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Sean Kirst: On National Adoption Day, a Western New York tale of selflessness

Sean Kirst

Friday, a coalition of private and public agencies in Central New York held an annual National Adoption Day celebration in Syracuse. The Nicholas J. Pirro Convention Center was packed with at least 1,000 people as 52 families finalized adoptions with Family Court judges from seven upstate counties.

Peter Robinson, a Niagara County court officer, sang "America the Beautiful" to start the event. Organizers asked if I would serve as guest speaker in my role as a columnist with The Buffalo News. It was a gift. I saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to share a story with Western New York roots.

National Adoption Day is today. The following transcript is essentially the tale, as I told it:

This is such an honor to be here. I know and love many of the people in this room, and I cannot think of any event that speaks more beautifully to the idea of Thanksgiving, or Christmas.

By profession, I am a columnist, a teller of true stories. This event gives me an opportunity to share one of the greatest stories I know, and I've waited a long time, for much of my adult life, for the right moment to tell it. It is a reminder, as all of you in this room know better than anyone, that miracles don't always need thunder and a flash of lightning.

Sometimes they happen gradually, quietly, day by day.

Not quite 30 years ago, in late winter or early spring of 1989, a teenage couple started dating in Dunkirk, a little city in Western New York. Ben Miller was a 17-year-old high school senior. Joanie Burns was a junior. They both had lost their fathers when they were young, and they spent a lot of time talking about their dreams.

Ben was deciding between joining the Navy, like his brothers, or going to college. Joanie always wanted to be a poet.

There was an extraordinary element to their relationship. Joanie was born with a genetic condition called spinal muscular atrophy. It's a degenerative disease that causes muscle wasting, and it had already taken the life of her older sister, Mary.

The condition can be devastating. It changed the course of Joanie's childhood. She endured painful surgeries in Buffalo. She weighed less than 100 pounds. In high school, she often used a wheelchair.

That summer, she learned she was pregnant.

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Joanie and Ben had been dating for four months. They were kids abruptly confronted with a monumental, life-changing choice. Joanie understood her own life span might not be long. She was physically fragile. She knew the profound physical risks involved with giving birth to this child.

She and Ben talked it over, teenagers trying to figure out the hardest questions in life, in many late-night conversations at kitchen tables or in quiet living rooms.

They made a decision. Joanie would have the baby, and they would try to find adoptive parents.

They had no idea of where to start, but an answer came their way. Joanie's mother was a teacher. By chance, by utter chance, she worked with another teacher who told her about her own brother and sister-in-law, a young working couple from another part of the state. They had recently learned, for medical reasons, that they probably would never be able to have biological children.

A connection was made. Joanie and Ben met the couple, spent time with them, and decided to choose them as adoptive parents for their baby.

It was a lightning strike, an absolute moment of fate.

On March 16, 1990, despite all the physical obstacles, Joanie Burns gave birth to a healthy and beautiful little girl. Ben was in the delivery room. A few days later, in an instant of incredible and enduring grace, they handed the child to the couple they'd chosen for adoption.

That's how my wife, Nora, and I came to raise our daughter, Sarah.

Joanie Burns and Sarah Kirst, at Sarah's First Communion. (Family photograph)

Twenty-eight years later, Sarah is a college graduate with a successful career. We've stayed in touch with her birth family. She met both her grandmothers and two great-grandmothers, one of whom lived past her 100th birthday and who happened – by another stroke of impossible chance — to have been a fourth-grade teacher who had a quiet impact on my life.

Sarah still visits with Ben, her "bio-dad," who is now a longtime university police officer. He and his wife, Bobbie, have two daughters. Sarah knows them. She keeps their photo on her bedroom wall.

As for Joanie, she also stayed in touch with Sarah. As she prophesied, as she expected, her disease was merciless. She died in Florida in 2008, while Sarah was still in high school. Sarah and Nora went to her funeral, and we dedicate our role in this event to her. Joanie was a poet, a dreamer and one of the most selfless human beings we've ever met.

In her own way, she was also a teacher, and she and Ben offered a lesson we share with all of you today.

They gave flesh and blood to the word Thanksgiving.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his work in this archive.

Sarah Kirst, at high school graduation, with birth father Ben Miller and birth grandmother Pat Kalfas. (Family photo)

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