By Shelly Esser
On a hot July day in 2005, the taxi driver stopped abruptly at a metal gate after a long chaotic trip with three American passengers – Karla Bowerman, her sister, Wendy Ruhland, and their father, Clark Bowerman - waiting to get into one of the many orphanages in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
As they drove through the entrance, a mob of curious children swarmed the car. “There they are!” Wendy and Clark shouted excitedly. “Where?” Karla said, anxiously searching the small faces in the crowd. And then… she spotted them sporting the red Wisconsin t-shirts she had sent them months earlier. Two girls – her girls - all smiles, came shyly walking over to the car hesitantly putting their arms around them. The girls then proudly took their hands, leading them around the orphanage.
Overwhelmed and flooded with emotion, Karla was hit with the realization that she was now the mother to the girls she had prayed for over the last year – two orphaned sisters (Fanose, 7, and Zenebech “Zena,” 6) who had tragically lost their parents and baby brother to the HIV/AIDS crisis in Ethiopia. Months earlier, Karla had completed the adoption paperwork that matched her with Fanose and Zena. The whole way to the orphanage Karla wondered what this moment would be like. Up until now there had only been photos and a brief video to introduce her to her girls. Now, it was here - her new life had begun!
Karla’s adoption journey began 25 years earlier with a tug towards Africa where she ended up doing missions and relief work in Kenya. She fell in love with the land, its culture, and especially its people. Returning to the U.S., she resumed her architecture career, but always with a gnawing affection for Africa. God had been putting adoption on Karla’s heart. A single, career woman in her 40s – it didn’t make sense. In fact, it seemed impossible. But the desire and passion to adopt from Africa was God’s calling.
Almost all of her married life Wendy, Karla’s sister, had a growing desire to have children but it was a medical impossibility. For years, Wendy filled her life with friends, a teaching career, ministry – but nothing would take away the void of being childless. The topic of adoption surfaced several times, but Wendy and her husband, Brad, could never reach an agreement.
Some years later when Karla decided to adopt, she asked Wendy if she would join her and their father to come to Ethiopia to pick up her girls. So the three made the 8,000-mile trip. Little did they know that God was about to do the impossible and none of their lives would ever be the same.
To see the orphanage was truly heartbreaking. It was overflowing with children ages 6 to 14. While Karla was bonding with her girls, Wendy taught crafts and played games with all of the kids. Surrounded by children with the biggest brown eyes and smiles she had ever seen, she was taken off guard as the desire to adopt began to grow stronger every day she was there.
There were many adjustments in those early days upon returning home, but Karla knew motherhood was God’s plan for her. Meanwhile, Wendy went home empty-handed but sure that God was calling her and her husband to adopt. But Brad remained closed to the idea of adoption.
In a major turn of events only the Holy Spirit could have orchestrated, Wendy and Brad came to see God’s greater plan for their lives - all starting with Karla’s courageous step of faith and obedience. So on February 13, 2006, filled with incredible joy and anticipation, Brad and Wendy boarded a plane to Ethiopia to pick up their two children – brother and sister Mesele “MJ,” 8 and Eyerusalem “Rucy,” 7.
JBU sat down with Karla and Wendy to talk about their incredible journey and what God has taught them about faith, trust, and adoption.
JBU: What made you want to adopt?
Karla: God had been preparing me throughout my life without me knowing it, calling me through a series of circumstances. When I was in Bible school, we had speakers who talked about being called to places like Africa. God also spoke to me through seeing orphans on TV, making me aware of the orphan crisis in the world, particularly in Africa. I was reminded of the verse in Jas. 1:27 where it says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” I started questioning myself, asking what I was doing to make a difference in my world for Christ, and helping others who are less fortunate. I felt then that God was calling me to adopt. He clearly told me I had room in my life for two school-aged orphans.
Wendy: Growing up in a large family, I have always loved children. Since having children wasn’t possible, I thought about adoption. Brad was 44 and wasn’t interested in becoming a father so late in life. We were at an impasse. I couldn’t make him want it any more than he could make me not want it. I felt certain I needed to honor Brad’s decision and allow the Lord to heal this empty place in my heart, but the topic kept resurfacing. I worked through my deep grief and loss and laid down any hopes of ever becoming a mother - that is, until I went to Ethiopia with Karla.
