This week, we have chosen to focus our posts on adoption- in honor of National Adoption Month. During the next week, we will share the stories of five different women whose lives have each been radically impacted by adoption.
I (Ashley) first met Elisabeth Ream in February 2012, on my first trip back to Saint-Marc, Haiti, following my move back to the States towards the end of 2011. The Reams were partnering with the ministry I was on staff with and had moved to Saint-Marc at the beginning of 2012, from another area in Haiti. Through our acquaintance, I have grown an immense respect for her family and knew she was the perfect person to share an honest take at international adoption from someone has lived in-country during the process. Elisabeth & her family continue to serve & live in the area, where Elisabeth’s tender heart continues to be a blessing to many.
C&T: What are the current demographics of your family?
Elisabeth: We are the Ream Team! There are six members on our immediate team, though we have many extended family members! Our family is colorful. We like to say we have black, brown, tan and white children- one of each color. We live on a small island in a third (borderline fourth) world country. It is actually more expensive than the U.S.A. to purchase many things because most things have to be imported across the ocean. We somehow live on half of the budget that we used to in America. I’m not sure how other than God’s grace, mercy, and sovereign arms embracing us continually.
C&T: What led you to consider adoption?
Elisabeth: I’ve considered adoption for as long as I can remember considering children. In our first serious conversation, leading up to our marriage a year later, we talked about the possibility of international missions and also adoption. I asked my future husband very early on how he would feel about adopting a child who needed a family. His heart wanted the same. We remember praying together and wondering, even asking out loud, if perhaps there was already a child born into the world that would one day need our family. It is amazing to think about that conversation that took place seventeen years ago, as I look at our seventeen year old daughter! She had been born five months prior to our conversation and her biological mother passed away within that year. However, it would be another ten years before we would lay eyes on the child we had prayed for that night. During those ten years we thought and prayed about adoption many times. Year nine, we began to seriously pursue researching adoption options and praying more earnestly over where and to whom God would lead our family specifically. We had two boys born into our family by this time. God opened our oldest son’s heart to adoption during a time when we did not feel we had the energy or financial resources to begin to pursue it. Ethan’s persistence encouraged us to begin our adoption journey. Ethan believed he had a sister struggling somewhere out there and that we needed to find her. When he first saw our referral picture of our daughter, Elita Marguerite, he said, “That’s her! That’s my sister!” We believe, that if you have biological children, the decision to adopt should be their decision as well. We are thankful that our bio boys embraced adopting, even adopting internationally and out of birth order, in a way that only can only be explained by God’s Spirit speaking to them and bringing peace that surpasses understanding throughout the very difficult adoption process that was to come.
C&T: Did you foster before you adopted? Was it a domestic or international adoption? Closed or open?
Elisabeth: We did not officially foster through our state of Texas, which is where we began our adoption process. However, my husband’s job for the first ten years of our marriage was in church youth ministry and I worked alongside him. We always had kids in our home and occasionally there were cases where we temporarily fostered some of the kids we had built relationships within the youth group. We have family and many friends that have fostered and fostered to adopt through state foster care. My sister has fostered several children and my children have four cousins who have been adopted out of foster care. Our family’s decision to pursue the adoption of an older child stemmed from our years working with pre-teen and teenage youth, as well as watching our cousins and my best friend adopt older children who had little hope of ever having a family otherwise. We chose to adopt internationally because of our previous experience living in other countries (Fiji and Israel) and desired to live outside the U.S. with our family as missionaries one day. We felt that because of these factors God had positioned us (with a lot of grace) to parent older children, adopted internationally. The country we adopted from does not permit open adoptions. However, after the adoptions were completed we were able to make contact with members of our girl’s biological families and learn more of their histories. Also, without going into too many details of our crazy adoption story, I will say that in a way we did foster our adopted daughters. However, this happened in a backwards way after they legally received our last name. They were able to leave the orphanage and live with us permanently after we had received legal residency to work in their country of origin, which enabled us to “foster” them for the remainder of their adoption process until they received their immigrant visas to travel with us to the United States. In this way, our adoption process was similar to those who have fostered children they have later adopted. We simply were fostering our adopted children that we could not yet bring to the United States.
C&T: How did you decide the when and where of your adoption process?
