Our sweet friends started the adoption process nearly three years ago with a heart for toddlers. By the end of 2019, they’ll instead be bringing home two teens.
We know that all adoption comes first from a place of brokenness and loss … but we love hearing how God redeems that brokenness and begins making all things new ... especially for those the world has already written off with the label “too late.”
We asked this family to share their story of how God turned their hearts from the youngest in the system to the oldest. This is their story in their own words.
Guest Post Written by Juli Anna Vonderharr
How do you make a connection with someone you have never met? Walk up and shake a hand? Offer a smile and hope he or she doesn’t dislike you on first hello? In meeting new people, there is always an underlying sense of anxiety and fear for most of us.
What if someone doesn’t like you? What if they are so different that you can’t get along? What if you have nothing in common?
What if you do? What if you find the bond under it all? What if …
So. Add in the element of adoption. And the people being involved in the situation being teenagers, adults, several younger children and two dogs.
That’s a lot of “what-ifs”. A lot of dynamics. A lot of fear, anxiety, baggage and a whole passel of other emotions.
Imagine with me for a moment, what if there was hope? What if there was a connection? What if there was faith and patience and, wait for it … wait … yes, what if there was love? What if there were second chances? What if, even in the midst of beauty and brokenness, there were the seemingly missing pieces in your family puzzle, and you in theirs? What if … faith conquers the fear? What if … patience soothes the anxiety? What if … love slowly heals the hurts and … wins?
More than two and a half years ago, my husband (who we will call “my long-legged man”) and I felt a tug on our hearts to adopt. Thus, we started our journey toward adopting one more smallish person into our family. We already had three, but one more would be perfect. Right?
We discussed adopting domestically, however, with my long-legged man’s job in the active duty military, we soon discovered how challenging it might be to complete the full process locally because of his high mobility in the service. (Most states require you to be in one place for longer periods of time to complete the process. Yeah. That wasn’t happening.) Therefore, after much prayer and research, we chose to adopt from the beautiful country of Bulgaria.
I have to admit, in my mind, I could see her. Small little girl with big brown eyes and dark brown hair. She would have a smile that could light up a room. We would love her. She would love us. She would make four kiddos for us. The complete, perfect, even little number of kids.
*** Um, can we stop for a moment and let me point out how we quite often make plans and God just smiles, pats us on the head and says, “Um, no.” Yeah, about that … ***
We started the search for “our” little girl, younger than our youngest, who was 3 at the time, and with what the world called “special needs.” We thought because we were looking for a little girl with special needs she would be easy to find. But, time progressed, and march on, and more time went by. We began to question if this is really what God was asking us to do. Were we supposed to adopt? Why was God making us wait? Why was it taking soooo long to find our precious little girl? Surely there were children just waiting to have a home and family and love … right?
I started to take matters into my own hands. I started looking at ever advocacy site I could find. I made countless calls and spent countless hours reading through files. Still. No child matched us. I felt so discouraged.
One night after everyone was in bed and I was up scrolling through files again, I began to realize that more than 90 percent of the kids I was seeing on advocacy sites were over 8 years old. My heart began to ache. I looked AT them. Not just glancing as I flipped through. I looked AT their faces. I looked AT their eyes. I looked AT their stories.
My heart broke.
In those moments, I saw that my Abba Father was trying ever so gently to have me OPEN my heart. He wanted me to listen to HIM. Right there in that moment, God was asking me to open my heart wider and let go of control. I prayed, “But Abba, my long-legged man is NOT gonna go for this. He has his heart set on a little girl, just like the kids and I do.”
*** Did you notice I used the word “but”? Yeah, God heard it, too. And He replied, “I got this. Trust me.” ***
I said, “Ok, Abba, if you want us to adopt an older child, you have to make our entire family on board with this. Including the long-legged man.”
Looking back now, I can just see God smiling at me and saying, “Watch this, baby girl.”
