The boy, born in Ethiopia, struggled daily for survival. When his mother fell ill, the child --- then only 5 or 6 --- took to begging on the streets of his city to gather enough food and money to support his family. Two years ago Teme, as he's now known, was rescued by Diane and Scott Larson, a Waterloo couple with two biological children and a previously adopted Ethiopian daughter, Sabrina.
The Larsons knew their journey would not be easy. Sabrina came to them as a toddler with little in the way of verbal skills. She learned English without a problem.
Teme knew no English. And physically he had challenges that many had warned would be very difficult to overcome. His left leg, which was severely burned in a fire, likely would need to be amputated. The wounds never healed properly, which made it impossible for Teme to walk on both legs. Instead, he moved through life on his hands and knees.
|Teme Larson, 13, of Waterloo, displays his medals as he stands next to a statue of Dan Gable following Wahawk Wrestling Club practice at West High School in Waterloo, Iowa on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013. (DAWN J. SAGERT / The Waterloo Courier)|
However, Teme said learning to speak and read was much harder than he, or his parents, had ever imagined. The Hoover Middle School sixth-grader still spends several hours a day in an English-language learner program, but his vocabulary is sound enough to earn him a spot on the school's honor roll. Athletically he is excelling at football, basketball and wrestling --- some using his prosthetic limb and others going without.
"In general people have been really supportive," Diane Larson said.
Though the family's experience in the Cedar Valley has been mostly positive, Diane said there have been low points along the path. At one point, shortly after the family adopted Sabrina, Diane was at Barnes and Noble with Sabrina and her biological daughter, Noelle, when someone in passing made a comment that included "the N-word."
"We were passing each other. I was going in, and he was leaving. I looked at Noelle like 'did he really just say that?'" Diane said. "I couldn't decide if I should approach him, but then I decided that anybody who would say that, it wouldn't matter what I said. She was just so little, and so beautiful. I couldn't figure out how anyone could say that."
Diane said the racial diversity of Waterloo has gone a long way toward making her family seem less odd, though she said she still gets some sideways glances when she is out-and-about alone with her two adopted children. Those glances are usually less common when the entire family is together.
"They ask about leg, and where I've been before," he said.
"Not about your parents being white?" Diane asked, laughing.
Teme's involvement in multiple sports has also helped him acclimate himself to the American culture. He plays football and wrestles, without his prosthetic, and plays basketball with the prosthetic.
"At games and tournaments we've had a lot of people come up and say that Teme has been their inspiration," Scott said.
Diane said she often hears other spectators commenting on Teme during games and meets. She listens quietly as they marvel at how Teme is able to engage without his left leg. Their comments are rarely negative.
"I just want to say 'Yeah, that's my boy,'" she said.
Jesse Knight is a parent coach with the Waterloo West High Junior Wahawk Club, where Teme has wrestled since the 2011-2012 season. He said the kids have all been very accepting of Teme, who has proved his dominance on the mat.
"He's taught the kids that they can do anything and not to be discouraged when things get tough," Knight said.
Knight said one of his most memorable experiences with Teme came at a meet at Don Bosco school in 2011. Teme was in the last match of the day, and all the kids had gathered around the mat to cheer him on.
"It was probably 50 or 60 kids matside watching him there," he said. "That was one of the first times he finished in first place."
Outside of athletics, Scott said the family has met several Ethiopian families who have served as a network of support for their family. He said not all adoptive families have had such great luck. Scott's sister who lives in Colorado adopted a child from China.
"In general, my sister has not found any positive response. But, people from Ethiopia, it's almost a relief, but it is a different country. It's a third -world country with not as many opportunities," Scott said.
The family is doing their part through relationships with Ethiopian families in the Cedar Valley and trips to the kids' native country. They want to make sure their children understand where they came from and to know that families gave them up so they could have a better life in Iowa. Diane said she takes great pride in hearing her children talk about their other family and their home country.
"Sabrina came up to me one day and said 'Mom, my country is better than your country because it's warm there and we can walk around barefoot all the time.' Then she stopped and said 'I'm from Africa, right?'" Diane said. "I think it is so great that they know they had another home before this was their home."