JBU: What happened to you while you were on this trip with your sister?
Wendy: The Lord really stirred my heart. A change occurred in me. I had always wanted to be a mother, but I realized that it wasn’t just about me wanting to be a mother anymore. It was about these kids needing a loving, stable home. I knew that Brad and I could provide that. It was bigger than me…my wants and my needs.
In the second week there was a defining moment. Kids were asking me about my family, specifically my children. I explained that I didn’t have any. The girls’ eyes grew wide and they asked, “So who are you taking home with you?”
I went back to my room and couldn’t find any peace, so I began praying and pleading with the Lord to make adoption possible for us. Sleeping very little that night, I asked God for a miracle.
JBU: What happened when you returned home?
Karla: We went straight to Children’s Hospital because Zena became very ill on the airplane with pneumonia and dehydration, so Wendy became the surrogate mom for Fanose. Welcome to motherhood!
Wendy: I became very depressed. Brad and I couldn’t come to any agreement about adoption. He had not experienced what I had! I could not deny what I believed now to be my calling. I felt a huge void…as though my heart had been left in Africa.
I was sure the Lord told me in Ethiopia that we should adopt. I was met with empathy, but no change of heart. For the first time since my desire for motherhood began, I felt hopeless.
My husband left for a trip and two nights after he left, I had the most incredible experience. I was awakened in the middle of the night and it was as if the Lord was sitting on the edge of my bed. He told me to take courage and move forward with adoption plans. I was stunned and confused. How was I supposed to move forward? By myself? With it possibly ending my marriage? The next night the exact same thing happened again. I sat straight up in bed and carried on a conversation with the Lord. Again, He told me to move forward with adoption. This time He added, “Trust in Me, I will make your path straight!” which happens to be my life verse.
I shared what happened with my family. They prayed for a breakthrough. I felt so torn between honoring the Lord and honoring Brad’s feelings. I left to see Brad right away and cried and prayed the whole way there.
When I got to the hotel, I opened a book I had thrown in my suitcase called The Life God Rewards. It specifically talked about God calling us to follow Him outside of our comfort zone. Caring for orphaned children was an example! I realized then that I had nothing to fear. The Lord was truly in control.
Upon arrival, it was clear Brad had been crying. When I asked him what was wrong, he said he wasn’t sure but that he had been crying on and off all week. I told him all that had happened. I didn’t ask him if he could consider adoption, I simply told him that I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt what the Lord was asking us to do. In an instant, Brad agreed and said he knew it too and that we needed to move forward! There were fears, yes, but there was no hesitation. It truly was a miracle.
JBU: How has Brad adjusted to raising children?
Wendy: God in His wisdom knew exactly what he was doing when He chose MJ and Rucy for our family. Brad is a Phy. Ed. teacher and both of our kids are very athletic – that was the bond they had from the beginning. When MJ was having a hard time, Brad would teach him how to ride the bike or throw the ball around. It took MJ’s attention off of his sadness. It wasn’t easy going from zero to two children overnight after 15 years of marriage. Brad was 52 when the kids arrived, but it seemed like when I was really depleted, God had filled him up for that moment, and the times he was depleted, God had filled me up.
JBU: Karla, how did you reconcile becoming a single mother?
Karla: In an ideal world every child deserves a mother and a father. But because we live in a fallen world, this is not reality for a lot of kids – Christian kids included. It comes down to what is God’s will and call for your life. It’s not going to look the same for everyone. Some are called to do what I did and some are called to do what Wendy and Brad did. I have a wonderful family support system that makes it possible.
JBU: Did you ever have a moment after adopting when you thought, “What have I done?”
Wendy: Yes, I had many of those moments. Six months after the kids came, I called my sister in the middle of the night crying, “I don’t have what it takes. I can’t help the kids overcome everything they came with. We must have made a mistake.” She reassured me that things would be okay and that God knew all of this. For the first several months, we were homebound because the kids were struggling so deeply emotionally. At times, I felt imprisoned and felt guilty for having those feelings after waiting so long to have children.