So, in December of last year, my long-legged man and I sat down to have a heart-to-heart discussion about why we were doing this adoption thing. Logically our answer was, to adopt a child who truly needed a home and who not many other people would want. Right? We have been given so much in terms of love and healthcare and resources, and we knew were were called to care for “the least of these,” as He commands.
Ok, soooo, we asked ourselves, WHO are those kids?
My long-legged man then piped up and said, “Older kids, no one wants older kids.”
*** Can you hear God chuckling at me at this point? I can. If I were to roll my eyes any more at myself they might get stuck in the back of my head. Just sayin’. ***
After lengthy lists of pros and cons, we decided to open the age range for our “little” girl. There were so many. So. Many. (Did I point out SO MANY …?) I wanted them all. My long-legged man was like, “Um, honey, NO. Just one. ONE.” And eventually I found her. She was 14. She was about to age out. She was beautiful. She had those deep brown eyes. She was into outdoors things. She was wanting younger siblings.
She was … already matched with another family.
I cried. I cried some more. I thought to myself, “How could God lead us to her and she is already matched with someone else? Why?”
My Abba whispered again, “Do you trust me?”
I grudgingly started looking again. Did I mention it was grudgingly? Yeah. *Sigh.* Lots of feet dragging here.
Just before New Year’s, I happened to see the pictures of a pair of teenage siblings. One boy, 16, and one girl, 13. Their smiles tugged deeply at my heart. Their blue and green eyes radiated hope.
I kept looking. I did nothing. I didn’t even mention them to my long-legged man, but I couldn’t get them off my mind. I started seeing them on every advocacy site I looked at. I even got emails from random adoption agencies I’d never heard of with them pictured. I would even wake up in the night with them on my heart and this sense of urgency. I read their file. And I knew.
I was looking at my children.
But I still hesitated …
*** Sigh. One of these days, I’m gonna learn to listen, ya know? I’m gonna just say, “Ok, Abba, I hear you. THE FIRST TIME.” * Insert eye rolling * (because I know myself, and I more than likely won’t.) ***
Finally, I couldn’t ignore them any longer.
I approached my long-legged man about them. I showed him their pictures and read their files to him. I told him how they loved younger kids and wanted a family with other children. I told him how their foster mom of nine years was about to retire and desperately wanted them to find a home so they didn’t have to go into the “system.” I told him how they loved being outside and playing sports. I told him how they loved animals.
I told him they were way out of our age range.
It wasn’t just one. They came together.
We weren’t ready for a teenaged boy that is almost 17.
We would have to buy a new car to hold us all.
We would have almost double the adoption fees, and I had no idea how we would pay for them.
None. (I didn’t tell him a thing about not being able to get them off my mind.)
By the time our conversation was over, he looked at me and said, “They’re our kids, aren’t they?”
And the answer was yes.
Yes, they are our children. All my dragging feet did was add on time to bringing our children home. I knew they were ours. I knew in my heart. BUT … TWO? And TWO TEENS!? Gah! What were we thinking?
I’ll tell you what we were thinking.
Teenagers are NOT scary, contrary to popular opinion. They need love and a family as much as any child. Maybe even more. Sure, we could stick to adopting younger kids and “raise” them to “be like us.”
We could open our hearts like God wanted us to and get the privilege of loving on these two for the rest of our lives.
They may be half grown, but they still need a family. They still want a family. They still need love. They still want to give love. They still need guidance. They still need grace. They still need a home to come home to when they are all grown, or have a heart ache, or to bring that special person home to meet the family.
They need as much love as any one of us does. And maybe even more so.
And God was entrusting these gifts to us.
And yes, I’ve heard it all. The cautionary tales. The looks of “have you lost your ever-loving-mind”? The “Oh, honey, they’re teens, that’s scary.” Or “Aren’t you afraid for your own kids with strange teens in your house?” Or, “How are you going to handle five kids?!” Or, my favorite, “Oh, honey! Bless you. Just bless you.” (Yes, I know what that means. They think I’ve lost ALL my marbles. Every. Darn. One.)
