She peered out from the baby carrier and immediately ducked back in, petrified by the sparrow flitting above. I hadn’t yet told Guyana we were at a zoo, with even scarier animals than sparrows. Of course, I couldn’t fault my new daughter’s reaction to outside experiences too much; nearly all her five years had been spent in five rooms at an Armenian orphanage.
We strolled around the zoo in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital city, trying to get used to each other. Guyana’s 24 pounds barely registered with me, though I was intensely aware of her deadweight legs smashed crooked, all thrown out of whack by her many physical challenges.
Natives stared with beautiful dark eyes. It isn’t normal to see people with disabilities in public in this corner of the world, especially not a miniature, halfway-paralyzed spitfire kangaroo-pouched against an American woman. I felt as if we were a zoo exhibit ourselves.
But then an old lady stopped us, asked Guyana in Armenian who I was. My daughter stopped shrieking over the terrifying ducks and deer long enough to proudly announce, “My mama!”
Yes, I thought in awe. I am your mama, and you are my girl. Forever.
When I was 8, my family began fostering disadvantaged babies. The moment I met Joshua, my first foster brother, I fell in love. I vowed to not only be the best foster sister, but to adopt someone just like him one day. Then his brother Keith joined us.
Two years later, Joshua and Keith were adopted by another family. My heart was shredded, but as I cried, I felt comforted by God in a completely new way. This is what I want you to do, He seemed to say. This is going to be your life, and it’s going to be good. My parents eventually adopted my sisters Jaimie and Shelbea from foster care, and the love intensified a thousandfold. My feelings weren’t blind; I witnessed firsthand the raw hurt and pain that grafting a family together brings. Still, as each year passed, the desire to adopt grew. I knew I would occasionally question God’s call, but I also knew I couldn’t deny His invitation simply because it would be difficult.
So I started preparing in my teens for my “someday” life. As I studied, trained and volunteered, I became convinced that God wants every Christian to become involved in orphan care. I hoped and prayed that my involvement meant adoption.
On our honeymoon, my husband Nickolas and I dreamily discussed the future. We would see the world, we decided, and build our family through both birth and adoption.
Spurred to Action
In 2012, I read a blog post about the terrible injustices many countries inflict on citizens with special needs. Though I was used to tales of malnourishment, neglect and outright abuse in foster care, I was shocked as I scrolled through the photos: elementary-aged children the size of newborns, living skeletons sitting in barren sheds, battered corpses tossed out the back door, toddlers with minor special needs abandoned at adult mental institutions. Many developing nations, I learned, don’t use their scarce resources on the disabled, instead warehousing and hiding them from the rest of society, barely keeping them alive—and often failing at even that.
As a journalist, I naturally started researching. According to UNICEF, approximately 153 million children in the world have lost one or both parents. And though the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows Americans internationally and domestically adopted 135,000 children in 2007-2008 alone, there was still so much more they could do! As A Family for Every Child notes, 81.5 million Americans have considered adoption. If just 1 in 500 of these adults adopted, every waiting child in the U.S. would have a permanent family.
Meanwhile, children in Third World countries with conditions like Down syndrome, HIV/AIDS or spina bifida face very bleak prospects: abandonment, little or no medical care and/or education, malnourishment, physical and sexual abuse, early death.
That first blog led me to a Maryland-based organization called Reece’s Rainbow (RR), which not only photo-lists adoptable kids with special needs from around the globe, but raises funds for their eventual adoptions. I spent dozens of hours those first weeks scrolling through photos of kids with sad stares and sadder stories.
“What about us?” I asked Nick.
He shook his head. “I think we should help, but not adopt,” he said. So we started raising and donating as much money as our budget allowed to our “favorite” kids’ individual funds, praying somebody would see them and that we’d rejoice when they were “found.”
In 2014, the U.S. Air Force transferred Nick to Britain, where we continued parenting our three young children. I had been advocating for RR kids for more than two years when I saw Guyana’s picture on the website. There she was, a long-lashed Armenian princess with a pageant-queen smile, despite her intense needs. Instantly, I had the same feeling as when I first held my biological babies; I simply knew she was ours.
Only one problem: I had promised God I wouldn’t mention adoption to Nickolas for one year, because if the Lord wanted us to adopt, then He would have to do the convincing. And I was only a few months into that vow.
So I kept my mouth shut. And prayed. I knew adoption—especially of a child with spina bifida, extreme scoliosis, epilepsy, hydrocephalus and strabismus—wouldn’t be successful if only one spouse was on board. If this isn’t from You, Father, I pleaded, take this desire away from me. But if it is, YOU tell Nick to kick his concern for the orphan up a notch!
Our American friends Kim and Jed Johnson, already adoptive parents themselves, were founders of a nonprofit group in Ukraine called Wide Awake International. Wide Awake aims to get Ukraine’s child orphans out of poorly resourced adult mental institutions and into either permanent families or family-like group homes.
After spending a few days in their orphanage, I told Nick what I saw: men older than me the size of our seven-year-old. Boys in homemade straitjackets. Kids hurting themselves because there was simply nothing else to do.
“Stop,” he said. “I can’t hear anymore. But … will you take me there?”
So we returned together, and the rescuer-protector portion of Nick’s father-heart ignited.
