When six-year-old Anna Wester meets someone for the first time, it’s as if she has always known them. She asks their name and never forgets it, repeating the new word until she gets it right. She likes to tell people about her animal toys and talks about her love of the trampoline in her backyard, which she enjoys jumping on with her siblings. It’s hard not to smile whenever Anna is around.
Photo by Amelia Wedemeyer
. Anna Wester was adopted at five years old from an orphanage in Bulgaria. Since coming to live with the Wester family of Fountain City, she has thrived.
For the Wester family, who traveled to Bulgaria to adopt Anna at five years old, it is hard to believe that for a time, they had only thought of adopting domestically from the United States. That is until a high school friend of Barry Wester started advocating for a blind little girl from the same orphanage where she adopted her child. “We saw [Anna’s] picture, and we kept her in the back of our minds, but she kept popping back up,” Barry explained. “She kind of picked us.”
So, in February of 2013, Barry and JoAnn Wester traveled to the Bulgarian orphanage where Anna lived and took her back with them to Fountain City, Wis. Anna was thrust into a new life, with new people and unfamiliar surroundings, a seemingly daunting task for a young child who was not only blind, but had not developed strong leg muscles due to her living conditions in the orphanage, and barely spoke any Bulgarian, let alone English. Yet with the patient support and love from her family, which includes parents Barry and JoAnn, along with siblings Ashley, 14, Amber, 11, Alex,10, and Andrew, 8, Anna was able to quickly adjust to her new surroundings, as both a young child and an individual with a disability.
“I was playing with her the moment I met her,” Amber said of the sudden bond with her younger sister.
JoAnn, who home schools all five children, agreed, adding, “I think she just fit right into place, right from the start.”
The immediate attachment and positive relationship between family members also helped Anna learn and ultimately understand English. Although Anna now constantly engages in conversations in English (and has also moved onto singing — especially to the “Frozen” soundtrack), prior to coming home with the Westers, she spoke no English and knew only a few words and phrases in Bulgarian.
“She absorbed a lot of words from the kids,” Barry explained of Anna’s process of learning English. “She would hear words and repeat them, and [eventually] attach [each word] to a meaning.”
Some of the fastest words she learned were the names of her favorite foods, such as peaches. “We would give her a spoon full of food and tell her what she was eating,” Barry said. Eventually, Anna would link up the taste of each thing she ate with its name. The same kind of interaction method was employed with just about everything Anna encountered in her first few months at her new home. By touch, Anna was able to understand which animals were what. By hearing, she learned to distinguish voices.
“She recognizes voices really well,” Barry said. “We’ll be at our church and suddenly she will hear someone speaking, and she will say, ‘hello, Mr. Hatten!’”
Anna’s four heightened senses combined with a “phenomenal” memory have helped her deal with her blindness. JoAnn said that she was impressed with Anna’s ability to remember the simplest thing, such as activities that occurred months ago, including what day of the week it was. “Even if we’re just going to the doctor's office, she’ll remember the name of the nurse who took her weight.”
Along with Anna’s own ability to cope with her blindness, Barry and JoAnn have also made sure to educate themselves on raising a blind child, so that they can provide Anna with all the assistance she needs along the way. “We had some training along with adoption training,” Barry explained. “We went to Wisconsin Parents of Blind Children, a day-long conference that had a panel of blind adults who had ideas for raising blind children. We went to a [blind] school in Janesville and had discussions with them [regarding] thoughts and ideas on how we can provide for her better.”
One thing the Westers realized would benefit the entire family was spending time together participating in a fun activity. “[Biking] was something we wanted to do as a family,” Barry said.
While biking was something each member of the family enjoyed, and knew that Anna would probably enjoy as well, due to her blindness and low muscle tone from her first five years of life in the orphanage, Barry and JoAnn realized that they would need a bike trailer to include Anna on their rides. So, Barry reached out to the local Lions Club, and asked for help in purchasing a WeeHoo trailer that he could hook up to the back of his bike.
“[We weren’t] exactly sure of the response,” Barry said of his initial hesitation to ask. “But within a week [of contacting and explaining the situation to the Lions], they said they put in an order.”
Now the Westers can be seen outside in rural Fountain City riding together as a family unit, six bikes and a little trailer.
“The Weehoo allowed us all to be out together,” Barry said.
For Lions Club member Tom Abts, there was never a doubt about whether to help provide Anna and her family with the WeeHoo trailer. “[The Lions Club] all agreed that this would be a good project, and so [we] said yes,” Abts explained.
Like most everyone who meets the Westers, Abts is charmed by how harmonious and fitting they seem to be together as a family.
“When people find that the Westers adopted a child, they often say kind words, such as, ‘she is so lucky,’ or ‘what a blessing you are to that little girl,’” he said. “But Barry and JoAnn tell them that Anna is a wonderful blessing for them.”