Yes. We have considered all of it. Every single scenario, every single “what if”, every single doubt … we prayed. And our Abba still said, “They are Mine. Take care of and love the least of these, as I love you.”
It’s not our task, it’s our honor.
And I don’t know about you, but I don’t argue too much with Jesus when the path has been made that clear. And HE made that path so plain even my stubborn butt could see it. HE has sent person after person to encourage us and tell us the amazing side of adoption. From random strangers chatting with us about why we’re bargain shopping, to friends, to family, to grown adults we meet that begin to share their own story of being adopted.
The encouragement is all around us.
Jesus even made sure my long-legged man had “bosses” that would grant him the time off to be able to travel with us to meet our two teens and to bring them home. HE has provided our kids with open hearts and over-the-moon joy at having older siblings. HE has even graciously provided us with family and friends that are just as excited as we are for these two teens to join the Vonderharr family!
However, I would be lying if I said this process has been all peaches and cream. And I’d really be telling fibs if I said choosing to switch gears from adopting a toddler to adopting teens was easy.
However, the moment I saw their faces smiling at me … I knew. They were ours. Although we knew their story had come from a place of brokenness, we knew that God was giving us the opportunity to play a part in it. The sense of peace was almost overwhelming when we made the decision to ask them to be a part of our family.
The long-legged man has even said over and over how it felt almost like a relief that we were bringing two teens home instead of a toddler.
Let’s face it, y’all, we ain’t spring chickens anymore, and the thought of diapers again gave me the twitches.
Besides, toddlers are terrifying. I know. I had three of them.
OK, so here I have to interject a few other of life’s roadblocks, kinks, twists and curveballs. Because, let’s face it, nothing ever goes as planned, right?
Remember how I said my long-legged man is in the military? Yeah. Um, about that …
As we were getting matched with our kids and trying to grow our family and living life, Uncle Sam (AKA the Army) throws us a wicked curveball.
We have to PCS, or in civilian terms, we have to move.
Wait. Hold up. What?!?
Yup. We have to move in the middle of all this transition.
Nothing can ever be smooth, right? Of course not.
At first, we were told we could move to Germany. This made us all super happy because we would be closer to Bulgaria and we could make trips to Bulgaria and get to know their country while we were there. We were thrilled. The kids were thrilled. I saw my dreams coming true and my long-legged man was beyond excited about his new job.
It would be a lot to juggle, but we would make it happen, right? We began selling things and making plans. All was perfect.
Then Uncle Sam said, nope, just kidding. You’re moving to Colorado.
That sounds great, right? No international move. We can keep our stuff. We can stay semi-close to family. And … the Rocky Mountains. Gorgeous. Fun. New. No having to move your family into a house you’ve never seen, or worry about adoption issues internationally, etc.
BUT AT THE END OF AN ADOPTION PROCESS?! Really, God?! Come on. We can’t move! We would have to start all of our home study paperwork from scratch. (Europe doesn’t require this, only the U.S., go figure.) And we’re at the point in the adoption where we might actually LOSE our kids if we move.
Let that sink in for a moment … we just found them and were now trying to be officially matched. We could LOSE them.
No. Just no.
Paperwork is 85 percent done for the adoption and visa applications. We are officially matched. We have orders to Ft. Carson. We are still unsure what to do. So, we do what military families have done for years.
We decided to move the long-legged man to his new duty station while I stayed here with the little kids until we bring our older two home. Sounds simple, right?
Two houses. Two states. Two countries. One mortgage. One rent payment. Three time zones. Two kids who will never be orphans again. One family. That’s the goal.
We would not give them up. No matter what. Not an option.
Back to the main story …
We fly the whole family to meet our new son and our daughter this summer. We get there, jet-lagged, exhausted, but so excited none of us can sleep. (3 a.m. and the kids are having a pillow fight over who gets to hug who first when they meet their new siblings. Yeah. It was a loooong night.)
I never felt nervous. My long-legged man even pointed out that he kept expecting to be anxious or worried, but there was only peace and anticipation. We both thought it was so weird.
