When Lillee Met Sally
Born without a name, without a family, and without much hope for a future.
She is born without a name, without a family, and without much hope for a future. At two days old, she is found abandoned in the courtyard of an apartment complex in a small village in China.
A kind woman finds the newborn and takes her to a nearby orphanage. She doesn’t look like the other children, but that’s what makes her special. Staff workers nickname her Xiao Yun, which means “Little Cloud.” It seems fitting for a girl with skin and hair so opaque and white.
A world away in Mississippi, a family juggles homework, slumber parties, and after-school sports for four growing kids. They know nothing about Xiao Yun, but thanks to the power of social media, their worlds collide.
“I was on Facebook, scrolling through, and I saw a post about adopting kids from China,” says Deborah Edmonson, the mom with four busy kids. “There was a picture of this beautiful little girl with albinism, and I just started crying. So, I called my husband and said ‘Stephen, I think God is telling us to adopt a child.’”
Stephen was caught off guard, reminding her that they already have four biological children. “But the more we really thought and prayed about it, we felt it was something we were called to do,” he explained.
The Edmonsons submitted adoption paperwork and waited patiently. Then one day, the social worker emailed them a file and photo of a toddler with a porcelain doll face and wisps of snow-white hair. “As soon as I saw her little face, I said ‘Oh, that’s our daughter!’” exclaimed Deborah. Four months later, the family boarded a plane to China.
Albinism is an inherited condition that reduces the melanin pigment formed in the skin, hair, and eyes. The lack of melanin can cause permanent vision problems. “We knew that she would be legally blind, and we were okay with that,” says Deborah.
With their new 15-month-old daughter safely home in Madison, Mississippi, Deborah and Stephen gave her a name with special meaning. Stephen’s mother had recently passed away, and her middle name was “Lee.” The couple had always loved the name “Lily,” so they combined the two and named their daughter “Lillee.”
Adjusting to a new culture took time, but Lillee persevered. Then, at age five, she suffered a setback. “I went to pick her up and the teacher said ‘Lillee won’t get out of her chair and she’s refusing to talk,’” recalls Deborah. The worried mom tried to get Lillee to stand, but her legs collapsed, and she couldn’t speak.
After rushing to the emergency room, a brain scan revealed a stroke and that Lillee had suffered several undetected strokes before this. She was also diagnosed with Moyamoya, a rare disorder caused by blocked arteries in the part of the brain that regulates motor control.
They performed bypass surgery on the little girl, and she experienced another stroke. “She lost her ability to walk and talk. She couldn’t draw anymore,” Deborah recounts tearfully. “Her right side just wouldn’t move at all.” To top it off, Lillee lost more precious sight, reducing her vision acuity to 20/400.
Despite it all, Lillee has come a long way. She’s seven now, and to watch her fearlessly run and cartwheel, giggling all the way, one would never guess what she’s been through. “She’s the bravest child you’ll ever meet,” Deborah says.
Determined to give Lillee every tool possible to help her become independent, Deborah reached out to the adoption community and learned about Southeastern Guide Dogs’ Kids Companion Dogs. “The companion dog was to help get Lillee ready for having a guide dog someday,” explains Deborah.
Sally knows Lillee’s her person and she just wants to be there for her.
Then along came Sally, a black goldador full of licks and love. “The connection between Lillee and Sally was very quick,” recalls Stephen.
“Sally is the best dog ever. She has made Lillee more independent,” Deborah raves. “Lillee has never gone to sleep without Mommy right beside her, until we got Sally. Sally knows Lillee’s her person and she just wants to be there for her.” Lillee is too young to walk Sally alone, but she’s getting experience for the day when she can get her own guide dog. Her mom says, “It’s a true blessing and an unexpected bonus that Sally seems to understand Lillee’s special problems and is helping her overcome them.”
On a rainy summer afternoon, the kitchen table is littered with markers and colored pencils, while a blank sheet of paper beckons Lillee. She wastes no time, creativity flowing with each colorful scribble. “Lillee loves to draw. I think we go through a ream of paper a week,” Deborah chuckles.
While Lillee works on her masterpiece, Sally sits close. “Sally’s my best friend,” Lillee prattles. “I love that she follows me everywhere.” On that note, Lillee hugs Sally and kisses the top of her head. Then Lillee finishes her artwork and promptly shares it with Sally, who approves with the love in her eyes and the wag of her tail. The picture tells it all: there’s Lillee and Sally walking together through tall green grass, with a bright yellow sun and big, puffy clouds hovering overhead.
That’s Lillee’s life with Sally: the little cloud who found her sunshine and a silver lining at the end of a leash.
This feature first appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of Life Unleashed. Read more articles here.