Born without arms in Romania, George Dennehy was fading away as a neglected toddler living in a bleak orphanage. At age 18 months, he weighed only 91/2 pounds, and a doctor said he most likely would die before his second birthday. But an American couple, challenged by a Sunday morning sermon to do something “uncomfortable” for God, saw his photo in a Bethany Christian Services newsletter and adopted him.
George thrived in his new home in Connecticut with his parents, Michael and Sharon Dennehy, and three older siblings, ranging from age 6 to 9. When he was 8, he joined his brother and sisters in music lessons, playing the cello with his feet. He eventually added the piano, guitar and bass guitar to his repertoire. He’s performed with the Goo Goo Dolls and recently recorded a CD with his original music and lyrics, “Have My Heart.”
Now 19, George will bring his music and the story of his adoption to the Modesto area. He’ll perform Saturday evening at Modesto Christian Reformed Church, then will participate in a worship service at 10 a.m. Sept. 22 at First Christian Reformed Church in Ripon. The Rev. Johnny Carr, author of “Orphan Justice: How to Care for Orphans Beyond Adopting,” will speak at both events. They will benefit Bethany Christian Services, which offers independent adoptions and a home for pregnant women in Modesto.
In a telephone interview from his home in Virginia, George said his birth family, a poor couple with four other children, didn’t have the knowledge or resources to care for their armless son. Doctors don’t know what caused the disability, he said. He is otherwise healthy. He ended up in a Romanian orphanage soon after his birth.
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Horror stories are common about the lack of food and outright neglect, especially of ill or disabled children, in institutions in Romania and other former Soviet countries. The stories were true in his case.
“The orphanage was terrible, really bad conditions,” George said. “It was not a good place for me.”
But when the Dennehys picked him up from the orphanage and took him home, he went “from a small, pale baby to a really chubby baby in a year,” George said. “I was an energetic child. I loved to have fun and run around outside.”
The family has since adopted eight other children.
“I have a brother from India a year younger than me; he also has no arms,” George said. “Just about a year ago, they adopted a girl from Thailand with no arms or legs. I think they’re done adopting, but that’s what they said three kids ago, so you never know.”
When he was “really young,” he tried to wear prosthetic arms.
“I hated it. It was really uncomfortable,” George said. He found it easier to use his legs and toes for most things — eating, opening a refrigerator door, driving a car, using a computer.
Growing up without arms “was normal to me,” he said. He felt self-conscious when he would eat with his toes in public, but mostly just accepted it as part of life. When he got into elementary school, however, some kids made taunting remarks.
“I’d be lying if I said no one made fun of me,” George said. “I’ve had my share of bullying, which is part of my testimony. When I was in third grade to sixth grade, I went to a private school and home school.”
But in junior high, he said, he came into his own and returned to the public school system.
“When I was in eighth grade, I went out of my shell and really accepted who I am,” he said. “I didn’t shy away in public. I was just myself. So in high school, people saw I was just a normal guy, and they treated me that way.”
There was a time when his emotions put him at odds with his faith in God.
“Ever since I was little, I was raised in the church,” George said. “God made sense to me. But I got to a point when I doubted everything I believed. I was unhappy not having arms. I thought God could have given me arms.”
Then his views shifted again. “I believed God made me this way on purpose,” he said “I believe God does everything for a reason, and that he wants me to inspire others to reach their own purpose and to know that God can make good out of any situation.”
His story has been featured on PBS and on shows in Romania and Australia.
“Last year I went back to Romania for this TV show, and I got to meet my biological family,” George said. “That was an amazing experience. It was very emotional meeting my birth mom. They were so proud of me.”
He said his adoption changed his life, and has made him better understand God’s love.
“I think adoption is so incredible,” he said. It’s so important, because there are so many children in need. Every child has a purpose here on this Earth. They’re just waiting for adoption to be able to live that out.
“It’s also a picture of how God adopts us into his family, no strings attached. God says, ‘I love you, and I want you to be part of my family.’ So I love adoption.”
Mainly, George said, he wants people to know that God is bigger than life’s challenges.
“The big message of my life is we all go through hard times when we ask God why this is happening. Sometimes we point the blaming finger at God,” he said. “But the lesson I’ve learned is that God has a reason for everything that happens, and he’s there in the dark times as well as the light times. Instead of blaming God, we need to look to him to show us what we need to learn.”