Though Sofia Sanchez was abandoned at birth, she had a gleam in her smile and spark in her eyes that lit even the darkest corners of her orphanage in Ukraine. Her light captured the hearts of the Sanchez family as they scrolled through pictures of orphans provided by Reece’s Rainbow, an adoption ministry that “Serves as a catalyst for social change internationally by setting an example of love, inclusion, acceptance, value, and potential for birth families of children with Down syndrome and other special needs.” This little “Ukrainian princess,” as the Sanchez family calls her, cast a new spectrum of color on their happy family of six. From the moment they added Sofia’s photographs to their blog, Super Sanchez Six, phone calls began ringing to feature Sofia in everything from parenting magazines to nightly news stories. It didn’t take long for Sofia to realize she was destined to spread her message about Down syndrome. “. . . It’s not scary, it’s so exciting!” said seven-year-old Sofia in her Facebook video that went viral with upwards of five million hits in one weekend.
“If Sofia does not continue to share her message, then people won’t be exposed to the beauty of imperfection or disabilities or Down syndrome,” explained Sofia’s mom, Jennifer Varanini-Sanchez. Sofia commented, “I am beautiful!” Sofia’s beauty, which radiates from the inside out, has landed her modeling jobs with Nordstrom, Target, and Matilda Jane to name a few. She has been featured on Inside Edition, The T.D. Jakes Show, and even starred in ABC Family’s hit show, Switched at Birth.
“I immediately fell in love with her,” said ABC’s casting director. Sofia and her mom want people everywhere to fall in love with their message of hope which led them to publish Sofia’s first children’s book, Be You Tiful, by award-winning author, Margaret O’Hair. To borrow Maya Angelou’s quote from Sofia’s website, “It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.” Risen caught up with Jennifer Varanini-Sanchez to talk further about Down syndrome, adoption, and Sofia spreading the awareness of both.
Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: What grade is Sofia in and how does she balance family, school, and her career? Can you give me a snapshot of your family dynamic?
Jennifer Varanini-Sanchez: I have four children. My oldest, Diego, is a 14-year-old freshman in high school. Mateo, age 13, is a seventh grader and Joaquin is turning 10 on Friday, which is huge to me [tears]. It’s the tenth anniversary that I have been on this journey with him and raising a child with Down syndrome. This is a very monumental birthday for him. He’s in third grade. Not only does he have Down syndrome, but he also has a dual diagnosis of mild autism. He is truly the angel in our story. He is the one who inspired us to adopt Sofia; she turned nine in February and is also in the third grade. They go to a large school with four, third grade classes, so they are not in the same class. Joaquin had transitional kindergarten (TK) and kindergarten. Sofia didn’t need TK and went right into kindergarten. That’s why they are in the same grade even though they are exactly a year apart in age.
When we first found out about Sofia, her paperwork said she was born the same year as Joaquin, so we thought we would be raising twins. But a couple months into the process we found out the Ukraine orphanage had transcribed the year wrong. We were kind of bummed at first because we had this picture in our heads of raising twins. But being a whole year younger meant less time in the orphanage, which ended up being a blessing. So we ended up being able to adopt a baby. It still feels like we are raising twins because boys are a little bit more behind developmentally than girls. So they are right on track with each other, which is great! They are both fully included in our neighborhood school. That was very important to us. It was something we fought very hard for and did not come easy. There was a lot of blood, sweat, tears and trials–literal trials.
She shines so brightly. I feel like her mission is to touch people and to change the world
The school district actually took us to court, but we were able to prevail. Now our kids get to go to school alongside our neighbors, siblings, and friends. They both have a one-on-one aid which helps them access the curriculum. As the lesson is presented, the aid helps if it needs to be modified or if accommodations need to be made. They still get their special education services like speech and occupational therapy. So they are being exposed to regular curriculum and peers. They both love their school and love their friends. They wake up in the morning bouncy and ready to go!
With Sofia, it’s funny, I feel like she is ready for life! I feel like she is just ready to do her thing. When we have been out on jobs for modeling and acting or when we have been traveling and walking around New York City, she shines so brightly. I feel like her mission is to touch people and to change the world. She is an old soul and her personality flourishes in those types of environments. Sometimes I feel like school holds her back a little bit. But obviously, school is there to work on all different types of things so she will be fully prepared and ready to do her thing when she is eighteen. While we wait and see what the future holds, we are in the best place we could be at this moment. I don’t see her light shining as brightly in the school setting as when we are walking down the street and interacting with people though.