Karla: My experience was very different than Wendy’s as I’ve never felt that way. But that’s unusual. “What Have I Done?” is a common emotional reaction to stress and happens nine out of ten times with families adopting. A friend who just adopted went through a post-adoption depression from the minute she picked her kids up. My transition was very different because my kids were very quiet and shy and barely spoke. They were clingy, insecure, needy, and cried a lot but it was a different kind of stress than Wendy’s. God knew as a single mother I wouldn’t be able to manage really challenging children, so He gifted me with easy-going kids.
JBU: What have been the biggest challenges you’ve had to face in adopting older children?
Karla: With international adoption, you don’t know your children’s history. You may know pieces of it, though they might not be accurate. In Ethiopia, most of the challenges come from loss and separation from parents and extended family. They’re coming from an environment that is undernourished and undereducated. When your kids come with no English, and have had no prior education, like mine, it’s a challenge.
My girls had waves of sorrow due to the deaths of their mother, father, and baby brother. But they seemed very ready to have a mother again, which I think is one of the reasons their adjustment went so well. Most adoptive kids from Ethiopia adjust well overall because they started out in loving and nurturing families.
Wendy: In our case there turned out to be a lot of discrepancies in our children’s family history. Due to desperate family health and living conditions, family members were dishonest to the orphanage. To give the kids a future, they viewed adoption as their only option. I can’t imagine feeling that desperate, being forced into choices out of total despair. I remember the night our kids shared with us a year after they were here that their family was alive. I kept thinking is this adoption even legal? Are they ours? In the middle of it, God gave me an incredible peace. Once again, we didn’t know all these things, but He did.
When your kids come you are guessing at their ages and often their physical age and their emotional age often don’t match. It’s hard to weed through attachment, grief, and behavioral issues. It’s also been a challenge to meet their fragile emotional needs. When they first come you don’t even speak the same language.
JBU: How do you help them work through their deep grief?
Wendy: One step at a time. We let them know that they can talk about it anytime. It’s important that they know that we love their family, too. For us, we’ve had to also make use of family counseling to help them process their grief.
JBU: How did you communicate with your kids when they didn’t know English?
Karla: They came only knowing “mom,” which they said a thousand times a day! So, I used a lot of nonverbal communication, simple sentences, repetition, talking slowly, and using gestures. It took them about six months to gain basic communication.
JBU: How do you keep the culture and family connections alive?
Wendy: Our children have six brothers and sisters and ailing parents at home. We communicate regularly through their older brother. We send letters and care packages with others we know going to Ethiopia. We talk about their family often, pray for them so the kids know we want to keep in touch with their family and we’re not trying to replace them. We also eat out at an Ethiopian restaurant, listen to music and news about Ethiopia, watch movies and read books about their land, and gather with other Ethiopians in the area.
Karla: When the girls first came they wanted to disassociate from Ethiopia. I think they were afraid they would be sent back. But over time, they became very proud of their country, so we do school projects on it. We send letters and photos to their living relatives and we attend a culture camp every summer, connecting with other families who have adopted Ethiopian children in the area. We also try to honor their father, mother, and baby brother by celebrating birthdays that the girls have created for them.
JBU: What were some of their basic cultural adjustments?
Karla: TV was a big shock! They were like a deer in the headlights initially. Things like having warm water and going to a food store. They were confused about many things! They thought when they put lotion on their skin that they would turn white. Being undernourished, just having enough food every day was hard for them to comprehend.
Wendy: Food has been a big issue to conquer. My kids were so hungry when they came that they couldn’t get enough. Food was now at their disposal. Then they would go through periods where they didn’t want to eat because they felt sad for others in their homeland going without food. They have had to learn to eat without guilt and in moderation. Both sets of kids have grown like weeds since they’ve been here.
JBU: For those of us who have never adopted, what are some things we can do to help families like yours?
Karla: Spending time with the kids by building relationships with them and being sensitive to how big of an adjustment it is. Kids from another culture can’t jump right into things like birthday parties, etc. right off the bat and people need to understand that they may have to say “no” to a lot of things in the beginning. Parenting an adoptive child can look very different from parenting a biological child so people need to be sensitive and non-judgmental. Also, having your kids model play, like my nieces did for my girls, and having a familiar place to observe how other children behave in this culture is very helpful.
