The infant had no arms and no legs, but there was a brightness in his deep brown eyes that took Devon Toomey’s breath away. She couldn’t stop staring at the photo on Reese’s Rainbow special-needs adoption website. She just knew, without question, that the boy was meant to be her son.
“I couldn’t pull my eyes away – there was something special about him,” Devon, 40, tells PEOPLE, relaxing at the sunny kitchen table in her Eagle, Idaho, home as her three boys wrestle and laugh on the carpet nearby. “I’d always felt that when the time was right, a child in need would find us. And here he was, waiting for us, thousands of miles away.”
It’s lunchtime on a lazy Sunday – more than five years since Devon, her husband, Jeremy, 38, and their two sons, Heath, 9, and Brooks, 6, flew to Serbia to adopt Bowen, then 18 months old, and place him at the heart of their family.
Devon has prepared 6-year-old Bowen’s favorite steel-cut oatmeal, topped with bananas – a treat that he would eat three times a day if she would allow it.
“Thanks, Mom!” he says, rolling across the floor and then pulling himself up to his full height of 25 inches and hopping up to a bench at the table. He slides a Velcro cuff with a spoon onto his left upper arm – the only limb he has ever known. “Can I have a chocolate muffin, too?”
Happy and talkative, Bowen’s radiant demeanor doesn’t reveal a hint of his dreary past. Abandoned after birth, he spent the early months of his life in a crowded orphanage in Belgrade, seldom leaving his crib, never interacting with other children and rarely being spoken to by caregivers.
“When we first saw him in his crib at the orphanage, it was very emotional,” Jeremy, an orthopedic surgeon, tells PEOPLE. “When Devon first told me about Bowen, I was shocked, thinking that we should wait a few years to adopt. But then I realized that there was no perfect time. Here was a little guy who needed a family.”
When the Toomeys brought Bowen home in June 2010, they immediately realized that his missing limbs weren’t the main challenge.
“The biggest issue was speech,” says Devon, “because nobody had been talking to him. He also didn’t know how to chew food, because he’d been on a liquid diet. And because he was stuck in a crib, he didn’t know how to move.”
Early on, a doctor told Devon that her son would never be able to sit up on his own or move across a room.
“I immediately walked out of his office,” she says. “I knew he was wrong.”
She and Jeremy were also told by several friends and family members that adopting Bowen would be a burden, “like a sack of potatoes.”
“They didn’t see what we saw,” says Devon, “and that was painful. I’d always believed he could do whatever he put his mind to.”
Encouraged by his parents and brothers, Bowen did just that. At first, he did barrel rolls to get around the house. Then, as he gained strength, he learned to scoot on his behind, propelled by his left elbow. Now in the first grade, he has a set of prosthetic limbs that he calls his “Spiderman legs,” but he doesn’t like to use them except for skiing.
“He’s figured out the best way to do things on his own,” says Jeremy. “It’s been wonderful to see his independence grow.”
A quick learner, Bowen loves to read at home and play games on his iPad, and he enjoys swimming, painting, drawing and roughhousing with his older brothers.
“He’s not weird – he can do the same stuff that I can,” says Heath. “We shouldn’t judge people by what they look like. We should judge them by their heart. Judge them by their insides, not their outsides.”
“My brother is amazing,” adds Brooks, who is the same age as Bowen. “He jumps on a trampoline and he can use a spoon or can dip his head into the plate and eat anything that’s on there.”
Bowen laughs at his brothers and hops down from the table to chase after them. As his parents watch the boys wrestle, tears fill their eyes.
“Through trial and error, he’s come a long way,” says Jeremy. “We’re so very grateful to have him in our lives.”
For more on the Toomeys, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.