Thirty-five times during the last year, Phyllis Lee has watched a newborn travel from the arms of the mother to the arms of adoptive parents.
Thirty-five times, she felt her heart stretching as she watched babies fit into families where they would be loved, and the natural mothers go home comforted with the new parents they'd chosen for their child.
As director of Bethany Christian Services in Crofton, Lee oversees adoptions, as well as counseling, foster placements and numerous support groups run through the agency.
During National Adoption Week, she has one big reminder for the public.
"We exist to help in a crisis pregnancy," she says. "There's nothing worse than reading of an abandoned baby. If they only knew how easy it is.
Our social workers will go to their homes, drive them to the doctors, provide car seats or cribs. We connect them with medical resources. If they need housing, we can find it for them.
"Whether they choose to parent or adopt, there's no need for them to go through it alone. All they have to do is call and say, 'I need help.' " The "birth mothers," or natural mothers who give their babies up for adoption, "make great sacrifices," Lee acknowledges. "But there are so many people who cannot have children who would love to be parents," between 7 and 20 percent nationally, she says. "And the birth mother is giving life to a child.
"Our belief is that God has loving Christian families waiting for each and every child whose birth mother plans adoption, regardless of real or potential medical problems and no matter what the racial or ethnic backgrounds," she says.
Healthy white babies are always in demand. Black and racially mixed infants, and special needs babies -- those with physical and mental disabilities -- are much harder to place, she says.
"But we make this commitment to each young woman we counsel, and God has never failed to meet that need," Lee says. She counts off recent success stories of special needs adoptions.
* A racially mixed toddler with fetal alcohol syndrome enters a family of five. The adoptive parents thoroughly researched the syndrome and are prepared to help him grow to his highest potential, knowing he'll always be dependent on them, she says.
* A loving family adopts a baby born with Down's syndrome.
* A pregnant mother of a 2-year-old comes to Maryland and enters a Bethany shepherding home. After months of counseling, she decides to keep the baby.
* A maternal grandmother whose only grandson entered an adoptive family receives comfort from the services' Grandparents Support Group.
The Bethany agency, one of 57 Bethany centers nationwide, serves all of Maryland but links up with the other centers for child placement. Pregnant women who need housing can stay in the Sparrow House, a licensed group home in Baltimore County, or in one of 10 shepherding homes, where they become part of a family during the pregnancy.
The center has counseling and support groups for victims of rape, grandparents of adopted babies, birth mothers and families who adopt children of mixed racial ancestry.
Bethany is the largest child-placement agency in the country, with its 57 offices nationwide. It started 46 years ago when two women cared for a homeless baby in their Michigan apartment. Bethany center is licensed by the state Department of Human Resources and undergo a yearly review of records. All counselors are trained social workers with master's degrees.
In Maryland, Bethany began 10 years ago when several Christians in Annapolis, seeing many pregnant women in crisis, wanted to provide alternatives to abortion.
The group now has a staff of eight, with an additional five social workers doing adoption home studies on a contract basis.
When a pregnant mother calls the center needing help, the mother-to-be meets with a social worker to discuss options. Those who decide to keep their babies but need housing enter the group home or a shepherding home.
Those who opt for adoption receive profiles and pictures of three adoptive families and choose one they feel comfortable with.
To adopt a Bethany baby, parents must be committed Christians, married for at least three years and between the ages of 24 and 38 for a first baby, Lee says.
Each adoption costs the agency $10,000, but adoptive parents pay considerably less. Much of that cost is absorbed by donations to Bethany.
"Birth mothers select the families for specific reasons, some little thing that makes them connect with the adoptive parents," says the director.
After the birth, the natural mother spends time with the baby in the hospital. "We believe they can't say goodbye till they've said hello," explains Lee.