Vikings leadership and General Manager Rick Spielman hosted the annual Adoption Fun Fest at the TCO Performance Center on Tuesday night.
EAGAN, Minn. – Ronnie Spielman's life was changed for the better 21 years ago, and he hopes that sharing his story will make a positive impact on those who hear it.
Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman and his wife, Michele, adopted Ronnie and his younger brother, JD, from Chicago when Ronnie was 1 ½ years old. It's a gift that Ronnie doesn't take for granted.
On Tuesday evening, Rick and Ronnie spoke at the Vikings annual Adoption Family Fun Fest.
"My parents are Rick and Michelle – always have been, always will be," Ronnie said. "They gave me the best two opportunities in my life: being adopted into a family that loved me and supported me, and being adopted with my brother, JD … We were a package deal. It's him and me. I was very thankful for that."
Ronnie shared with guests at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center that he is currently finishing school, working as an aide at a local preschool and also serves as a lacrosse coach at Chanhassen High School and for a summer club team.
"Coming from The South Side of Chicago, you don't get a lot of opportunities," Ronnie said. "For some kids [from that area], growing up and making it past 21 would be the best thing that's ever happened. But my parents were able to get us out of there into a safe environment and community so we were able to grow up and hopefully be successful with our lives. I'm just trying to make the most of that opportunity."
Ronnie and JD, who plays football at the University of Nebraska, are two of six children that Rick and Michele have adopted from the foster care system.
"I can't express how important it's been to me and my wife and how rewarding it was. Now, I'll warn you – it's just like any other family, you're going to have your ups and downs," Rick laughed. "But … through adoption, we were able to have a family.
"Family was the number one thing in our life, besides our faith, and that's why we elected to adopt," Rick added. "There are so many kids out there that deserve a chance to really see and feel what it is to be part of a family."
Rick was joined in hosting the Adoption Family Fun Fest by Vikings Executive Vice President of Football Operations Rob Brzezinski, who is equally passionate about adoption. Rob and his wife, Leah, have adopted five children from South Korea: Ki, 15; Grace, 14; Jae, 13; Anna, 12; and Rose, 8.
Rob emphasized the large number of children – within the U.S. and internationally – who need homes.
"Adoption changed our lives," Rob said. "We love them [our children] more than we could ever express. It's why I get up every morning, to be a part of their lives. They're an inspiration to me, and I'm very, very grateful for the gift of adoption."
Rick and Rob each credited Vikings Owners Mark and Zygi Wilf for encouraging a culture within the franchise that values and celebrates family.
"They're about family first," Rob said of the Wilfs. "They encourage us to use the platform of the Vikings and the NFL to try to make a difference, and this is a way that we can do it. To share Rick's passion and my passion, and our wives' and our families', it's just an opportunity to come out and have fun and raise awareness."
Rob acknowledged two individuals who have passed away but were fellow champions for adoption and left a lasting impact on both him and Rick: Rod Simons, former Minnesota journalist; and Michael Givens, who served as a trustee with the Dave Thomas Foundation.
Rob also introduced members of Sheriff's Youth Project of Le Sueur County, which has established a continuing relationship with the Vikings Adoption Family Fun Fest.
Le Sueur County Sheriff Brett Mason presented the Minnesota Vikings Foundation with a donation of $15,000 that will be distributed in ways to continue supporting the mission of adoption.
Youth of all ages, many of whom have been adopted themselves, were able to run through the Indoor Practice Facility, join in a bean-bag toss, play tug-of-war, visit a face-painting booth, catch a magician's act and play games for prizes. A SKOL-themed photo booth was the perfect backdrop for families, and organized locker-room tours were given to groups throughout the evening.
Representatives from four adoption-related organizations – Children's Home & LSS, Evolve Services, Bethany Christian Services and Adoption is Love Fund – were on-hand to share information and answer any questions from attendees.
The brief program was emceed by KFAN personality and VEN analyst Ben Leber. The former Vikings linebacker shared that when he was 7 years old, his parents adopted a 6-year-old girl from South Korea.
"I've seen the direct impact [that adoption can have on] families," Leber said. "Our lives have been completely enriched by my sister Gina being in our lives."
Leber introduced other special guests of the evening, including 10 current Vikings: RB Ameer Abdullah, TE David Morgan, S Anthony Harris, LB Kentrell Brothers, QB Kyle Sloter, G Danny Isidora, T Aviante Collins, C Brett Jones, P Matt Wile and DE Ade Aruna. Vikings Legend Rickey Young, Minnesota Vikings Cheerleaders and Viktor the Viking also spent time mingling with the families.
Abdullah, who signed with the Vikings as a free agent on Nov. 7, said he was "blown away" by the significance of the event and the "great people" that he had a chance to meet.
"It's a very intimate feeling, you get to [hear] some very close stories that give you perspective on life, and it just shows what the Vikings are about," Abdullah said. "I've been here only three weeks, and I'm blown away. These people are my type of people; these are the types of people I want to surround my heart around. This is a special night."
Added Abdullah: "I wanted to see what this community's about, and it hasn't let me down."
While Abdullah doesn't have a direct connection to adoption, he appreciates the emphasis placed on family. The youngest of nine children (six sisters and two brothers), he considers himself fortunate.
"Having so many perspectives, so many different ideologies in one home taught me how to become this well-rounded, universal person. Being given that gift of camaraderie and love is something that the word 'family' really embodies," Abdullah said. "Just extending that arm from blood ties to community ties is important for myself and obviously important for the Minnesota Vikings."
Vickie Barnes was among the parents who attended the event and had an opportunity to meet and hear from the Vikings. Barnes, who began her journey looking to adopt locally but struggled to find an agency that would match children with single mothers, got involved with an agency's trial with Haiti after an earthquake in 2010 devastated the small country.
Although many children in Haiti needed homes before and after the earthquake, the adoption process wasn't easy.
Two years into the process, Barnes was matched with her daughter, Kenlie, who was 1 at the time. It wasn't until four years later that the adoption was finalized and Kenlie moved from Haiti to the United States.
Barnes smiled as she watched Kenlie, 8, excitedly jump into line to play a game. Barnes expressed gratitude to the Vikings for hosting such a unique event to celebrate adoption.
"I think it's especially great for kids to see older kids who were adopted," said Barnes, who appreciated hearing from Ronnie as well as seeing the Brzezinski family.
"There's nothing more rewarding – or challenging," Barnes responded when asked what advice she would give to parents considering adoption.
Barnes acknowledged that adoption may not always be easy – and it's important to do research prior to the process – but emphasized that the reward far outweighs any challenges.
Ask Ronnie Spielman, and he'll tell you it couldn't be more accurate.
While he understands that the adoption process can be trying at times, he can't imagine his life without his parents and siblings that have made his life complete.
"For me, adoption is an opportunity. It's a blessing. … I've been loved and treated well my entire life, and it won't ever stop. I know that. I will forever be grateful for my parents and everything they've done," Ronnie said. "Words can't describe it. My dream, and also my family's dream, is to find loving parents for every child out there."