We SHOULD be nervous. We SHOULD be anxious. Right? No. I don’t think so at all. Our Abba was flooding our hearts with peace and joy. There is no doubt about this. None. It felt as if it was one of the more natural things we had ever embarked on as a family.
Our trip went something like this:
Day 1: Touring around Sophia.
If you are ever in Bulgaria, you must see Sophia by foot. It is stunning. Getting to see all the gorgeous historical places, eating amazing foods, meeting the lovely people was priceless. I’ll be honest, I did look at each face that passed me and wondered if by chance, maybe our two were out and about in the city. (They weren’t, but I was hopeful.)
Day 2: Meet our kids.
We’re walking up to the building to meet them for the first time and I feel a slight flutter in my heart of “What if they don’t like us”? But just as that nasty little doubt raises its ugly head … I see this young girl standing alone outside on the sidewalk craning her neck and looking as though she’s searching for someone. My heart skipped …
It was our daughter. She was looking for us. She all but ran up to us and hugged me first. I could feel her trembling, almost hesitancy, but she just couldn’t help herself. She wanted to open her heart to us.
All doubts were smashed like a bug on a windshield. She had crystal clear blue-green eyes and warm brown hair. And a bright smile that could rival the sun.
She turned from me and instantly started hugging and chatting with the kids. She smiled shyly at my long-legged man, but you could see the hope in her eyes that said she wanted to be a part of our family. All of us.
We met our son not long after (he was at work, we had to go pick him up). He was a tig more reserved, as an almost 17-year-old boy would be. But our three littles didn’t let him stay aloof long. Within 10 minutes, they were climbing all over him and convincing him to play soccer. The smile on his face was radiant and the twinkle in his eyes let us know, he, too, knew he had found his family.
Day 3-4: Building a bond.
We spent a few days traveling around doing things with all the kids from swimming to hiking to sight seeing. Both teens fit in our family dynamic with ease. It still amazes me how the connection we have with them was pretty darn close to instant. They have such an openness and eagerness to have a family of their own, it was contagious. Spending time with them felt natural and almost as though it was a “relief” to finally be together with them.
When Finn would have a melt down, or Rainey Mae was at the end of her tolerance of things, or Theron was feeling tired, both teens took it all in stride. They even helped us with our grumpy little people as though it was something they have always done. No one was left out. No eyes were rolled or fits thrown (except by the smaller Vonderharrs). No one was ever without a hand to hold or a smile to give. And I did not ask for help, they simply gave it. Even though I did not raise them, I am proud of them all the same. (All I can say is their foster mom is an angel!)
Days 5 & 6: The best days and the hardest days.
We were able to meet their foster mom and see the love she has for them. She kept crying tears of joy and a little sadness because she knew they were going to be leaving her for a family of their own. She took my face in her wrinkled and loving hands and said to me in very broken English, “You good mother. You love them. I see. They love you, no? You see.”
I will never forget those words. This woman who has loved them as her own for nine years gave me her blessing. I cannot and will not take that lightly.
We were also able to meet their older sister and spend a day with her. I could tell she was very guarded at first, but by the end of the time, she relaxed and told us she could tell we were going to love them like she does. She gave her blessing for us to adopt her baby brother and sister. She is precious. I would bring her home with us, too, if she would let us. (Maybe God will work that one out somehow … one of these days … soon. I love her, too).
We were able to talk over hard issues and easy things. Discuss expectations and fears. They opened up some and asked questions that weren’t always easy to answer. But they told us several times they appreciated how honest we were, and though some things about moving halfway across the world were scary, they were ready because they knew we would love them and they would be safe.
I know they were still guarded. I could see it. The hesitation. The fear of “what if we do something wrong, will they still want us?” I did my best to address that head on, but I also remember being a teen.
They are not going to truly believe us until they see it for themselves. And when that time comes, Lord help me, I pray they will understand my long-legged man and I are serious … we love them and we will not let them go.
