THE photograph is getting a bit old now. But it still clearly shows a snoozing John Greenwell, relaxing in a hammock after a round of golf while stationed in the Central American country of Belize with the British Army in the early 90s.
At the other end of the hammock is a small Belizean boy with a big happy grin on his face.
Nearly 20 years later and that boy is now a grown 27-year-old man and John is his proud dad.
Young Dion was just nine and living in a children’s home in Belize when he was adopted by John and his wife, Kath.
The Greenwell family, who have lived at Monteviot near Jedburgh since John took up the position of custodian at the stately home in the mid 90s, thought that this, National Adoption Week, was the perfect time to make their story public and show how adoption can be a positive process for many children.
The slow rates of adoption, particularly down south, have become a hot political topic, with Prime Minister David Cameron promising to get tough on local authorities in England and Wales over the woefully small numbers of children that are placed for adoption each year.
Here in Scotland, there are almost 16,000 children in local authority care, but last year saw only 218 placed with new ‘forever’ families.
But while John, who served for 34 years in the King’s Royal Hussars, and Kath, agree the system must somehow be speeded up, they still say the arduous process to become adopters should not put people off applying.
It was while on the military’s long service list that John and Kath found themselves in the steamy, jungle country of Belize.
Their other son, Matthew, now 34 with a family of his own in India, was in boarding school back in the UK.
John explained that each military unit had a link to a local charity that it tried to aid. John and the other members of his logistics squadron had been assigned to a children’s centre.
“The wives went down quite regularly, to help look after the babies, help with things like birthday parties and so on, while the men would go down when something needed fixed or painted,” John told TheSouthern.
“After a while, Dion, who lived at the centre, had started spending time with us, spending weekends with us and that type of thing. We had about a year to go when a nurse from the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen & Families Association that Kath worked with, came to us and said we had a decision to make. She said we either had to cut ourselves off completely from Dion or adopt him.
“You see when we first went to Belize we thought we would be out there for four or five years. That was the normal length of time for these sorts of postings.But the governments of Belize and neighbouring Guatemala then signed a peace treaty, so the numbers of British forces there were reduced to just a jungle warfare training school and everyone else got posted away elsewhere.
“So time was against us, but we spoke about it. We had everyone telling us we were making a rod for our own backs and he’d turn out a gangster or he’d turn out like this or that.
“But we thought about it for a week as we had to wait until Matthew came out from England so we could discuss it with him. He met Dion and the two of them got on like a house on fire and he thought it was a great idea and so we just went for it.”
At first the Greenwells applied to go through the UK adoption process but, despite John only being 45 and Kath a year younger, the couple was dismissed as being too old.
The Belizean system, however, had no such qualms about age but the process was still far from simple and involved exactly the same kind of home visits and social work assessments as applied in the UK.
“But the Belizean way of doing things is quite different, quite laid back – a bit like Dion actually!” laughed John. “And that makes it rather strenuous at times. Everything can be done tomorrow but we were running out of time and had to put a bit of pressure on here and there.
“We were eventually successful and Dion came to live with us, first in Belize, then back here to Wiltshire for a few years and then at Jedburgh where we’ve been ever since.”
Despite there being some misgivings from some quarters on how Dion would fit in at Jedburgh Grammar School, an initial misconception among his new fellow pupils that he was actually American comedian and actor Will Smith meant he was popular from day one and that never seems to have changed.
“I never had a problem at all,” Dion explained.
John and Kathleen admit bringing up Dion was not without its challenges.
“Personally, I’ve had 18 marvellous years with Dion – yes we’ve had our ups and downs, the odd pitfall that all teenagers fall into despite being told umpteen times!”
Apart from the obvious fact of the Scottish weather, Dion says he has loved living in the Borders.
“I was in and out of care homes from about the age of four,” he told us. “I’ve never experienced a problem being adopted and I think it’s a great thing to be able to do for a child, regardless of colour – definitely.
“What I say to my friends, who sometimes ask how my life was before, is to take a look around. People are born into a family, get all they could wish for and yet still moan about small things.
“They need to take a step back and look at what they’ve got – loving parents, fantastic homes. Some kids aren’t born into that and would love to have a life like that. So for a child to get a life like that – to be able to transform a child’s life. It is definitely a good thing,” said Dion.
Although he has eight or nine brothers and sisters in Belize and his mother still lives there, he has only been back once to Belize, when he was 18.
There was no contact with any members of his birth family, despite his birth mother only living a few miles away from the children’s centre.
But Dion was not that enamoured about being back in Belize. “We went for three weeks but Dion wanted to go home back to the Borders after about three days,” said Kath, who also went on to foster a number of children while an army wife.
Dion, who is now in the midst of applying to join the police, added: “One thing though – when I went back to Belize, people must’ve told the kids at the home about what had happened to me, and they went around saying I’d been saved by angels. It gave them a light of hope that one day they too might get the chance of a new life.”
z For anyone interested in adoption or fostering, contact:Scottish Borders Council family placement team, Paton Street, Galashiels, or call 01896 662799.