How one family's love transformed the life of this starving, neglected boy

"Everyone deserves a family. No one should be written off if they have special needs, just because it's going to be hard."

Get the latest from TODAY

Sign up for our newsletter
SUBSCRIBE
/ Source: TODAY
By Terri Peters

Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in December 2016.

In the community of families who have chosen to adopt, it's not uncommon for a parent to see a photo of an orphan and think, "That's my kid."

Tennessee mom Priscilla Morse knows this for a fact — it has happened to her three times.

Morse, who has three biological children with her husband, David, first pursued international, special needs adoption in 2012, when she brought her then three-year-old daughter McKenzie home from Russia. Now 10, McKenzie has Down syndrome and a heart condition, but is thriving in her new home.

Morse with two of her adopted children, McKenzie, 10, and Ryan, 11.Priscilla Morse

After adopting McKenzie, Morse says she and David thought their family was complete, until one day when Morse was scrolling through her Facebook feed and saw a post from an adoption organization that showed a malnourished 6-year-old boy in Bulgaria.

After seeing a photo of a 6-year-old boy in a Bulgarian orphanage, Morse and her husband decided to adopt a second time.Priscilla Morse

"I don't know how to describe it, but you look at them and you just know," Morse told TODAY Parents. "We had decided long ago that if we were going to adopt, it was going to be the kids no one was coming for — kids in Third World countries who are locked away in orphanages."

"I don't know how to describe it, but you look at them and you just know," said Morse of her son, Ryan.Priscilla Morse

Morse started the process of adopting the boy, who she later named Ryan, in September 2014. In November 2015, she made the trip to Bulgaria to pick up her son, who was then seven years old but the size of a toddler and, according to medical reports, had a host of medical issues, including cerebral palsy, club feet, scoliosis and microcephaly, a birth defect that affects brain growth and head size.

"When I first met him, he looked like a skeleton...I was shocked — it took two or three visits to the orphanage before I got over the shock of how emaciated he was," said Morse. "He was barely alive."

Morse says when she returned to the U.S. with Ryan, some of the doctors responsible for his care teared up upon meeting him.

"They all said there was no way that this kid should still have been alive," said Morse.

"It was intense for a long time, and I think you kind of guard yourself against just how serious it is so you can push through every day and do what you have to do," Morse continued.

Today, Ryan is thriving, and the Morse family has welcomed another biological son and an additional adopted daughter.Priscilla Morse

In the four years since Ryan has been with his family, he has gained weight through the help of a feeding tube, graduating from swimming in newborn sizes in 2015 to fitting into a child's size 5/6 today. Ryan has also had surgery to repair his clubbed feet, and was in halo traction for seven weeks to prep for surgery for rod placement for his scoliosis.

The 11 year old is also making gains with speech and communication, and has full range of motion in his hands. Morse says her son's doctors and therapists are hopeful that he will continue to thrive and reach his full potential.

Priscilla Morse with her husband David and their children, Dylan, 16, Ryan, 11, Jack, 10, and McKenzie, 10.Priscilla Morse

"He is able to sit independently for longer periods of time and he can roll independently and gets on his arms and knees and rocks and attempts to crawl," said Morse. "While he most likely will never walk independently due to the severity of his cerebral palsy, he's making great strides towards gaining some level of physical independence."

"It's going to be a long process," Morse added. "Seven years of neglect can't be undone in a day."

The Morse children: Dylan, 16, Jack, 10, McKenzie, 10, Ryan, 11, Gigi, 5, and Will, 19 months.Priscilla Morse

Morse says adopting children with special needs has its challenges, but she feels blessed every day to be able to share her life with her biological sons, Dylan 16, Jack, 10, Will, 19 months, and her adopted children.

Since TODAY.com first ran Ryan's story in 2016, another adopted child has joined the Morse family. Gigi, who has hydrocephalus, epilepsy and autism, was adopted from Ukraine in December 2017, when she was three years old, and will celebrate her sixth birthday next month.

Gigi, the newest adopted member of the Morse family, will turn six in January 2020.Priscilla Morse

The Tennessee mom thinks the adoption process has given her biological kids a sense of what matters most in life.

"It's not stuff that's important, it's people... stuff is fleeting, but saving someone's life is what matters," said Morse. "Investing in a person and being of service — that's what matters."

Never miss a parenting story with the TODAY Parenting newsletter! Sign up here.

Morse hopes Ryan's story, which she documents on Facebook, will inspire others to adopt special needs kids or to support adoptive families by contributing financially to their adoption fees, bringing them meals on tough days or offering to babysit their kids in the U.S. while they're out of the country finalizing an adoption.

"Someone has to be a voice for these kids — they're voiceless and they have no representation," said Morse. "Everyone deserves a family. No one should be written off if they have special needs just because it's going to be hard. Life is hard anyway, so you adjust and you learn, because these kids — they are so worthy."