371 per child.
Borvansky said Horizons had a policy to not put children on a waiting list for the program because of the need to help them as soon as possible.
"Every day they go without therapy is a day they fall behind because they are so moldable at that age," Borvansky said.
Since starting in the program, Arielle has improved leaps and bounds -- literally. She has started putting a pounce into the middle of her crawl, Cynthia said.
Questions about how Arielle's progress will continue and what symptoms from her mother's drug use will surface later remain unanswered. Cynthia knows there could be things that Arielle may never do, but she also believes that, one day, her daughter will be able to live on her own and have a job.
She might be behind in her walking, Cynthia said, but she is just as social, interested and cognizant as any other 2-year-old.
"She's my miracle baby," Cynthia said.