RM: Had you and your husband always wanted to adopt or did you feel God calling you to do this because your son, Joaquin, has Down syndrome?
JV: We had never thought of adoption. It was not even on our radar because I am able to get pregnant and give birth. I thought there was no greater experience on earth than giving birth to my children. Truly I would have a hundred kids if I could. It wasn’t on my radar AT ALL. I knew people who adopted and always thought it was so noble. Also for the couples who can’t have their own children, I thought, “Thank God there is an option for them.” So that is why God definitely had a hand in this. It really started when my grandmother passed away. We wanted to do something in her honor. She had been with us that whole year from when Joaquin was born in February until she passed in December. When he was born I wanted to learn everything I could about Down syndrome, the organizations, the nonprofits etc. In that exploration I found an organization called, Reece’s Rainbow, which had hundreds of photos of children with special needs, waiting to be adopted overseas. We thought, “Let’s donate money to this cause in honor of Grandma.” You know, it can cost anywhere from $25,000 to $40,000 to adopt children internationally, even children with special needs. So we wanted to help families be able to adopt these children.
Of course, we got on this website and our hearts just broke in two for these babies. Your heart especially breaks when you are looking at your own baby with Down syndrome and going, “How could you not want this child that you are so desperately obsessed with?” Joaquin truly is my heart and soul. He is like my absolute favorite human being on this planet. I’m not even going to pretend that he is not [laughter]. My husband gets home from work and I asked, “Let’s get on this website and pick a baby to donate money to? It will be so good to honor my grandmother in this way.” The kids were with us as we were scrolling through the babies and we were all drawn to this little face. In fact, that exact picture just popped up on my Facebook feed this morning because today is the day I announced I was adopting Sofia on Facebook ten years ago. I thought it was so interesting that we had this interview set for today. Anyway, unanimously we all said, “That one!” We all agreed on Sofia’s picture. All it said was, “Sofia. Eastern Europe. Down Syndrome. Possible Heart Condition.”
We donated our money and that was it. Then a week later Reece’s Rainbow was promoting their Christmas campaign and they sent us this ornament with her face on it as a thank you. So I get this ornament and I keep looking at this little face and I was falling for her. She was so beautiful. I put her on my tree and we went off to Mexico City for Christmas because my husband is from Mexico City. We went to the beach for New Year’s and it was on the beach where I felt it. I mean, my heart was already opening to this baby. I kept asking, “Why am I so drawn to her?” I sat there on the beach watching my three boys playing and it literally hit me. I have a picture of that moment and it is imprinted on my brain. I thought, “Here I am blessed with the life I have. We don’t have much, but we have a house, and we have good jobs.” I kept thinking, “I already have a son with Down syndrome, so I know what that means.” Then I asked, “Why are we not the family taking Sofia home?” It hit me and I knew I had to go get her. I talked to my husband, Hector, and he was immediately like, “You’re crazy! We can have another baby. If you want to have another baby, we are able to have other babies.” And I said, “But I want this baby!”
I continued to tell him all the things I had just been thinking. I also asked him, “What better gift to give Joaquin than a sibling that has Down syndrome, who understands him, who will be his best friend.” I think part of it was looking at the beach and seeing Diego and Mateo playing. I saw them getting married and having their own life. I hope that Joaquin has the same things, that he gets married and lives independently, but I don’t know his future. I realized that no one would truly understand him the way a sibling with Down syndrome would. I thought this is not only a gift to Sofia, but a gift to Joaquin. Hector asked, “Are you sure? This is a huge responsibility and it’s going to be expensive.” I was one hundred percent sure, but I knew it would take the two of us to do this.
I waited a couple of weeks to bring it up to him again. Then he said to me, “Here’s the deal. It’s going to take a leap of faith. I don’t want to look back twenty years from now and wish we would have done this. I’m going to do this for you and trust that it’s the right thing to do.” He relied on his faith. He trusted me and our marriage. He could see how driven I was, and he knew there could have been bitterness. He thought that our marriage was more important. He said, “Yes!” But I was so scared to tell friends and family. I thought I would get a negative reaction. I remember taking our parents to dinner and they immediately gave us their blessing. They were so excited. You know, you always want your parents’ approval. At that point on, I was a girl on a mission saying, “Do not stop me. I’m getting this baby as soon as possible!” I knew that this child was there waiting, getting older by the minute. I knew I had to make it happen.