A few weeks earlier, we had been discussing our yearly goals. I told him I would raise money for two kids’ RR accounts, and he asked me to describe the children. So I first showed him a cross-eyed Ukrainian teenager who had stolen my and several friends’ hearts, and then Guyana. I still knew she was meant to be a Kupper, but I hadn’t said anything about it to Nick.
“What does she have?” he asked. I listed her diagnoses, and the room quieted for a few seconds.
Nick cleared his throat.
“Um,” he said, “what would you think about us adopting her?”
At the time, we didn’t know where she lived, nor how to care for anyone with spina bifida. “I just knew we needed to take care of her,” Nick told a friend later. “I knew I could be the father she deserved.” Along those lines, we felt convicted that God would take care of the details.
And like always, He did. Over the next 13 months, we were amazed at His provision. We aren’t wealthy, but after intense fundraising, being blessed with grants from several groups, including Steven Curtis Chapman’s Show Hope, Lifesong for Orphans, Rollstone Foundation and Every Child Has a Dream, extra freelance work for me and extra mini-deployments for Nick, we raised more than $30,000 to pay for Guyana’s adoption fees in less than seven months.
People’s generosity blew us away: A friend of my college roommate saved her barista tips. A couple we met in line at the airport mailed a check. An RR buddy organized a fundraising auction. A high school classmate sold artwork on our behalf. Another hand-painted and sold shoes on her Etsy shop. Others helped in non-financial yet just as important ways, like watching our kids, writing recommendation letters, bringing meals, donating frozen breastmilk and sharing our story online. It was humbling and wild!
Because we were Americans adopting from Armenia while living in England, we had extra red tape and official confusion to wade through. Still, we passed all the home study, dossier, background checks and various legal requirements, and last December, we flew to Yerevan to meet our girl for the first time.
Guyana was exactly how we pictured her: gorgeous, spunky and very clever. Thankfully, she was in an orphanage run by the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa’s order of nuns), where she was thoroughly loved and adored. The sisters there genuinely care for each high-needs child with the most amazing patience and joy; we had never seen anything like it, especially after witnessing fairly severe abuse in Ukraine and watching friends in America bring home Eastern European sons and daughters who’d been at death’s door.
We gave Guyana a picture book with photos of her new family and promised to come back, this time for good. In May, we did just that and were thrilled when she remembered and warmly welcomed us with an adorable, accented, “Now, America!”
When we brought her to our apartment, however, it all went south. Guyana embarked on a multi-day hunger and sleep strike, crying in Armenian for the nuns and her friends. We brought her back to the orphanage, concerned that she would have seizures from refusing her medicine. On top of that, Nick flew back to England, leaving me in Yerevan to finish the adoption and learn how to administer medications, cope with seizures and insert a catheter. I intensely missed our children and felt petrified for our family’s future. Had this whole idea had been a giant mistake? Did Guyana hate me? There were entire days when I couldn’t choke down so much as a banana, or do more than sit with my Bible and cry. It was no fairy tale.
But God—and His children! Messages from friends flooded my inbox, most containing worship music, lyrics and encouraging verses. Other adoptive moms told their horror stories, giving me small glimmers of hope that we too would survive. Friends on five continents prayed for me by name, listening to my darkest fears and reassuring me that God had the plan in hand. On a quick outing one afternoon, Guyana screamed at me in frustration. Instead of bursting into tears like I had the day before, I squared my shoulders, yelled out, “I’m no longer a slave to fear! I am a child of God!” and kept trying to get through to her. Gradually, it worked. We began bonding and ended the walk with a smile. Yet that positive movement didn’t happen because I am a perfect Christian; it happened because this adoption was supported on all sides by prayer, practical help and shared pain.
To return to England, I had to fly through Russia—something the Air Force advises military families not to do. To make matters worse, because of our unusual living situation, Guyana had no visa to leave Armenia or enter Russia or the U.K., though what we were doing was completely legal (if rare). Our embassy contact gave me instructions on what to do in case Russian officials detained me.
With Guyana strapped to my back, I made it out of Armenia and through the first Russian passport check with little trouble. But as I came to another checkpoint, I shook in nervousness. Was this the part where, like a bad spy novel, the Russians arrested the lone American with strong ties to the U.S. military for trying to kidnap a paralyzed Armenian chatterbox?
The woman in front of me dropped her stack of papers and the official bent down to help. He glanced at me and the long line behind me, saying a hurried greeting. I replied “hello” in English. “You’re American?” he asked. Gulping, I nodded. He waved us on. “Then go.”
Today, we are stationed in New Jersey, a fresh family of six. Guyana charms everyone she meets, most of whom, after learning our story, label us saints. I sometimes wish, these people could have seen me prostrate on the floor of that Yerevan apartment, just as paralyzed as my new daughter, when they say that.
Then they would see that anything good that comes from my family is actually from the One we daily beseech for wisdom, and that, through His strength, they can do hard things, too.
Nick and I have fulfilled those early marriage goals, though the road ahead is still long and difficult. But this is our life, and as God promised, it is good.
Just like it is for every flawed person willing to offer up their terrified, unsure, wildly imperfect “yes” to the ultimate adoptive Father.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
To learn more about Reece’s Rainbow, visit reecesrainbow.org. Wide Awake International’s website is wideawakeinternational.org.
Originally published in the November 2016 issue of Citizen magazine.