This year, Genny Denton Nelson and her husband Neil brought home two new daughters. The girls, Evvie and Stella, hailed from Bulgaria and were 13 and 9 years old, respectively, at the time. When the Nelsons traveled to Eastern Europe to bring the girls home after two years of intense preparation, they discovered these two sisters had two brothers. Questions, disappointments, and some frantic planning has followed, including a fundraiser, the Bracelets for Our Brothers campaign, to quickly raise enough money to bring these folks all together. The Nelsons have a deeply spiritual outlook on their path, from their decision to adopt to their decision to go back for Evvie and Stella’s brothers. In the coming months, Genny will be sharing her family’s story with us. Here’s your introduction.
Tell me about your family.
I met my amazing husband Neil on Superbowl Sunday in 2010. It was the year the Saints won, and our mutual friend hosted a party and introduced us. Neil and I married in 2011, while we were still living in Louisiana, where we originally met. Neil and I are both professional musicians and music educators in our community. We both work for the public school system — he is the High School Band Director at South Aiken High School and I am an
Orchestra Director at Pelion Middle school. Additionally, Neil is the Music Minister of Instrumental Music at Riverland Hills Baptist Church, a rather large church in Irmo. We have four pets — two dogs, two cats. We are lovers of animals, music, books, college and professional sports, and all performing arts.
Why did you choose adoption?
I have wanted to adopt since adolescence. I think somewhere around the age of 14 or 15 I saw a documentary about adoption (international) and remember thinking, “THAT! That is what I want for myself. I can do that, and I can’t wait for the day I can make my family through adoption.” It was a done deal for me right then. I never wanted to have biological children after that. Some would say that God simply placed that desire in me and it directed the course of life for me and my family from there.
I can vividly remember when the topic first came up between Neil and me. We were sitting at our favorite restaurant in Baton Rouge (we both attended graduate school at LSU). We were enjoying some amazing food and drinks, and I finally got the courage to bring it up. We’d been dating for several months and were moving in the direction of engagement and marriage. I’d ended other past relationships because the man I was with was unwilling to adopt. I finally broached the topic with him, and he agreed. I knew I had a keeper.
We had some business to take care of as a married couple first, though. We enjoyed married life, moved back to South Carolina, adopted a lot of animals, taught thousands of children, played a lot of music (staying out all hours of the night for rehearsals and performances), and traveled. We also created a financial plan to make international adoption part of our family.
In 2014, we decided it was time to start the process. We are both voracious readers and researchers so we started very intentionally. I studied abroad in Russia for a period of time and studied the Russian language. I have always had a fascination with Eastern European history and music, so we knew we’d start there. Unfortunately, Russia no longer participates in International Adoption with the US, so that was ruled out. So, we researched many other Eastern European countries, and decided on Bulgaria. Once we figured this out, we decided to go the “Waiting Child” route. Children who are considered “Waiting Children” are those with severe special needs, are part of a large sibling group, or are older. We started looking at files and spent several weeks looking. Then, one Saturday morning, looking through files, we found a file named “Laura and Katie.” We knew instantaneously that those were our children. And, two years later, they are — only now they are named Evangeline and Stella.
How did the process work?
International Adoption is a very complicated and complex process. I have many opinions about how it could be simplified and am very concerned about the proposed changes to IA that will make it even more difficult for parents to adopt internationally and domestically. But, this is not the venue for that discussion. Having said that, the process goes a little something like this:
Application — This is the vetting process. Once you’ve chosen your agency, they decide if you meet their criteria. If they don’t think you’ll be successful in the process or approved by other government agencies along the line, no deal. Once you pass this stage and pay a lot of money to put your whole life out for an agency to review, you move on to the Home Study.
Home Study — This is the dreaded part, but it really isn’t that bad, it is just time consuming. And, the great news is, once you get past this point, most of the worst part is over! You are truly vetted during this part of the process. You attend several medical appointments, are fingerprinted by the FBI, gain child abuse clearances from every state you’ve ever lived in, request endorsement letters from friends and family to vouch for you, you answer pages and pages of personal questions, and you wait for the dreaded home inspection where the social workers make multiple visits to your home to make sure it is safe for children. It doesn’t matter how old you are adopting, you still have to baby-proof your house. We have safety locks on every cabinet that has medication, cleaner, or alcohol. We had to make a fire escape emergency plan and have it posted clearly in each floor of our home, but some states go a step further and require the fire marshall to visit! Once you pass, your social work creates a 20-30 page document about you and sends it off to USCIS Immigration and to the Bulgarian government.
I800A — Once USCIS receives your home study and application to bring a child into the country, you go through another set of fingerprinting at a USCIS office (ours is in Charleston) called biometrics. Then you wait and compulsively check your mailbox for your letter to come stating that you are not a raving felon. I checked my mailbox for 43 days, but who’s counting. This letter is the most important thing for the next part of the process– the Dossier.
Dossier — A dossier is a portfolio of documents proving that you: a) are not a felon, b) do not hurt children, c) have been married and have a stable marriage, and d) that you have a passport that is valid. It also includes a copy of that novel we called the Home Study. This is then packaged and mailed off to the Bulgarian agency to translate and send to the Bulgarian government. Waiting on this is painful, but once it is done, your file is then formally presented to a committee called the IAC.
IAC — Once the IAC committee approves your adoption, you receive your official referral of the children you identified and placed a hold on. Then you scramble around like crazy because you won’t have long to get your act together to go on your first trip. I think we had about 8 days notice before we were on a plane to Bulgaria for Trip 1.
Trip 1 — The purpose of this trip is to bond with your child. Your Bulgarian agency sends a translator to help facilitate the meeting. It varies by family how much time you get with your child each day. Then, you have to get back on a plane and go home. Without your child. I won’t write about that part, because it is just too much to talk about right now. Then you are in adoption purgatory.
