Luci Newton had been practicing her princess wave since she learned she would be the star of the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Christmas Parade in midtown Atlanta.
But the 6-year-old was no stranger to the frilly dress she would don Saturday as she smiled and waved to the crowd.
Having been through six procedures at Children’s, she is a bit of a celebrity at the Atlanta hospital, where nurses and staff know her as the tutu girl, who wears frilly frocks to every visit and procedure.
“We’re there a lot,” said her mother, Tara Newton. “Luci’s got a great attitude. She’s tough as nails ... she handles it much better than I think any of us would.”
Newton said her daughter is a “girly girl,” who is always smiling. But it wasn’t always that way for Luci, who began life in a Chinese orphanage with severe burns to the top of her face and scalp.
Prospects of adoption appeared grim for the little girl until Newton decided late one night to search for orphaned children who had been burned.
As a burn victim herself from an incident in 2005, Newton felt a connection to others who have gone through the same pain. She volunteered with the Georgia Firefighters Burn Foundation camp and was blown away by the children’s endurance.
“They have to get to the point where stares don’t eat them up and kill their spirit,” she said. “They have to get past the way they look themselves, and see what else is inside of them. I probably got more healing from them.”
So when Luci’s photo popped up on her search, it “was just one of those moments. I just couldn’t get it out of my head.”
Newton spent the next year working toward adoption, while sending care packages with photos of the family the little girl could one day call her own, as well as fancy clothes and tutus.
When Luci left China for her new home, it took about nine months before the Newtons would broach the topic of surgery. It was a delicate balance of letting the child know she was beautiful the way she was, yet needing some cosmetic changes to make sure her vision wouldn’t deteriorate. There was also a dental procedure.
“She’s so beautiful, and I would never forgive myself if we took this beautiful child and did some surgery and it made things worse,” Newton said.
With each procedure, Luci gets to make the choice. One of the little girl’s ears is completely melted away. Given the option to fix it, she said she was hapy with the way it was.
However, when the mostly bald child was presented with the chance to have hair like the princess dolls she loves to play with, it was a quick “yes.”
“The hair was a big deal. It was a bigger deal than I thought,” Newton said. “She came to us with almost no hair and the first four years of her life, she lived with her head shaved.
“Everything she sees is princes something or another with long hair ... so she wants it long. Long hair is a big deal to her feeling normal.”
Before her hair would come, however, Luci spent time using expanders to stretch the skin on her scalp with healthy hair.
Newton said it looks a bit like Mickey Mouse ears, but the procedure was worth it for Luci to get the hair she’s always wanted. The plan is to go back next month for another round of expanders to bring her hairline to her forehead, covering more scar tissue in the process.
While the procedures have helped Luci’s confidence, her mother said that was never really an issue. Even when she spent time with her daughter in the orphanage, she was “a very confident child already.”
“That speaks to the love and the care of the orphanage she was in,” she said. “She’s not scared of anything ... and she does not want to go hide from the world.”
Newton said her husband, Brian, was on board with the decision to adopt. The couple’s son Mac was 2 when Luci arrived and they have since become best friends.
Despite the two-year age difference, both kids basically learned the English language together and discovered their surroundings at the same time.
“They’re like two peas in a pod. And that’s been one of those miracles of adoption is seeing them together,” she said. “It was a perfect little arrangement and we didn’t even know it.
“They have so much history together every little step of the way.”
When Luci began kindergarten at Johns Creek Elementary School this fall, it was tough on the siblings not to be at the same school. And despite coming from a small private school, Luci made the transition easily.
“It was much better than I expected ... I just expected the worst,” Newton said. “As a parent, you worry about the worst-case-scenario. She has plenty of friends and she seems happy. She can’t wait to go to school every day.”
Newton said adoption is definitely something prospective parents need to consider carefully, saying it’s not all “rainbows and balloons and unicorns.”
“It’s a very different parenting experience,” she said. “You love them as much, but you love them differently and that’s only natural because they came to you on a different path.
“You fall in love with that picture, but you truly are falling in love with the photo and the idea of loving that child ... so I think getting to know her and the things that make her unique over the last two years, I got to fall in love with who she is, not just the notion of being her mom.”