Family

Raising Christopher: A 19-year roller coaster ride

Adoptive parents launch their child into adulthood
2013-07-26T14:11:00Z 2013-07-27T22:41:49Z Raising Christopher: A 19-year roller coaster rideDOUG ERNST Napa Valley Register
July 26, 2013 2:11 pm  • 

Christopher Leigon came into the world 19 years ago under daunting circumstances. Because his mother was addicted to street drugs, so was he.

Christopher was taken from his mother at birth in San Francisco, and placed 10 days later with Deborah Loveless, a Napa County foster parent and a friend of Bill and Denae Leigon. Three months later, Christopher's withdrawal symptoms had subsided, but he was not out of the woods.

The Leigons, parents of two, always wanted a third child, and were introduced to Christopher at 4 months.

“He spit up on us,” Denae recalls. That was just the start of a tumultuous relationship.

The Leigons became Christopher's foster parents. Denae knew what to expect, having supervised several Napa County children's units. When Christopher's needs increased, she left the supervisorial positions and became a part-time therapist in Juvenile Hall.

Bill was somewhat less prepared.

“I thought he would be lethargic, so I had no expectations, but I got the Tasmanian Devil,” he said. “It's a humbling experience. Christopher can bring anyone to his knees. You realize how little you have to do with the outcome — not as much as you think.”

Denae agreed.

“Christopher has taught me the limits of my anger and why people hurt children, as his outbursts and explosive actions became more volatile.” she said. “He needs constant attention. Every day when Christopher is with me it's a challenge.”

However, the Leigons fell in love with Christopher, adopting him at the age of 3.

By age 4, the Leigons' new son was on Ritalin and diagnosed with Aspergers, a form of autism. He was found to be bipolar, had explosive rage disorder and suffered from hyperactivity, attention deficit disorder, and sensory integration issues. He can't go 48 hours without medication.

At age 7, Christopher asked his parents: “What's wrong with me?”

Over time, the Leigons were able to talk to Christopher about his condition, explaining that his birth mother made poor choices. It was not his fault.

At age 14 he went to summer camp, where he received respect and acceptance from other kids, after mastering the unicycle and the Diablo stilts. “There was a change in him,” recalls Denae.

Prior to that, Christopher had “blown out” of several schools that called home to complain about Christopher several times a day, said Bill Leigon. “He never met a school he couldn't break,” he said.

Christopher was given an aide in elementary school, and attended Hanna's Boys Center during his middle school years. When he began high school there, it became apparent that his classroom needs had changed.

The Leigons enrolled Christopher in the ADAPT program, funded and developed by Aldea Children and Family Services in conjunction with the Napa Valley Unified School District. Located at Vintage High School, the 33-year-old ADAPT program is open to teenagers who “need a therapeutic component to succeed academically,” said Randi Storm, the program's clinical director.

The students are diagnosed with various problems, including schizophrenia, anger, suicidal tendencies, anxiety disorders, depression and sexual identity issues, said Storm, one of 10 staff members.

“Every moment is an opportunity to counsel and find growth,” she said. “The staff have different strengths and skills and come at it from different angles. Some of us are big sisters, others are mothers, and some are trained clinicians. The growth happens through relationships.”

Denae said the ADAPT program changed Christopher's life. “The minute he walked into ADAPT there wasn't another phone call home,” she said.

“Christopher, when he was upset, had to wait and calm down to be able to say his piece, and we would listen and find his truth, support and validate him, then move forward,” said Storm.

Denae praised the dedication of the ADAPT staff.

“You wouldn't do that job but for the love of what you're doing,” she said. “They see each child and student as having no limits; they see the strength of each kid. It's a place to be accepted and nurtured. The kids are on a path, and ADAPT is one of the places where they always have a hand to turn to.”

Christopher graduated in June, receiving his high school diploma.

“I never thought he'd graduate high school, and he just got his driver's license,” said Bill. “He is still innocent and naïve. He does not respond to the alarm clock and he has no concept of money.

“But he likes being a teacher, a big brother. He relates to younger students or older people. Christopher has taught me far more than I will ever teach him. It was gut-wrenching but I have laughed more and cried more. At the end of the day I chose this and made this commitment.”

Bill and Denae ended their marriage a few years ago, but continue to share responsibilities and their love of Christopher, who splits time between Denae and her partner in Contra Costa County and Bill and his partner in Napa.

Last fall the ADAPT staff helped Christopher enroll in the Community Action of Napa Valley Culinary Program where he completed the basic culinary skills and training program. He was filmed cooking at Greg Cole's Chop House.

Earlier this year he helped build houses for the homeless in Baja Mexico with Project Hope. Today, Christopher is considering employment with Amtrak.

Denae said Christopher never smoked or drank and has never been arrested. He defends the underdog. He is a drummer, dancer, artist and builder.

“He's going to have a fabulous life,” she said. “It just might not fit the mold. He knows no boundaries. He's a gift from the universe. He's not ours.”

Copyright 2015 Napa Valley Register. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(4) Comments

  1. Time
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    Time - July 26, 2013 5:59 pm
    Great love, dedicated parents, an outstanding ALDEA, sponsored adolescence program which gave hope, and helped to provide a brighter future for this fine young man!
  2. Denae Leigon
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    Denae Leigon - July 26, 2013 6:39 pm
    Christopher is also an AWESOME DJ, 200 plus bowler with a POWER ball and a mean hook, and a great sense of humor. I am always touched by his loyalty to friends and family❤
  3. JustAnotherManicMonday
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    JustAnotherManicMonday - July 26, 2013 9:48 pm
    This is a great, positive story of adoption, great parents and learning to live with bipolar. Congrats!
  4. Bill Leigon
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    Bill Leigon - July 27, 2013 10:30 am
    I just want to thank all the people in Napa that have helped Christopher over the years. It truly takes a community. Christopher has been in the "system" since the day he was born, beginning in Napa with the Napa Infant Program. There are too many people to thank to list them all: the Loveless Family; Napa County Health and Human Services; the Napa School District; the First Methodist Church; Father Crews, ADAPT and so many, many more. Most importantly, we could not have survived without the incredible help and support of Napa Nannies and Sheree Sherman. Thank you; thank you all!
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