Once Valerie Barnes got 1-year-old Savannah into her new pink dress and matching headband Saturday morning, she lifted the girl into her arms and held up her cellphone for a video.
“Today’s the day that we adopt Savannah because we love her to pieces and never want to lose her,” Barnes said into the phone, pausing to kiss the top of Savannah’s head.
More kisses — and tears — came a few hours later, as a judge gave Barnes, 56, the long-awaited news: Savannah Grace Barnes’ adoption was finalized. The girl in the pink tulle dress was officially a member of her forever family.
Forty other children were adopted Saturday as part of Douglas County Juvenile Court’s 18th annual celebration of National Adoption Day. Several other Nebraska counties held similar events, aimed at drawing attention to the need for more foster and adoptive families across the state.
Across the river in the Pottawattamie County Courthouse in Council Bluffs, more than a dozen children from towns in Pottawattamie, Montgomery and Page Counties had their adoptions finalized amid similar fanfare.
Each adopted child at the Omaha event went home with an “adopted” teddy bear and got a chance to celebrate with activities including face painting and balloon animals. A few superheros and “Star Wars” characters made appearances to pose for photos with the families.
Savannah is probably too young to remember her adoption day. But someday Barnes will tell her the story — of the dozen or so family members who came along, of the bags of gifts, of the tears of joy that just kept coming.
She’ll show the girl the video from that morning and tell her about how she’d hunted for that special pink dress. And she’ll remind Savannah that she was and will always be loved to pieces.
Savannah’s adoption story started with a letter Barnes received last year, asking about possible relatives for an infant girl, born six weeks premature to a woman whom Barnes’ son was dating. Savannah was in foster care for her first few months before she went to live with Barnes, who may be her biological grandmother.
“As soon as I held her, I knew she was meant to be with me,” Barnes said. “Now she has a whole big family to hold her and love her forever.”
That family set up a Christmas tree in Barnes’ home Friday night and on Saturday morning presented Savannah with her first ornament: a pair of tiny pink rain boots next to a pair of larger ones, “Like mom, like daughter” inscribed underneath.
Barnes doesn’t know what Savannah will call her once she starts talking — maybe “Mom” or “Grandma” or “Mema” (as her 12 grandkids call her). But it doesn’t matter, Barnes said.
“As long as she knows that I adopted her not because I had to but because I love her, because I couldn’t imagine anything else,” Barnes said.
Stories like Savannah’s are what drove Judge Wadie Thomas to start the National Adoption Day event in Douglas County in 1999. With his upcoming retirement, this year marked Thomas’ last Adoption Day as a judge. But he’ll likely be back next year, just to hear more of the stories.
“It’s too great of a day to just walk away from,” he said. “It’s one day in this line of work that is always a happy day.”