Then the wave hit me that this was so different than giving birth. She had her own smells. She didn’t melt into my arms. In fact, she didn’t even know how to be held, because I don’t think the babies there are held that often.
I started the paperwork and we started fundraising and raised every penny. We raised twenty-six thousand dollars, which was another huge blessing. We couldn’t have done it without the support of the community; the Down syndrome community, and the community-at-large. There were newspapers and magazines that helped share our story that helped us raise money. The people of Sacramento [California] really wrapped their arms around our family during the process.
RM: Tell me about the adoption process in Ukraine and the challenges you had to overcome. How did you rely on your faith to get you through these challenges? How did it feel meeting Sofia for the first time?
JV: When we made it to Ukraine, it was pretty shocking. I had never been to a country like Ukraine. It was so cold and the people were just coming off of Communist rule. It is such a different world than the United States. I had an empty feeling leaving my boys behind. We had to stay in Ukraine for four weeks. I had just finished weaning Joaquin, so you can understand the kind of emotional state I was in. I knew the kids were in good hands with my parents, but still, it was just a lonely feeling being in Ukraine. I had been dreaming and imagining what it would be like when they brought Sofia out to meet me. But when we were in this orphanage it was so different from what I imagined. It smelled weird. No one spoke English. We just sat there waiting in this cold room to meet our future child. They brought her out and she was dressed in this brown bloomer outfit. She was this super robust chubby little cherub, smiling, which goes to show you her spirit. She did not look like the baby I imagined. I was imagining a frail sick needy baby that had nothing. I thought I was going to rescue this baby, and what I found was Sofia, with her bright spirit. But when I peeked around the corner, I saw what I thought I was going to see in Sofia. I saw sick babies, really sick babies that needed a mom and a dad. And Sofia just looked at me like, “Hi, I’m here.” Then the wave hit me that this was so different than giving birth. She had her own smells. She didn’t melt into my arms. In fact, she didn’t even know how to be held, because I don’t think the babies there are held that often. She didn’t fit into me. It seemed like she didn’t fit me.
Nothing was what I thought it was going to be, and I full on freaked out. But I knew I was being watched. I had to fake it to make it. I held her. I put on a smile and took the pictures. I was excited to meet her, but in my head I thought, “Oh my God. What are we doing here? Did we just make the biggest mistake of our lives? Am I ever going to feel the way I feel about my own kids with her?” All of these thoughts were just racing through my head. The fairy-tale was not coming true. We went back to the hotel, and I started crying. I asked Hector, “What are we doing? Are we doing the right thing?” Looking back, it really was jetlag, the cold, nobody talking to you, and being homesick all wrapped into the emotions. At that moment Hector was the one that was strong as could be. He looked at me and said, “This is ABSOLUTELY what we are supposed to do. It is the right thing to do, but you are just scared right now.” [Tears] His faith came in right there and he was like, “We’re doing this.” [More tears] It was exactly where we were supposed to be. I was so strong for so long, and in my moment of weakness, he was so strong [more tears].
I couldn’t have done it without him at that point. I thank God for what we have. It is such a testament to marriage, where one is weak at times, the other is strong and vice versa. So after my freak-out moment, I calmed down, and got to the work of bonding with this child. The process of bonding was hard, because we didn’t get to take her home. For several weeks, we could only visit with her a couple of hours a day. They had restrictions on what we could do with her. It may have been different if she was a newborn baby, placed in my arms, and I could just take her home. It just felt so weird. She was a fourteenth-month-old baby; you’re being watched, and you can’t take her home until after we passed court. Long story short, we got through the process. But we did have to leave her. They make you leave for thirty days. There was daily prayer while we were separated. We’d pray, “Sweet baby, we are coming back for you. God, please keep her safe.” I mean, at that point she was my child. That was my baby from the moment I said yes to adopting her. Then I bonded with her and had to leave her! I had to trust that she would be safe while I was gone. Yeah, there was lots of prayer!
RM: What would have happened to Sofia if no one would have adopted her? What happens to the orphans in Ukraine with special needs and without special needs if they do not get adopted?
