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Published: Tuesday, 8/5/2003

Personal history sparks adoption agency gift

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

BOWLING GREEN - Jim Didham, whose mother was an alcoholic, grew up in foster homes and orphanages. By his count, he'd lived in 20 places before he found a stable home in the Cleveland area.

He was 16 when Elizabeth and Robert Didham adopted him, ending years of bouncing around. Still, he never considered himself to be someone with special needs.

But now, as a self-employed businessman who has worked to make adoptions a reality for others, he knows that older children are difficult to place, as are those with siblings, physical challenges, or mental-health issues.

It's part of the reason that the Wood County man has donated $100,000 to Adopt America Network, a Toledo-based organization that helps find homes for children who are difficult to place.

The contribution is the largest one made by a single donor in Adopt America Network's 20-year history.

“When I see some of these older children who are adopted, I sometimes think about what would have happened to me had the Didhams not adopted me,” he said. “It's rewarding. It's just amazing to see these families come together.”

Begun in 1983 by Richard Ransom of Hickory Farms, Adopt America Network has successfully placed more than 2,300 children in permanent homes. Made up of a small staff and 60 volunteer adoption specialists, the organization works nationwide to bring special-needs children and prospective parents together. Nearly 85 percent of its operating funds come through donations.

Mr. Didham joined the group as a board member about nine years ago, a position he left when his wife, Edieann, was asked to take on the job of president and chief executive officer. Mr. Didham now holds a position as chairman of the organization's endowment committee, which gives money to families who have adopted special-needs children and need financial aid.

Wendy Spoerl, the organization's vice president, said 150,000 children nationwide are eligible for adoption. Many more are in foster or group homes. Though not all have special needs, those who do tend to stay in temporary settings longer, she said.

Adopt America Network was created as a private, nonprofit agency to help take stress off the system by finding homes for children who were at one time considered “unadoptable,” she said - kids like Jim Didham.

“His story is really a wonderful example of a person who was able to be plucked from an awful situation and put into some place that he could call home,” Ms. Spoerl said. “This gift is clearly for the kids.”

Mr. Didham's first memory is of life in a Catholic orphanage. He remembers most of the places he was sent during his childhood - upwards of 20 - including those times spent with his mother.

But his most significant memory

Mr. Didham's gift, which he said honors his adoptive and his birth parents, is not the only one he has made to the organization.

He spends time helping organize fund-raising events for the group, and he previously donated $35,000 to create the Didham Family Educational Fund - which provides money to families who want to give their adoptive child an educational opportunity they would not otherwise be able to afford. That could mean music lessons, tutoring, or even time spent in a sports camp, Mr. Didham said.

“Many of these families are doing everything they can possibly do, but often they are stretched to the limit,” he said. “This fund is a way of saying that once you're in the Adopt America family, you have a place to go for help.”

With his recent donation, Mr. Didham specified that he wished half to be earmarked to support the Didham Educational Fund and the other half to help children find homes.

Ms. Spoerl said the money comes just in time to help the organization in its desire to expand.



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