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Meet the Gardner Family

In the winter of 2011, my husband Tyler and I were in our late twenties and eighth year of marriage, ooh-ing and aah-ing over our 1-year-old and already planning for a second child. Bringing our son, Gage, into the world was the result of a smooth, complication-free pregnancy and delivery, yet neither one of us saw that as the path for our next child.

We had casually discussed adoption before, but never really thought we were equipped for it. Tyler’s older sister was adopted from Korea, and we had friends and family that had come into our lives through adoption– and our lives were so much richer because of each of them! The more we researched, read and prayed about this, it became so clear. Why not adopt? Why can’t adoption be Plan A for growing your family? There are so many children all over the world waiting for a forever family, after all.

So, after deciding ‘yes, we are going to adopt!’ we set out, not knowing what we were doing, or how we were going to pay for it. We navigated countless conversations, statistics, articles, reviews, and information packets, and both of us kept coming back to Ethiopia. Our chosen agency informed us that we could probably be looking at a two-year process, which seemed so long at the time. Nevertheless, on February 25, 2011, we were officially entered into the Ethiopian adoption program.

About one week after that decision, the Ethiopian government announced that they would be reducing adoptions by 90% in an effort to give greater attention to cases and eliminate unethical practices in the process. At the time, we couldn’t believe it, but came to learn it was something that was so needed, and still not resolved to this day.

Our social workers let us know there was no way to know how this would affect our process going forward, but we could be looking at closer to three years to complete an adoption. We couldn’t believe we were already hitting a bump in the road, but we knew we weren’t already giving up. It took us the next six months to complete all our required social worker visits, trainings, paperwork, physicals, fingerprints, notarizations, authentications and on and on. Our dossier was completed, and arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in September of 2011.

It didn’t take long for us to see that a three-year process was actually a very optimistic estimate.  Because of this and changes to our agency’s family requirements, we were now able to concurrently pursue another adoption or pregnancy while we waited. We wanted our growing son to have a sibling, and funding a second adoption was not an option, so, after approval from our social workers, we moved forward with planning for a pregnancy. In late 2012, after waiting for a baby sister from Ethiopia, Gage instead welcomed a little brother, Gunner, from his mommy.

Life went on for our now-family of four, and the passing weeks turned into months, and months into years. We watched other families come and leave the adoption program. The world around us just kept moving forward while we held this child we didn’t yet know in our hearts, forever feeling like a piece of our family was missing. I never knew you could long for someone you didn’t know so, so badly.

Each passing year, we’d redo all those required social worker visits, trainings, paperwork, physicals, fingerprints, notarizations, authentications, and on and on. We rode the roller coaster that was Ethiopian adoption’s unknown fate for so many years. Countless times we were encouraged to leave the program and look into adopting elsewhere. I’m so thankful my husband, the rock of our family, never wavered. He always held strong, and said, “As long as there was an ounce of hope, we will not be ending this adoption pursuit.”

Finally, in a moment forever etched in my mind, we received the phone call on May 20, 2016 (yes, 2016!) Our agency had matched us with the most precious 10-month-old baby girl. I fell to the floor sobbing and heard 0% of whatever else was said on that phone call. An email was waiting in my inbox with a picture of our daughter, and, suddenly, the last 5 years of paperwork, tears, anxiety, frustrations and doubt became distant memories.

Since there is always waiting and paperwork to be done in adoption, we were still looking at up to a year before we could bring our daughter home. Court and immigration processes moved forward, and we felt like we could finally prepare for our daughter.

Summer and fall passed that year, and hope of our daughter being home for the holidays faded. It looked like we wouldn’t even be traveling to meet her that year. But, on December 23, 2016, we received a call that we had been assigned a court date in Ethiopia… for the following week… and needed to fly out in 48 hours, on Christmas day. What!?!

Tyler and I ran on pure excitement, anxiety, adrenaline, prayers and coffee those next two days. As you can imagine, flights to Africa 48 hours out, on Christmas day, are super great and affordable (not at all). After miraculously getting everything scheduled and booked, we flew out of St. Louis on Christmas day and were en route to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to meet our daughter.