Elisabeth: This was a tough one for us. We kept asking ourselves, “How can we pick a country or a specific child out of millions needing forever families?”. This question burdened us for years. Finally, we just decided we had to start somewhere. We began researching several countries to see if we met their criteria for international adoption. We looked into adoption from India, Nepal, China, Korea, Ukraine, Ethiopia, and Haiti. We are not Hindu or Muslim, so we were not permitted to adopt from India. Nepal closed international adoptions shortly after we began seriously inquiring. China had a seven years waiting list at that time. Korea was a definite option that we checked into but never strongly considered. We had strong connections to adoptions in Ukraine and had observed children who were in orphanages come on hosting trips to our hometown and later be able to be adopted by many friends to whom we are close. However, adoption from Ukraine required lengthy and costly trips to Ukraine. This was out of the question considering our job and financial situation at that time. Ethiopia was at the top of the list because we had (and still have) a sponsor child in Ethiopia and were very drawn to the country. Alas, Haiti. The very last place a person should consider adopting from unless you are a junkie for braving the hardest things. We seem to enjoy choosing the hardest thing– and then moving there. Haiti’s requirements at the time we began our adoption process were that we had to have been married for ten years, one spouse must be at least thirty five years of age, and have no more than two biological children. These stats spoke to us because they matched us and there was a great need for qualified families to pursue adoption. Many of the children in Haitian orphanages were older or would be by the time their adoptions processed. We understood the wait for a child to come “home” would be years. We read reports of between two and four years before an adoption would most likely be processed to completion. That is exactly how long our adoptions ended up taking. One took two years and the other four years. We began compiling adoption paperwork. Then, the January 12, 2010 earthquake happened. We were not yet matched with specific children at this time. We were contacted by an organization that had reps on the ground in Haiti looking for paperwork-ready families that met Haiti’s adoption requirements. Many children, already matched with families, were released on emergency humanitarian parole to their adoptive families, who were permitted to foster the children stateside while completing the adoption process. We were told there could possibly be a second wave of children, that were pre-earthquake, paperwork-ready orphans, that could also be released to qualified paperwork-ready adoptive families. Our girls’ original referral pictures came through this process. We hurried to prepare our home for their arrival as we were told they could be coming soon and that we would be able to process the Haitian adoptions stateside, instead of in Haiti. This was a huge answer to prayer for us, that the burden of the long wait (not only for us but mainly for the children spending their childhoods in an orphanage) could be lifted. I prepared for a trip to Haiti with several other adoptive families. We were preparing initially that there could be a slight chance the children we were in process to adopt might be able to return with us. However, three days before our departure, the Haitian government abruptly made the decision to cut off humanitarian parole completely. We were stunned but thankful that we had researched the adoption process from Haiti and had chosen Haiti prior to the earthquake to prepare ourselves somewhat for what we would be up against, should we chose to pursue the process further. I went ahead with my trip as planned and met the girls for the first time. I went in the knowledge that I would not be bringing anyone home and not knowing when our timeline would be able to start. Leaving them the first time was hard. Leaving them the fifteenth time was excruciating. It was the hardest thing we have ever had to do knowing what we knew. We lived in Texas the first year and ½ while the adoptions were processing (or were supposed to be) in Haiti. Then we lived in Haiti for six months while the adoptions continued to progress before the girls were able to come live with us instead of the orphanage.
*The laws governing the Haitian adoption process and requirements for adoptive families has changed since we adopted. The requirements have lessened but the average wait time has tragically not.
C&T: What were the top 3 challenges of your experience?
1) I think the hardest challenge in international adoption is being separated from the child, that you feel is your family, by a great distance for a long and unknown period of time. An additional hardship is when you know your child and even more so when they know you. It is like having your heart ripped out of your chest every single day. We didn’t sleep for years. We grieved as if there was a death. Yet our children were very much alive. It is how I imagine the parents of kidnapped children feel. I lost twelve pounds (unneeded at that time) in the first month alone after meeting the girls. I met our adopted children for the first time on April 17th, 2010. The girls were eight and eleven years old at that time. That is old enough to understand time and distance, but not understand why these things were forced to co-exist. When you begin an adoption process with Haiti, you basically have no timeline. The timing of the earthquake added to this challenge, because many of the offices processing adoptions were closed or barely functioning. We submitted our completed dossier anyways. An excruciatingly long year went by before it was even submitted to the first office of many that would begin to process our adoptions.
2) The second biggest challenge was the loss (whether temporary or permanent) of relationships dear to us. International adoptions, especially those that take years, take up a lot of time and energy. This is time and energy you were previously pouring into other relationships. This may be the relationship with your spouse, your children, parents, siblings, best friends, church, social circles, etc. Our adoption process hit pretty much all of our relationships hard. We had been warned by many adoptive families that have come before us that when you begin an adoption, Satan attacks where it will affect you the most. Thankfully, Satan did not win the battle. But it required the fight of our lives. There was little (if any) energy left over for one another and other vital relationships. We were going through the motions. I still feel I gave up my boys most tender childhood years. I simply did not have the energy to enjoy them. Almost all my physical and emotional stamina was being poured into surviving the adoptions. I do not recommend going about it this way. There definitely should have been more balance. But we didn’t know how and the fight was intense. I felt like I could barely breathe most days. I kept thinking about the parable of the lost sheep and how the Shepherd left all the others, just to go after that one that was lost. You know that feeling of panic when you lose something dear to you and you tear up the house and ignore whatever you were supposed to do that day in order to find it? That panic kept me going. The thought of my girls being left all alone in that terrible orphanage kept me fighting. And my Shepherd held me.