Wendy: Keep asking the family, “How is it going?” Assimilating into a new culture and family is a long, hard process.
JBU: How will you handle it if the kids strongly desire to return to their country and in your case, Wendy, see their family?
Wendy: Their emotional well-being is something you have to consider. MJ was so grief-stricken for so long, it’s difficult to gauge when the best time is to return. It’s an unknown. You can’t predict it. We’ve prayed and talked to several professionals about it. They don’t feel they would be ready before four or five years. Our kids’ parents' family wants to see them before they die, and that’s the rub, but I don’t want to throw them into emotional chaos.
Karla: That’s a tough one. I really support them going back at some point. You’re always weighing it against their relatives’ fragile health against the readiness of the child.
JBU: What advice would you give to others considering international adoption?
Karla: Singer Steven Curtis Chapman said, “If adoption is nudging at your heart, you need to know that that nudging is from God.” God will prepare you and take care of the rest. Do the necessary preparation and be prepared to put your lives on hold once the kids arrive.
Wendy: The need is great! It will be the hardest thing you’ve ever done, but the most rewarding. It’s a gift to your family, extended family, and friends. Like anything else you do, you aren’t in this alone. There’s support. Trust that God will give you the right kids for your family.
JBU: What have you learned from each other through this experience?
Wendy: I have been blown away by the amount of courage and strength Karla has and the way she was obedient to God, because as much as it has been a joy, it had to be scary. It’s a lot to consider as a single person and to see her embrace what God has obviously placed in her heart is a huge inspiration to me.
Her life exemplifies sacrificial giving – in almost four years since she adopted her girls, I have never once heard her complain that it’s too much or too hard. She’s always rolled up her sleeves and given herself freely. That’s a testimony. And even before her adoption, she has always had a compassion for the world.
Karla: I observe Wendy’s parenting and she parents with a lot of compassion, sense of humor, and emotional connection with her kids. And as hard as some of the challenges have been for her, she perseveres and looks at finding different solutions that will help her kids grow and mature and feel good about themselves. That’s so admirable.
JBU: How has this experience impacted your faith?
Wendy: Just the picture of adoption itself – we are adopted into God’s family. I never understood what that meant until we adopted. The other thing is this has increased my trust in God more than anything else. I have felt a huge responsibility to do all I can for our kids in parenting them well, especially knowing that their family is still in Ethiopia. I’ve had to realize that I don’t know everything there is to know about my kids and that we’re never going to know all of their history, but God does. He handpicked the kids we have. It’s comforting to know that He knows all when I don’t.
Karla: An example of this is that before I knew anything about my children I had prayed that they would come from a setting that was similar to what I had experienced in Northern Kenya, a remote area. I prayed that they would be related to the tribal group I was with. This was my inner heart prayer and desire. Once I got to Ethiopia and met the girls’ grandfather and heard about their history, I discovered they did come from a remote area and their tribe was related to the tribe I was with in Kenya. And so you talk about God handpicking kids!
God also speaks regularly to me through my kids and their child-like faith. He reminds me that faith is just that simple – it’s a relationship between God and us.
JBU: How has adoption changed your life?
Karla: My kids have taught me that you get a lot of “do-overs” and that’s how it is with God. While adoption is not the solution to Africa’s orphan crisis – one continent cannot adopt another continents children - every adoption is a miracle; it’s God working it out so that a hurting child finds his or her way into a family - a family that God has chosen. As someone once said, “Adoption won’t change the world, but it will change the world for that one child.” And for Fanose, Zena, MJ, and Rucy their worlds are forever changed.
Wendy: I learn something every day about myself, my beliefs, my attitudes, and the kind of heart the Lord wants me to have, not just for my own children, but for humanity.
Shortly after my kids came, they watched the Prince of Egypt movie. At bedtime that night, Mesele told me through his broken English, “Mom, Moses’ mother save his life by put him in a basket and send him down river. Jesus save Mesele’s life by put him on airplane and send to America.” It’s in these moments, my heart is filled to overflowing. God has truly performed a miracle!