A Life Rescued by Love

updated 11/23/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/23/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

A RECENT VISITOR TO THE RURAL INDEPENDENCE, Minn., home of Palani Thies asked the 11-year-old what three things she would wish for if she could have anything in the world. "No. 1—a younger sister!" she answered immediately. The second wish—"a real big TV"—took a moment, but the third eluded her entirely. She smiled and shook her head. "I have everything I need," she said.

It wasn't always this way. Four years ago, homeless, sick and infested with lice, Palani lived in the streets of Madras, India. She weighed 35 lbs. and, with her legs withered from polio, was transported in a cart pulled by other children. Today she gets around the two-story house of Merry Thies, her adoptive mother, quite nicely on her own. Next year, as the 1993 Easter Seal Child, she will get to visit the White House. On Nov. 20, Palani will become the first adopted and first foreign-born representative in the National Easter Seal Society's 74-year history.

Born near Madurai, India, Palani, at 5, watched her father, a hay seller, die, probably of a blood infection. Soon after, "my mother dumped me on the streets," says Palani. "It was hard for her to take care of me." She was brought to an orphanage six months later.

The decision to adopt Palani was an easy one, says Merry, 49, a single mother who teaches violin, viola and cello. "I was adopted myself, and I wanted to give back what had been given me." Besides, she says, her daughter Rachel, now 14, had once again asked for a sister for her birthday. Now Rachel and Palani share a sunny bedroom in the Thies home, which overflows with pets, Palani's artwork and people—including, when they're home from high school and college, her adoptive older brothers, Nathaniel, 24, Benjamin, 20, and Reuben, 17.

Merry grew up in Fargo, N.Dak., received a music degree from St. Olaf College in Minnesota, was married twice in her 20s, and has been a single parent for 10 years. She moved to her 20-acrc farm six years ago (she receives child support from her second husband but admits that money is always tight). After Merry found Palani through a local adoption agency in 1988, dozens of Merry's students and their families put on a concert to raise the $400 needed to pay adoption-related fees; friends and shopkeepers also helped by donating clothing and supplies.

When Palani first met her new family in September 1988, "she was this tiny, tiny frail thing, her legs bent under her," says Merry. Dr. John Stark, an orthopedic surgeon whose children have taken music lessons from Merry, arranged for Palani to be treated free at the St. Paul Shriner's Hospital for Crippled Children. She underwent surgery to release the tendons in her hips, knees and ankles, then went through weeks of casting to straighten her legs. Though the doctors didn't think it possible, two months after the surgery Palani began walking with leg braces and crutches.

After some difficult initial weeks of adjustment to her new home—"she'd throw tantrums; it wasn't all peaches and cream," says Merry—Palani has settled in joyfully. She might be an artist when she grows up, she says, and "for sure I'll be a mommy and have a family and animals and a big garden. Asked why she thinks she was selected as the National Easter Seal Child, Palani muses a bit, then announces, "I'm happy. I'm kind of funny—sometimes...and I'm perfect!"

MARGARET NELSON in Independence

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