3) The third biggest challenge for our family was finances. Living on a youth pastor’s salary (equivalent to a teacher’s) was tough enough. The main reason fear had kept us from pursuing adoption sooner than we did was lack of finances. We were encouraged to not let this be the only reason not to pursue adoption and that there were many financial assistance avenues available, if we were serious and diligently sought those out. We did. We sold ourselves silly that first year. We ran in marathons for adoption, raised money selling t-shirts, coffee, bracelets, raffle tickets, restaurant fundraisers. You name it. We did it. Shamelessly- though I think some of our friends were a bit ashamed and may have thought we had completely lost it. Everyone kept asking when the girls were coming “home”. We had no answer to give them. We felt like most people seriously doubted if they would ever come home. But we just kept doing all we could do on our end. We sold stuff in five different garage sales. We begged for ransom money. We applied for grants and 0% interest loans and got them. It was intense. Friends began to only ask us about the adoptions when they passed us in the halls at church, at the grocery store or the boys’ school. The adoptions seemed to be our main identity during that time. If this question asked for a top four I would say “loss of identity” as number four. I regret that. I wish we didn’t have to push that hard for that long to acquire the finances we needed to move forward for our girls. And then again, I’m thankful we did. It was a ransom I would gladly pay again. After all, Jesus paid the highest price so that we could become His children. Although it was a heavy burden, I’m thankful we had to work long and hard and pay a high price (financially, emotionally, physically, relationally) for our girls to not only become our children, but to eventually accept the price and free gift of salvation their Heavenly Father paid for them, as well. The lessons we learned the hard way were worth it. Our girls were worth it. We learned to wait on the Lord like never before and trust His plan, even when we could not understand any of it. Mother Teresa once said, “I have found a paradox that if I love until it hurts, there is no more hurt, only more love.”
C&T: What were the top 3 joys of your experience?
1) Meeting the girls for the first time. I looked into their beautiful faces and knew they were my daughters. I did not expect them to embrace me as their mother right away. I expected that this would take a long time. But they did. Right away. The first time I held them felt like the first time I held my biological boys after I gave birth to them. These are the most joyous and cherished moments I will never forget.
2) The body of Christ and God’s sovereign provision meeting our many needs in many ways reminded us that we could still keep our joy, even when we were spiritually dry and relationally distant. There were/are people that stuck closer than brothers (and sisters) and shared in our sufferings. This fellowship helped us to count it all joy.
3) Not understanding God’s plan, but trusting and walking through the doors He clearly opened as He showed us that Haiti was/is not only the country we were adopting from, but also the mission field we had been praying and seeking. The process God brought us through in moving our family to Haiti and keeping us here for the last five years has been a joy-filled journey of discovery, learning, and loving beyond our wildest dreams (though at certain times I’m not sure I would have counted that ALL joy).
C&T: If there is one thing you would want people to know about the process of adoption, what would it be?
Elisabeth: If you have expectations of timelines, what your experience will be like, what your adoptive children will be like, and what your family will look like after adoption, please hold very loosely to those expectations. Be willing to let them go completely if need be. Usually “if need be” becomes the reality.
If you would have told me, when we began our adoption process with Haiti (with one of our top reasons in choosing Haiti being that we would not have to leave work, home, and family in America for a lengthy and costly period of time), that we would end up moving to Haiti and living in Haiti for the past five years, on top of spending double to process our younger daughter’s adoption completely TWICE, there is no way I would have believed you. And there is a good chance we probably never would have proceeded with adopting from Haiti had we known ahead of time. Don’t let the hard stories scare you. In hindsight, we wouldn’t change our experience for the world. We just needed to change our expectations.
C&T: What has been the most helpful post-adoption resource for you?
Elisabeth: Country-specific resources, such as books about Haiti, talking to families who have adopted from Haiti, and especially those who have lived in Haiti, have helped us greatly. Moving to the country our adopted children were born and grew up in has changed almost everything we once assumed we understood. It has helped us to bond as a family in ways we never would have and altered our perspectives to better parent our children from hard places. If there is one thing I can recommend, it is to spend as much time as possible in the culture your child has come from. If at all possible (and depending on the age of the child) do this with your adopted child. If there is a language barrier and the child is older, please do your best to learn some of the language. Our most helpful post-adoption resource has been learning from and living among the people of Haiti.
C&T: How did you want to be supported before and after the adoption took place?
