I always dreamed of adopting a little girl from Africa. When I met James, it was love at first smile. I knew the night I met him that he was the one I wanted to do adventures with for the rest of my life. After a few weeks of dating, James told me he really didn’t think adoption was right for him. I knew God wanted me to marry him, and I knew God put adoption on my heart. I told James that God would change his heart. He smiled and said he would keep an open mind about it.
We got married 1 year after we started dating. Our first year of married life was glorious and we decided we were ready for a baby to join the party.
Two days after finding out we were pregnant, I had a miscarriage. I had never known that kind of pain – physically or emotionally. I didn’t understand why God needed OUR baby, there were already so many children in Heaven. We named our baby Haven, so that we could call him/her by name when we got to Heaven. Healing slowly took place over time, but we were not ready to get pregnant again.
We decided we needed a fresh start with some adventure mixed in, so we moved from Portland, OR to Temecula, CA. The second Sunday at our new church they were talking about the school they wanted to build for orphaned and poverty stricken children in Kenya. I looked up at James and noticed how emotional he was. We got into the car and James started crying. He proceeded to tell me through his tears that he wanted to adopt children. Lots of children. And he didn’t want to stop there, he wanted to make a difference in the world. He said he wanted to put down roots in Africa. It was in that moment that I realized God was answering my prayers.
After that, we both had it on our hearts to start our family through adoption. We didn’t know if it was the right time, since we also had the dream of launching our little coffee company. In June 2016 we went on our first trip to Kenya Africa and came home knowing that God wanted us to start pursuing the adoption process. We contacted an adoption agency and they sent us a link to look at children who were on a waiting list. All the children on the list had special needs or were part of a sibling group. The agency said it was rare for kids under 5 to come up on the waiting list, and we were disappointed because we felt like our first child was meant to be a little girl around 2 years old. We prayed and decided that if we saw a baby girl pop up on the waiting list, that would be our sign that God was opening the door and we would step through it. We knew that a lot of the children were HIV+ so we dove into research and discovered that it’s easier to manage than a peanut allergy! We knew that God was calling us to include HIV in our story, so we contacted other families with HIV+ kids, and met with doctors to prepare for what our future family would need.
After only a month of watching the waiting list, we saw Emmanuella’s picture pop up for the first time. Right away I thought to myself, “Is this my daughter?” I was scared to feel anything, but I felt like I was having one of those moments that other parents describe when they just KNOW that that is their child. I was headed to a family reunion and I couldn’t help showing a few family members her photo. I just couldn’t stop looking at her!
After 4 days of praying about her and discussing how pursuing her would change our lives, we called the adoption agency. They confirmed that she was HIV+ which aligned with the path we knew God had us on. We also discovered she was born around the same time our baby Haven would’ve been born (God just loves to throw in those little details!). We knew God was flinging the door wide open for us so we paid the Ghana application fee and started our trek up the mountain of never ending paperwork, classes, books, and invasive interviews. We had just become debt free following Dave Ramsey’s plan, so all we had in savings was our $1k emergency fund. We said “okay God, you’re going to have to come through for our finances”. We started fundraising and had the generous offer from our friend at Temecula Coffee Roasters to help us launch our coffee company – Level Grounds Xpresso, to help cover adoption costs.
A couple months into the process we found out that Emmanuella had come very close to death due to getting malaria 3x, which spread to her lungs and developed into pneumonia which lead to sickness and severe malnourishment. Our hearts were broken every day for our daughter who was suffering without us. Every time we received a new photo of her, we soaked up every feature of her precious face, tiny hands, and little toes. Every adoptive family knows how difficult the waiting period is. There’s nothing you can do as you pray and wait to get the call that you can travel and go meet your son or daughter.
In October 2016 we finally got the call that we could travel to Ghana! We were told they were working on a court date and would have one scheduled by the time we arrived. After all the information we had received about Emmanuella, we knew that I needed to stay in Ghana and live with her until we could both come home together. We figured I would have to stay there for about 6 weeks. I knew it would be tough, but 6 weeks wasn’t too bad – I’d always wanted to live in Africa anyways (I told myself!). James would come for the first 2 weeks and then he would have to return home to work, sell coffee, and continue fundraising – since we still owed $10k to the agency. We didn’t know how it was all going to work out, but God was telling us to go, so we went! Faith is quite simple when you stop making it complicated.
We packed 7 suitcases filled with food and diapers since we were headed to a rural village and didn’t know what to expect. On November 9th, 2016, we arrived at the orphanage in Ghana and saw Emmanuella for the first time. It was like time stopped when we saw her. It was so surreal. We had been praying for her and dreaming about her for 5 months, and now we were looking at her in real life for the first time. She was absolutely beautiful and perfect, but immediately we could see how her oversized clothes hung loosely on her tiny frail body, and how distended her tummy was due to malnutrition. She was 2 years old and only weighed about 15lbs. She could hardly stand on her own, let alone walk. Every fiber in my body told me to run to my daughter and hold her and comfort her, but I knew I couldn’t. I was just a stranger.
