Three-year-old Sam Gianfrancisco has been practicing his best poses and struts with his cousin, holding mock fashion shows at his Oak Park home while preparing to take to an actual runway.
The toddler is taking part in a fashion show next Saturday, Sept. 19, hosted by Aspire, an Illinois-based agency serving special needs families. Just looking at Sam, you would never know that he suffered from a muscle condition, said his mom, Karen Gianfrancisco, an Oak Park native.
She adopted Sam in 2007 from Guatemala when he was 11 months old. He’s her only child and first adoptee. As a child of an impoverished country, Sam, like many children, suffered from poor nutrition, which resulted in his having low muscle tone in his first year.
Karen was living in Chicago at the time and traveling across the globe as an executive in the field of human capital. In countries like Guatemala and India, she saw first hand some of the desolate living conditions of those nations’ children. It was then that she decided to adopt.
Working with a Milwaukee-based adoption agency, Karen set about the long and sometimes heart-wrenching process to adopt a child from overseas. The entire process took about a year, she said.
As a single person trying to adopt, Karen said the screening process was more intense. She noted that it’s also more expensive to adopt children from abroad. She was given a background check by the FBI and received a psychological screening. And then there was the situation with families in Guatemala, she noted. Some children are put up for adoption illegally and it needed to be certain that Sam was not one of those children. He wasn’t, to Karen’s relief.
It was in April of 2007 that she first met Sam and his mother. Karen recalled there was always an uncertainty if the adoption would go through.
“I ran a company and always prided myself on being a problem-solver. But there are so many variables in adopting internationally that are completely out of your hands,” she said. “It can be extremely painful; the waiting and uncertainty. You have to have incredible faith, hope and belief that this is going to happen.”
After spending time with his mother, Karen was able to spend a few days with just Sam at the Guatemalan hotel where he and his mother were staying. She returned to the United States after that visit and went back to Guatemala in June of 2007 to finalize the adoption and bring Sam back to the Unites States.
Karen, who grew up in an Italian household in Oak Park, decided to move back to the village in October 2008 to raise Sam. Concerning his condition, she reached out to Aspire, based in Westchester but with care centers across the state and the western suburbs, including Hillside. Sam received speech and physical therapy at Aspire. It was Sam’s health-care providers who suggested he participate in their fashion show.
In the last couple of weeks, Karen’s family has been helping Sam get ready, even pretending to be paparazzi recently, snapping photos of Sam, who turned 3 on July 21.
“He’s been polishing up his smile,” Karen said, adding that Sam is much stronger now, thanks to his therapy – he also loves soccer, trucks, strawberries and mac-n-cheese.
“He’s a very active little guy,” Karen said.