Elisabeth: I am not sure I knew the answer to this question at the time I was going through this, before the adoption. It is difficult for anyone to hang out with grieving, desperate people who are in constant survival mode. I’m sure I was not super fun to be around. There were certain friends and family who were always just there, despite my state. I will always be thankful for them. They gave me the oxygen of encouragement when I didn’t feel I wanted any. When your children are living in a dark, rat-infested basement, cold, wet, hungry, thirsty, and scared and you know that this is not just in your nightmares but their actual daily existence that you have personally witnessed AND HAD TO LEAVE THEM THERE, it doesn’t feel right to be cheery or cheered. The surest thing to lift my spirit was each time we learned we were one step closer to getting the girls out of there. When donations of money would come in or friends and family donated their time and energy helping us with yet another fundraiser or watched the boys while I made another trip to Haiti, we truly felt supported because this helped us get one step closer to our girls.
C&T: What would be your advice to someone else going through the same experience?
Elisabeth: After the adoptions, our lives had changed so much in every way I am not sure this answer is relatable to most adoptive families. But I do know that after the adoptions, I no longer wanted my identity to primarily be tied up with the adoptions that had pulled me out of healthy relationships for so long. I wanted friends to share with me about normal things like their kids’ little league or their new pet. I didn’t so much want to talk about dark and scary basements full of rats and children, the corruption that happens to you in an international adoption process, and the people who you once upon a time believed would be your biggest advocates but became your biggest enemies. No matter where you adopt from or live, after the adoption you are in yet another version of survival mode. You could call it a “transition” or “a season”. But whatever you call it, it probably is not going to be called “pleasant” or “peaceful”. Yet, pleasant and peaceful is what you will be craving after completing an adoption and no amount of chocolate or coffee is going to make up for it. The tendency then is to gravitate toward those who you feel understand what you are going through. So naturally, adoptive parents talk to other adoptive parents (whether in person or finding one another in private online adoption groups) about the hardest of things. These friendships are a lifeline. But they can also be very heavy. Lighter friendships that talk about other things besides the gravity of adoption-related issues are a needed support as much as those who are in the thick of it with you. Keep the lightweight relationships afloat and don’t let yourself believe that someone else’s issues are trivial compared to yours. You need them more than you think you do. Nevertheless, it is a difficult task. If you find it is an impossible task, at least try going somewhere light with your heavy talk friends. Talking through the hard stuff while sunbathing at the pool or beach helps lift the heavy a bit. If you cry you can blame it on the saltwater or the sight of grandma wearing a bikini and you will probably end up laughing at some point by the end of the day. The point is to go home lighter and be light to your family. The best way to do this is not to rely on your family and friends to carry this burden for you or try carrying it yourself. Just give it to Jesus in the first place. He says in Matthew 11: 28-30, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Years after the adoptions I would say that support through awareness plays a huge role of support. There are too many things we were not aware of when we began our adoption journey. Our hope is to use those negative experiences to help other families not have to go through some of the unnecessary hurts and hardships. Awareness is key in that process. Learn and listen to others who have gone before you. Don’t let the hard things you will become aware of (one way or another) scare you away. Allow that awareness to make you stronger for the ugly task and beautiful journey ahead.
Elisabeth Ream has lived in Haiti, working as a missionary alongside her husband, Eric, and four children, Elita Marguerite, Esmée, Ethan and Evan, for the past five years, serving under Heart of God International Ministries. Leaving everything to follow and share Christ has been the most intensely rewarding experience for the Ream Team. Eric’s heart is to equip Haitian Pastors and leaders with the Biblical education they need to share God’s Word with their people well. Elisabeth’s passion is orphan prevention and family preservation. Alongside Haitian partners, she co-founded a women’s ministry and microloan business program called KOFAEL which helps to “create more options, not more orphans” in Haiti.
-The Ream Team shares about living in Haiti and ministry to the Haitian people at reamteaminternational.org.
-To find out more about their mission organization, visit HeartofGodInternational.org, where you can also find links for more information on “The Ream Team”.
-Visit Kofael.org to learn more about the orphan prevention and family preservation ministry the Ream Team has co-founded alongside Haitian partners. KOFAEL is a growing, successful ministry that has helped hundreds of vulnerable Haitian children be able to stay with their families.
-During the adoption process, Elisabeth blogged throughout their journey on at chosenandmuchloved.blogspot.com.
Catch up on the other posts in this series:
Part 2: An Interview with Hope Helms: The Journey to Adoption
Part 3: An Interview with Kathryn Thompson: The Story of an Adoptee
Part 4: An Interview with Kristin Campbell: A Story of Multiple Adoptions
Part 5: An Interview with Christa Adams: Foster Care & Domestic Adoption