Sometimes, a mother just recognizes her child, even when the two have never met.
That's how Devon Toomey felt in 2009 when she spotted a photograph on a website for an international adoption agency for special needs children.
“I had been on the site so many times and seen so many kids. And you’re moved when you see all of them,” she says. But she'd never felt compelled to email the agency about anyone until she saw one baby born without arms and legs.
“The minute I saw him, I just knew he was our son. There was just something that spoke to me,” she says.
Today, nearly four years later, that boy is a 5-year-old named Bowen Toomey, a thriving kindergartner with two older brothers living in Eagle, Idaho. He loves going to school, jumping on trampolines, reading books and keeping up with his siblings Heath, 8, and Brooks, also 5.
But his physical disability means he has to make certain modifications: Where other children use their hands to handle things, Bowen sometimes uses his mouth or a special band he wears that lets him use things like a spoon.
“He does everything any other kid does, he just finds his way to do it. So if they’re riding their skateboard, he rides his skateboard. He already knows how to get on it, and push himself down the driveway,” his mom says.
Bowen especially loves to swim, and can now dive and swims independently, traveling through the pool through a series of barrel rolls. “I think he loves it so much because the water is the one place he really doesn’t have limitations,” Toomey adds.
A former special education teacher, Toomey and her husband, Jeremy, knew they wanted to adopt. Nine months after she discovered Bowen on the website of a Serbian orphanage, the entire family went to Belgrade to take home their 18-month-old addition.
Although Bowen had been well taken care of at the orphanage, it was clear he didn’t get a lot of attention. “They didn’t know how to help him, so for the most part he just laid in his crib,” Toomey says.
The young boy responded to his new family in a way that surprised everyone. “From the moment we laid eyes on him, he just radiated joy and that really touched our hearts,” she says.
Back home in the States, that joy was soon tempered by a series of challenges stemming from Bowen’s physical limitations and the lack of care he had received earlier in life.
“He was 18 months old but he couldn’t do anything. He couldn’t roll over. He couldn’t talk. He couldn’t even chew food because he was so neglected at the orphanage,” Toomey says.
Because his previous meals consisted only of hot broth and watered-down oatmeal, Bowen didn't know how to use his mouth; it took him nearly a year to learn how to chew. But through therapy and patience, he showed quicker progress in other areas and soon could sit up and move around on his own.
Bowen has since worked with physical therapists to learn how to use a wheelchair and prosthetics, which is not always a comfortable experience. “It’s not the same as if someone had limbs removed through surgery," Toomey explains. "When you’re born as an amputee, your muscles don’t know how to walk.”
While he doesn't like the prosthetics now, his parents have him practice with them so that his body will be used to them in case he wants to use them more regularly in the future.
At school, Bowen uses a motorized chair he operates himself. He started kindergarten several weeks ago in a mainstream classroom.
“He’s reading at the first grade level. The other day, he was counting up to 280. The only thing he’s struggling with is conversational speech, but his comprehension is great,” says his mom.
At home, Bowen gets by without any help, although he sometimes gets a hand from his protective big brother, Heath.
“Sometimes people stare at him, and people have called him weird,” says the 8-year-old, who’s not afraid to confront the taunters. “Sometimes I explain how Bowen was born and that he can do a lot of things that we can.”
Toomey admits it is difficult to hear the mean comments or put up with rude stares. “I won’t lie and say it’s always easy but we try to handle everything with grace and even humor,” she says.
But for every mean remark there are multiple more comments from strangers who note Bowen’s smile and the pure joy he radiates.
“All the stuff he faces on a daily basis, even just getting up and down the stairs, he just does it all with perseverance and joy,” Toomey says. “And he does it all with such joy and ease that on a daily basis, I forget that he even has a disability.
“He doesn’t even make it seem like it’s a struggle for him. It just blows us away.”