JV: In Ukraine, if a special needs child is not adopted by age five, they are transferred to an institution. Children with special needs do not belong in an institution. It is the worst place for them to be. The conditions in the orphanage are bare bones, and from what I hear, the conditions in the institution are pretty much a dumping ground. The children don’t survive. For children with Down syndrome, human contact and human interaction are so vital to their genetics. They are not meant to be put in a room full of other sick people and just left. They just couldn’t survive. I have seen enough videos of these institutions to know it is not a good thing. But typical children, without special needs, stay in the orphanage until they are eighteen. Then they get a check and are released. They send them outside the gate and say, “Good luck.” They don’t get much of a life either. Many of them end up in prostitution or drugs. They don’t have family and they don’t have support. It is a dismal situation there. I bonded with several babies that I saw there which weighed really heavy on my heart. So I ended up blogging about four of the children I completely bonded with even though we had limited interaction. All four of those children ended up getting adopted by families. So I felt a lot of peace in my heart after that. You know, I couldn’t save them all, and that was the hardest thing. It gave me comfort to know that I was able to save not just one, but the four I blogged about.
RM: When did you realize that Sofia had star quality and how did her career unfold? Was the viral Facebook video the catalyst for it?
JV: You know, it goes beyond a star quality. I mean, of course, you have to have star quality to do acting and modeling. But there is more of a spiritual side to it. I feel like she was put in this world to do good and spread a message. Our whole life was about increasing awareness of adoption and Down syndrome. Because Sofia’s story was so touching, she started getting publicity even as a baby. She was on the covers of local parenting magazines. The news was covering our story because there was this whole thing with the Icelandic volcano that kept us from taking our flights. We had our blog to keep people posted who had donated to our fundraiser. At that time Facebook was starting to take off. Since so many people had donated toward her adoption, I had a lot of people following our story on social media. I felt this obligation to continue sharing about Sofia because people had been so supportive of our adoption. People wanted to know how she was doing and wanted to see pictures of how she was developing with her family. Every October during Down syndrome awareness month, I would do a big post with lots of pictures. I had so many beautiful photos because so many photographers offered to do photo shoots of her. She and Joaquin were getting lots of local opportunities for modeling. People would ask, “Can they wear our t-shirts and let us take pictures of them?” She got some bigger jobs with Target and what not. But the year our video went viral, it was not planned. I just thought, “Here I am, a mom, sharing about my kids.” I figured Sofia and Joaquin were old enough to speak for themselves. I asked myself, “Maybe it’s time for them to start spreading awareness, not me?” So I just pulled out my recorder and started asking Sofia random questions. I asked her, “Is Down syndrome scary?” Her response was just so natural and not planned, which is part of the reason why I think it went viral.
I shared the video, and I went off of social media for a couple days because we went to Disneyland that weekend. I ended up getting a message from Lester Holt from NBC Nightly News saying they would like to do a story on our daughter’s viral video. I thought, “Viral video? What?” Then I looked at how many views and there were millions! Before I knew it there were millions and millions. Then it hit Europe and it went crazy over there. I started getting messages from people all over the entire world. We got messages from people who had a person with Down syndrome in their family, but we also got messages from people who had never had contact with anyone who had Down syndrome. It was their very first exposure to someone with Down syndrome! They could see that she loved her life and had confidence. They saw that Sofia was like, “Look at me. There’s nothing to be scared about!”
The video was really powerful, and it is still going around. It has been on so many media outlets. It sort of took on a life of its own. Again, that’s why I think this is her gift. When we went to New York City for one of her Target shoots, I kid you not, we were stopped by so many people who recognized her. And there were even more people who were just drawn to her energy. They would strike up a conversation and before you know it, they were just touched by her. She was in her element. It was not something we sought after. It just sort of happened by accident. That’s why I believe God placed her on this planet to do what she needs to do, and I am just a facilitator of that. I am not here to make my daughter famous. That’s not what I’m about. I’m just trying to facilitate her message.
RM: How did the “Changing the Face of Beauty” campaign come about?
