Maintaining a healthy home and family, no matter the shape, size or color, is hard. Throw in the challenge of helping a young child feel comfortable in a completely foreign country with a brand new family and you’ll see that these locals have taken a lot on their shoulders. But the families are finding that the greatest tests also come with the greatest rewards.
There’s an Asian legend that tells of a red thread connecting each soul to all the other souls it is destined to meet. “The thread may stretch or tangle,” the legend says, “but it will never break.” For several local families, that thread pulled them a very long way to unite with a son or a daughter who just happened to have been born a world apart.
Ikeda Lowe always felt the pull and knew from early adulthood that one day she would adopt a child from Africa. Convincing her husband, John, wasn’t too hard once the couple had three little boys in rapid succession and knew their boisterous house would be a perfect haven for a child in need. So in 2007, she and John took off for rural Ethiopia and were united with 22-month-old Bethelhem, nicknamed “Bette” by her new family.
The couple first met little Bette in Addis Ababa, the capital city, and loved her immediately. Bette, however, wasn’t so sure during those first few days. It wasn’t hard to understand why Bette would have some trouble trusting her new parents. The tiny girl had spent her first 18 months several hours from the big city, primarily in a tiny hut with her birth mother, shunned from the rest of their small village. Realizing how little she could give her child, the teenage mother took her baby to an orphanage and signed away her rights just a few months before the Lowes arrived.
“We got to meet Bette’s birth mother after a dusty, five-hour trip in a four-by-four vehicle,” John says. “She was beautiful and so young.”
“You would think it was heartbreaking,” Ikeda adds, “but this young girl was so very relieved to see that having us adopt her child would improve life for them both. We gave her a photo of our family and a map showing a line from Ethiopia to Savannah.”
A photo of that young woman hangs on the Lowe’s refrigerator in their Savannah home. Bette, at just 4-and-a-half, knows her story and proudly shows off the book containing her earliest photos and the adoption paperwork. One day the Lowes hope to take the bright-eyed girl back to Ethiopia to see the village where she spent her first year and to meet her biological relatives.
But for now that red thread wraps around the little girl with two proud parents and three big brothers. She happily shares a bedroom with double bunk beds and holds her own with the boys.
Two Families, One Thread
It’s clear to Savannah residents Wendy Harrison and Karla Schindler that their red threads intertwine very closely. Long before they met, while living in Florida and California respectively, both women each made two different trips to China to adopt baby girls. Karla had a 12-year-old son and was adopting with her new husband. Wendy had spent 20 years as the principal of a private school in Miami and, at 40, made up her mind to retire and start a family on her own.
The stories of their four separate trips to China are remarkably similar. Within months of each other, each woman packed diapers and baby clothes and boarded a plane clutching the photo of a baby girl waiting on the other side of the world. After a flight to Beijing lasting almost 24 hours, each took a week to sightsee and adjust to the time and culture change before reaching the appointed day and time to meet their new daughters.
“It’s nerve-wracking because there is almost no English spoken and you must use a translator,” Wendy explains. “Then there’s the fact that you are carrying literally thousands of dollars in cash for the ‘gift’ you are required to give the orphanage. We didn’t tell anyone that we were there to adopt because everyone knows that adoptive families have to carry that much cash.”
Both Wendy and Karla also tell of being overwhelmed at the unsanitary conditions of the orphanages and broken by the sight of row after row of tiny babies crying in their cribs. Wishing they could gather them all but committed to the children chosen for them, the families completed the necessary paperwork, bundled up their new babies and headed home.
Amazingly both women also tell a similar story of how their oldest daughters reacted upon returning to China for the adoption of younger sisters. Both girls were three at the time of their first trips back and both stopped their mothers as they stepped off the plane into the crowded Hong Kong airport.
“Look, Mommy,” Wendy’s daughter Kate said. “Look at all the Kay-Kays just like me.”
“Mommy,” Karla’s daughter Kenna stated as she looked around at all the faces so similar to her own. “It’s my China, my China.”
While in the throes of adjusting to having toddlers and the new babies in the house, the two women connected through their adoption agency’s chat room and talked about the adventure of raising their girls. They lost touch after a while, but years later Karla posted that she was relocating to Savannah and wondered who might have information on the Chinese community here. Wendy had been here for a few years so she answered and the two immediately planned a face-to-face meeting when Karla flew out to house hunt. Both families were excited for the four little girls to meet one another. And many afternoons now find them taking swimming lessons together or learning Chinese songs and stories at Isle of Hope Elementary School.
But the most amazing connection surfaced when Wendy and Karla discovered that out of the thousands of orphanages in China, they had each adopted girls from the same two orphanages.
Read more of Karla and Wendy’s stories in the latest issue of South magazine!
Photography by Christine Hall
Tags: Adoption, Karla Schindler, Wendy Harrison