After over 30 hours of travel time, we arrived in Addis Ababa at our guesthouse at 2AM with a pick-up time only a few hours away. Exhaustion won, and we managed to get a couple of hours of sleep before leaving for our agency’s transition home where our daughter was living. It was impossible to not be an emotional, weepy mess. The weight of it all was so overwhelming. It was such a tough balance to contain our reactions to what she would be feeling. Having your loving nannies hand you over to complete strangers would be so scary. At 17 months old, she extended so much grace to us and let us love on her, hold her, feed and play with her that whole beautiful afternoon. We spent the next several days visiting her and the other children at the home and taking in a few of the sights in the city. The country was in an official state of emergency at the time due to unrest in many regions, so we were restricted from traveling outside of the capital and or too far from the US Embassy.

On December 29, 2016, we appeared before a judge at Ethiopia’s First Instance Court and Lota officially became our daughter. The orphanage paperwork notes that the name, Lota, in her region means “May God Raise You.” What a beautifully fitting name for this child. Extreme tragedy and heartache brought her to where she was, and we were so utterly humbled to have the opportunity to help raise her and be her forever family.

As you know by now, this process is not at all for the faint of heart, and possibly the hardest part was that, after 7 days in-country, we had to leave Lota and return home. Even though she was legally our daughter, the U.S. Immigration side of the process takes 4-6 weeks post-court to have paperwork prepared to enter our country and become a citizen.

We kept ourselves busy at home, preparing her room with sweet gifts we’d received over the years from friends, family and church family. Two very anxious big brothers thought they might finally have that baby sister they had heard about their whole lives.

In late January, we received word we had completed all the steps. Lota’s passport was ready, and we had been assigned an Embassy date for the following week, so, with another 48-hour notice, we were on our way back to Ethiopia.

After taking custody in a very emotional departure, the children and nannies hugged and kissed all over Lota before we slowly pulled away. I can’t even begin to imagine what was going through her little 18-month-old mind. She was sick and scared, and we looked, smelled and sounded different than anything she was used to. But, once again, she showed us so much grace and mercy.

We spent a few short days in Ethiopia before it was time to make the long trip back. Lota had never been strapped in a car seat, had ridden in a vehicle only a handful of times, and had little to no recollection of anything other than the inside walls of the three different facilities she had lived in during her first months of life, so you can only imagine what 30 hours of international travel was like. It will likely be years before any of us will be able to step back on a plane together.

Finally, on January 28, 2017, almost 6 years from the day our journey started, we came down the escalator at XNA with our daughter in our arms. We could see our sons, family and friends waiting below, signs waving and faces full of tears and laughter. I kept thinking about a question the judge asked us in Ethiopia during court, “Do you have support in your village for this adoption?” Oh my, yes, we do. These people, and so many others, carried us through all those years. They prayed the prayers when we couldn’t and reminded us of the faith and hope we were holding on to.

Lota has been home 9 months now, and it’s hard to remember life without her. Her brothers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends cannot get enough of her. She is growing and thriving. She sings songs, plays with dolls, hugs friends, and throws 2-year-old tantrums.

I simultaneously thank God for the redemption of adoption while crying out in frustration that there is a need for it. I wish circumstances like illness, death and addiction didn’t have to take away the chance for mothers and fathers to raise their children. If I had been told in 2011 it would be 6 years before we would welcome another child into our home, that would have been the end of it. My young enthusiasm and rose-tinted glasses wouldn’t have had time for that. Those glasses were slowly stripped away over the years, and we better saw the pain, heartache, adversity and incredible need surrounding foster care and adoption. Wading into those waters looks so much scarier to me now, and so much more worth it. Every child in this world deserves the chance to have a family. The unknown is scary, but there is nothing wrong with going in scared–just don’t let it keep you from going.

by: Jami Gardner/ photos by: Lazer Lee Photography

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