She was afraid of us for the first few days. She didn’t want us to touch her or hold her, but we didn’t stop showing her how much we loved her. She cried almost constantly, but each day she started to trust us more and more – especially when we introduced her to Cheerios! When we visited her on the 5th day we found her alone and crying at the orphanage and James declared that we were never leaving her again. That was the first time she stayed the night with us, and the following morning we heard her laugh for the first time.
Our first 2 weeks bonding as a family was an amazing time that we will cherish forever. It went by way too quickly and on Thanksgiving Day James left Ghana. We kissed each other goodbye and had confident hope that I would be following with Emmanuella in a few weeks.
Weeks became months, with no court date and no news. I had to “forget” my American life so that I could survive my current reality. I lived without running water, often using a bucket to gather rainwater to take showers and wash our clothes. I learned how to shop at the local market and how to say “ I want black person price, not white person price” in their language. I walked miles to buy food and drinking water, and rode on the back of a motorcycle with Emmanuella tied to my back when the distance was too far. I dealt with living as the minority as grown men grabbed me by the arm (so they could tell their friends they touched the white lady), children ran up to touch my skin, women tried to take Emmanuella out of my arms or off my back because “dat’s not yo baby”.
For 6 months I lived alone and isolated from the outside world and everything familiar. Sometimes I would go 8 days without talking to James because the wifi didn’t work. God taught me the depths of what surrender truly meant. I stopped praying to go home, and started praying for patience and for opportunities to witness to the people around me. I learned to choose joy every morning when I woke up. I embraced motherhood and bonding with my daughter in her culture – an experience than many parents don’t have the opportunity to go through. Wella gained weight and confidence and became a healthy toddler. She started to pick up on my characteristics and it was so amazing to see how a child who was not biologically related to me, was exactly like me in so many ways! They say you don’t realize how weird you are until you have kids that starts acting like you!
In April of 2017 James received a phone call that shifted our Ghana experience. The Tim Tebow Foundation said they wanted to give us an adoption grant for $8,000! The grant would cover almost all of the fees we owed, and we had enough in our savings account for James to come back to Ghana. On May 9th, 2017, God reunited our family for the first time in 6 months.
3 months later we finally had a successful court hearing (after 2 attempts) and Emmanuella Faith Wilson legally became our daughter! We filed our immigration paperwork at the U.S. Embassy, and prayed it would be approved within a couple weeks. During that waiting period we moved into the capital city of Accra and took Wella to a medical lab, only to be told that she didn’t have HIV! We were completely shocked, but grateful.
We watched our bank account dwindle, and accepted the generous offer from friends and family to move all of our belongings into a storage unit since we couldn’t afford our rent payments. We also sold our car to cover living expenses in Ghana, and later pay for our plane tickets home. We spent our days growing Level Grounds Xpresso (which grew to become a nation-wide company!), listening to audiobooks and podcasts, homeschooling Wella, and making YouTube videos. So many people blessed us financially, through coffee sales, and prayer.
For 10 months we fought for the U.S. Embassy to complete their investigation and approve our case. We endured stressful phone calls and emails requesting more documents. We dealt with people who were making every step difficult for us. We were weary from battle, but Wella was worth every minute of the fight.
After 590 days of living in Ghana, Wella was FINALLY issued a United States visa! We booked our flights and on June 23rd, 2018 we landed on U.S. soil with the clothes on our backs, $200.00, and weary hearts full of love and relief. We were tearfully and joyously greeted by our families who lavished Wella with gifts and kisses for the first time.
Wella has adjusted flawlessly to American life, and we are just amazed at how perfectly she fits in with our family and friends. James and I struggled with culture shock for the first couple months, but are starting to feel more adjusted as time goes by.
We love to share our story and we’ve been blessed to share it on quite a few large platforms, but I started to notice that I was numb to our experience. I felt like I was telling the story about another family. I was totally disconnecting and disassociating myself from the trauma that accompanied our beautiful story. No one in my family had ever gone to therapy and after much thought and prayer I decided to become the first one.
I want to be the healthiest and best version of myself. I want to look back on our journey with fondness, which I am finally starting to do. It is amazing the healing the has already taken place for me in the past 6 weeks of talking to a professional. God is using a therapist to walk through those difficult memories with me and reframe them into experiences that I don’t have to suppress or run from. For the first time since being home, I am starting to feel like my normal and whole self. My broken pieces are being put back together and my memories are being redeemed.
I’ve heard many people in the adoption community say things like “It’s not about you, it’s about your kid and their experience. Put your issues aside and focus on what they need.”
I’ve decided that I don’t agree with those statements anymore. As parents we need to face our “issues” head on so that we can walk the path to being the best parent, friend, spouse, and mentor possible. If we’re emotionally healthy, we can step up to the plate and steadily walk with our kids through their own trauma when the time comes.
I hope and pray that our story inspires people. Don’t ever let fear hold you back from doing something that you are called to do! To those of you who are considering adoption – you CAN do it. You WILL get through it, and there are so many people who are ready to step alongside you in your journey. It will most likely be the hardest thing you ever go through, but it will also be more miraculous and rewarding than you ever imagined. When God moves in your life He will baffle the spectators, just like He did for us.
Connect with me – I’m only a message away!
To find more stories from our National Adoption Month series head HERE.