JV: Changing the Face of Beauty is a nonprofit organization that spoke really deeply to us. They reached out and asked Sofia to be an ambassador for them. She became their spokesperson. She helped launch their nonprofit. It was just the perfect hashtag. It’s exactly what we are trying to do. You know, people don’t see a lot of children with Down syndrome anymore, but they are out there. One in every seven hundred births in the United States is Down syndrome, if they are allowed to make it that far. With prenatal testing, unfortunately, the number of people with Down syndrome has decreased dramatically. At one point it was upwards of ninety percent of U.S. babies diagnosed with Down syndrome in prenatal screenings were terminated. If we are not careful, and if Sofia does not continue to share her message, then people won’t be exposed to the beauty of imperfection or disabilities or Down syndrome. If we don’t get this message out there, I’m afraid we won’t have any more people born with Down syndrome, especially with the rates at which they are testing it now. They can detect it so early now. They can detect it at six weeks now when it is so much easier to say, “I don’t want that in my life.”
RM: What would you say to a family right now who is caught in the space of making that decision in the early weeks of pregnancy?
JV: For anyone who has received a prenatal diagnosis I would say there is the fear and the shock that comes with the news that you are getting what you think is a less than a perfect baby. But you have no idea how lucky you are [tears]. You are about to be blessed with the most beautiful journey that you don’t even know exists [tears]. You don’t know it exists until you are touched by it in some way. So go out there and meet a family who has a child with Down syndrome. I mean, I can’t tell you how many people Sofia’s video brought comfort to who had a prenatal diagnosis. They are writing me and saying, “Your daughter’s video gave me hope as I sat there with my pregnant belly knowing that my baby was diagnosed with Down syndrome. It’s what got me through my pregnancy.”
I believe God placed her on this planet to do what she needs to do, and I am just a facilitator of that. I am not here to make my daughter famous. That’s not what I’m about. I’m just trying to facilitate her message.
I met this one woman from Tennessee whose baby girl got the prenatal diagnosis and was devastated. They were a faith-filled family and when the pregnant mother saw Sofia’s video she said, “This peace came over me, and for the first time I became excited about my pregnancy.” She reached out to me when they were driving through Sacramento one time and we met up for frozen yogurt. They are the most beautiful family. When she had her baby, she had #theluckyfew moment. She knew exactly what I was talking about. She said, “I could not love this human being any more than I could have ever imagined.”
I would also say to people who are about to give birth to a child with Down syndrome, buckle your seatbelt because you are in for the ride of your life. It’s going to be so fun and so different from anything you could imagine. Yes, it’s hard. But what child is not hard? They are all hard. Parenting is just hard. Don’t do the what-ifs? You don’t know about your other pregnancies either, even with a child who has a perfect set of chromosomes. You don’t know what kind of challenges you are going to face with them. They could have cancer, a mental illness, or they could be a sociopath. You don’t know these things, so don’t do the what-ifs? You just have a child. You are blessed with it, and you just do the best you can. The thing about having a child with Down syndrome is that it comes with all these hidden blessings you just don’t know about until you experience it. It’s like getting the golden ticket you never knew you needed. There’s the hashtag “The Lucky Few” because SO many people feel they are lucky. It’s our little-hidden secret. We are in this club, and we instantly connect, because we know how lucky we are to be living this journey.
RM: Recently you and Sofia published Sofia’s first book, Be You Tiful. What other projects are you and Sofia working on currently? What are Sofia’s goals for the future?
JV: We don’t know what her next steps are. We are just trying to follow God’s plan and follow where He leads. I do feel like her true calling is beyond the school setting. People come to us and we take opportunities. She did spring Target commercials. She has Build-a-Bear commercials coming out. This week we had offers for Carter’s and Oshkosh that we had to turn down because they were in Los Angeles and we couldn’t come down there from Sacramento. We just had an audition for Barbie. We really should be living in LA if we wanted to just go for it. She has her book which is really our baby. If we could get that book into the hands of every family, every child, and every baby, we could really get the message out there that “Sofia is just like you!” She has dreams. She has a story to tell and you do too. Her book is everything she is about all wrapped in a pretty little package. We aren’t looking to make money. We spent way more money to self-publish that book than the money we will get in return. Sofia, myself, and Ms. O’Hair really just want the message to be shared with children. Children are our future. It’s a trickle effect. If you can change a child’s heart and mind, you can change the world. These children are our future doctors. They are our future employers. If they can see Down syndrome in a different light, it means the future will be brighter for all people. It is so much bigger than Sofia. She is just the pretty package being shared with the world.
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