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It all started three years ago when my husband Ryan (a recently retired professional runner) and I decided we wanted to start a family. We had gotten married young and, from the beginning, we talked about growing our family through providing children in need with a home.
To be honest, Ryan started feeling the itch first. At the time, I wasn’t quite ready for my world to get instantly smaller. But since international adoption is a long process that usually takes years, we started jumping through the many hoops required. I hoped my heart would catch up.
We chose to adopt from Ethiopia for a number of reasons. We had spent time training there and connected with the region in a special way—and there are more than 4 million orphans in this country alone. Adoption is only a fractional solution but, for those few, it is life-changing.
We went into the process assuming we would adopt an infant. I don’t think anyone starts with the thought: I’m going to adopt some teenagers! However, all of that changed when we visited an orphanage in Addis Ababa. Although the babies were adorable, it was the kids who captured our hearts. We learned there were plenty of people willing to adopt infants, but the largest need is with older children (over the age of 3).
It’s neat how something that sounds so crazy to you at one point feels totally normal when God gives you the grace. When we heard about a group of four sisters—Hana (now 16), Mia (13), Jasmine (9) and Lily (6)—who had been in an orphanage waiting years for a family, we actually considered it. We decided to meet them on another training stint to Ethiopia that year. Despite experiencing more in their short lives than I could even imagine, the girls’ hearts seemed incredibly open and loving. After much prayer, we decided that we were going to say yes to becoming their parents!
I will never forget the day we told them. I was excited for their reaction but nervous as well. I couldn’t help but have “This Is the End of the World as We Know It” playing in the back of my mind.
We all sat in the office of the head nanny who shared the news. The two older girls looked completely shocked, covering their mouths in surprise. Then tears of pure joy flowed from their eyes as they rushed to embrace us, and the two younger ones followed. The heavy burden that Hana and Mia had carried, worry about what their future would hold for themselves and their sisters, melted off with relief.
We explained what adoption means. We told them we would live in the United States and that transitioning to a new culture and language is hard, but that we would have to work together as a team. Then we asked if they wanted to join our family, as adopted kids rarely have a choice. They emphatically agreed with big smiles! We then gave them some presents we had brought: necklaces engraved with the letter “H” for “Hall,” their new last name, a new beginning.
It’s now been a year and a half since our family grew from two to six(!). The journey hasn’t been easy, but it’s been more than worth it. I’ve come to understand that building a family is a process. At times, it feels like we’re living with exchange students! With older children, it takes time to have shared experiences—to get to know one another. There is no manual. That’s why it’s so important for us to celebrate moments that show forward progress. Here are some of my favorites…
- Watching Hana win her section’s championship in cross country was very special. As the oldest (she’ll be 17 in July), Hana has had the hardest uphill battle, transitioning to high school in the United States—something hard enough when you know the language! When we first met Hana, she told me she wanted to be a runner but had never run a lap in her life. In a short time, she tapped into an incredible talent that provided her with much-needed confidence. I’m so proud of her.
- I try to connect with my children’s hearts every day—something that can be difficult to find time for with school, activities, homework, etc. This can be especially hard to do with the older girls as the younger ones naturally need more help and attention. Recently, I took Mia on a trip with me and got a chance to really bond. These one-on-one moments are priceless.
- Normally, I do my first run in the early morning on weekends and return home before the girls are awake. But one day, I came back from a run, and Jasmine had come into my room and made the bed, cleaned up and left a sweet note about how thankful she is that we are her parents.
- Watching all of our girls’ personalities develop as we all become more comfortable together is incredibly rewarding. I’ve seen such a change in our youngest, Lily, since her orphanage days. She used to be aloof and irritable, and now she is silly and cuddly and a fixture in my lap. Her name in Amharic means “love,” and each day I see her true self blossoming.
- One of the sweetest memories came at a seemingly ordinary moment. We returned to Ethiopia over winter break to train and stayed in the same exact room we had brought our girls back to a year before when we first became a family. I thought back to the sometimes awkward days and quiet meals that made me nervous at first—would it always be like this? Fast-forward and I was lying in bed with my two teenagers yabbering away in English and showing them my favorite running routes in the area. We really have come a long way!