We asked them if they would take our last name and be our kids. They didn’t even bat an eye when they said a resounding “YES!” I had to laugh because they acted so relieved to finally know we truly wanted them. But. Then they turned around and floored us by asking if they could change their birth names, too.
I’ll be honest. That was hard. Ok. No. That was a little gut-wrenching for both my long-legged man and me. We hesitated because we don’t want to change them. We don’t want them to forget who they are. Nor did we want them to think we wanted them to change. Sure, they will be U.S. citizens and they will be our kids, but they will always be Bulgarian, too. We don’t want them to lose themselves, their identity or their heritage because they think we want them to.
Gratefully, we discovered it wasn’t that way. They simply wanted to BE our kids. They wanted to leave the past behind and BE Vonderharrs.
After discussing all this with them, we understood, it wasn’t that they thought of themselves as any less Bulgarian. They just wanted to BE Vonderharrs and have a fresh new start. This. This I understand.
So. We let them decide their own names. They got to choose who they became, and we got to be a part of it.
They asked to take my husband and my middle names as their middle names.
Um, yes. I cried. It was their way of saying, “We’re yours” in a way only they could. Needless to say, I was humbled and honored more than they will ever know.
Day 7: The day my heart broke.
I knew leaving was going to be hard. On me. On all the kids. On my long-legged man. I had no idea how heart-shattering it would be. Taking each of their faces in my hands and telling them one more time that I loved them and we would be back … gah! There are no words. (I’m totally crying right now … and this was more than two months ago).
Their hugs and promises to be strong and love us are still ringing in my ears. Walking away from them, I could not hold myself together. My long-legged man had to almost carry me and the three littles to the car to drive away.
Empty. Our car felt empty. Our hearts felt empty. It was a long trip back to the U.S. It was hard knowing not only were we not coming home with our kids, but my long-legged man would be moving halfway across the country.
I’d be solo mom. Again.
But. In this time of separation from our kids and my long-legged man, I’m learning to listen more. To each of them in turn. I’m re-learning to trust. I am remembering how to apply my faith and not just stress over how we pay rent and mortgage and adoption expenses. I’m taking advantage of a few more months to cuddle the little ones and learn to talk to two teens via text messages and social media. I’m learning. I’m growing. I’m becoming …
Yes, there is a hole the size of a 14-year-old girl and a 17-year-old boy in my heart. I pray daily for the time to fly by until we can bring them home and we can all be together in our home in Colorado.
It’s hard, but it’s a day by day thing.
We all talk to our older two kids on social media multiple times a day either via chat or video chat. Just random things. Like families do. They miss us. They love us. How was your day? What are you doing? These are my friends. Look, this happened. Can I ask you something? I broke up with my girlfriend. Practice was hard today. I had a fight with my friend, what do I do? … You know, normal teenager things.
That’s right. They aren’t scary. They simply need a family and love. They don’t care that we are moving across the country. They don’t care that we’re going to live in an older house. All they see is love. And that we have love in abundance. We are not perfect. Neither are they. But we all are in this together.
Just a few more months. Visas are approved. We wait on a court date. We wait to be whole again.
All of us.
So. Teenagers. Scary? No. There are so many waiting to be loved and accepted just like any other little kid. Will it be easy for us or any other adoptive parent? Nope. Will we fight? Yup. Will we struggle? You better believe it. Will there be hard times when we question what the hay we were thinking?
More than likely, on a daily basis.
But, we will adventure this together, as a family. And love will win. Over and over and over.
Do I still think about that little girl with the big brown eyes and a smile that lights up a room? Yes. I do. But she is not my little girl. My girls both have blue-green eyes. That little brown-eyed girl in my mind belongs to another family. And I will be praying every day for the rest of my life for her. For them. For each child that needs a family. We found our two (double blessing, right?) So. I will pray for her to find her family.
Wanna join us on our saga? I will write more about our journey blending into a crazy-grace-filled family as the time passes.
It’s gonna be epic. Stay tuned.
Want to support this active duty military family who is living on two different sides of the country and funding two adoptions simultaneously? Read more of their story and donate HERE.