Adoption purgatory — The time between Trip 1 and Trip 2: an awful, black hole of a time. Some miscellaneous paperwork goes back to USCIS, there is painful waiting and little communication, there are more medical trips, more waiting, more fingerprinting (because, you know, fingerprints change), more waiting. A flurry of paperwork is going back and forth between different people in Bulgaria during this time, but because you can’t see or know about any of it, it feels like nothing is happening, so there is more torturous waiting. Then, one day, while you are judging auditions for a group of middle school orchestra kids, you get a call out of the blue saying you have A COURT DATE!
Court — Every family has a court date where a judge decides to finalize the adoption or not. In our case, we had a child over the age of 10, so she had to appear and give her consent. Once the family passes court, that day is the day the family legally becomes the parents of the child. The child can be added to insurance, the parents can call themselves the mother and father of that child, and the family anxiously awaits permission to travel and pick up (usually 3-4 weeks later).
Trip 2 — You pick up your child. You realize the reality of adoption. While adoption is BEAUTIFUL, amazing, humbling, and many other wonderful adjectives, it is ultimately born from a place of grief and loss. And this reality hits like a ton of bricks.
How has life been since your daughters have been here in South Carolina?
In a word: miraculous. The changes seen in our daughters are so amazing, and every day gets better. They were so malnourished and unhealthy when we picked them up. Stella, nearly 10 years old, weighed 39 pounds and was swimming in size 5T clothing. She was not even 4 feet tall. Evvie was barely 4 feet tall and weighed about 73 pounds as a 13 year old. They were angry, difficult, not well-behaved, didn’t try in school, had no respect for adults or authority. Now they are leaders in their classrooms. Evvie is making all As and Bs, and I have never seen a harder-working child. Stella is charming, creative, and we have really seen her imagination come alive.
Neither child had ever really experienced imaginative play and didn’t know how to play with toys. This has been, perhaps, the biggest area of growth. They now play regularly, and the level of imagination and creativity is increasing daily.
How and when did you learn about Stella and Evvie’s brothers? (These last two questions were answered using excerpts from Genny’s blog. I encourage you to check in with her there).
After the initial fascination with us [at the orphanage] wore off, many of the children went about their daily play, but we noticed that two boys seemed especially consumed with us and also with our daughters. Our daughters seemed very interested in showing off their photo album to these two boys, and the boys also were very interested in playing catch and other outdoor games with Neil and me. We very much enjoyed our time with them, they were delightful young men, and they knew a little English. They were excited to practice on us!
Later on, we found out that these two young boys were our girls biological brothers. BAM.
I nearly had a stroke. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t fight back the tears and the panic from the thought of leaving them behind when we ultimately finalized this adoption. What were these boys going to do? It is so much harder for boys to be adopted, and especially older boys like these two. We immediately understood the implication, and that moment changed EVERYTHING for our family. Our fantasy of adopting two little girls and making a better life with them was gone. Destroyed. Abolished. We knew at that moment, life was forever changed. We had to do something. I pleaded with Neil to ask our social worker the next day if they could be added to our adoption. She checked, and said no. Our only option was to start again.
How could we start again? We’d scrimped, saved, lived frugally, made intentional choices with our finances for YEARS to be able to make International Adoption a reality for us. We only planned to do it once. HOW would we do this again? And, then there were some other complications with the boys not being completely on board with the idea of adoption (it happens sometimes), and older children have to give consent to be adopted, so there were concerns there. Ultimately we left Bulgaria that week defeated and feeling helpless.
I cannot put into words how this knowledge changed my life preeminently. It weighed on me day and night. I sought intensive therapy for the feelings of guilt, sadness, and depression this knowledge caused. Nothing worked. My feelings only intensified not matter how many professionals told me it was for the best and tried to reconcile the choice for me. It never, ever went away. I will be honest in telling you my emotions ran a full spectrum: anger, rage, sadness, depression, guilt, remorse– everything. I was so angry that our family had been put into this situation. We didn’t ask for this. Our family was and is forever linked to this real-life tragedy, and there was seemingly nothing we could do about it.
In March of 2016, we were finally able to finalize our adoption and bring our girls home. Our oldest was very angry at us for the separation from her brothers. She almost told the judge “no” in court, but ultimately decided to give her consent to the adoption. However, the separation of brothers and sisters made it very difficult start our new family together. Anytime a new family is constructed by way of adoption, things are hard, but this just exacerbated all of those feelings and challenges.
The day we picked up our girls from the orphanage to bring them back to Sofia with us, we were present for the final goodbye between brothers and sisters. It was singularly the most horrific moments of my life. I think I will experience many other awful things in my life, but this one will always stand out as the worst. Tears, anger, rage, confusion… it was awful. It is something I will never forget and is permanently a part of me and my life story, as well as the story of my family.
Our first few weeks as a family were horrific. We had a few glimpses of what family life could one day be, and some nice connected moments. But, the majority of our pick up trip was a nightmare. Our girls will tell you now that they were trying to get us to send them back to the orphanage to be with their brothers. Our oldest tried to bribe cab drivers to take her back to Dren. Together they told the housekeepers of our apartment we were staying in that we were abusing them and to please take them back to the orphanage because they would rather be there. They both tried to run away many times.
There were less serious aggravations– they would run around the apartment screaming, throwing things, destroying the property inside the apartment (thankfully these apartments are designed for families who are adopting and they graciously did not charge us for damages). They jumped on the beds endlessly, refused to sleep, and had rages and tantrums that lasted for hours on end. These are moments we have previously never really talked about, and I am sharing them here only to illustrate the traumatic effects this separation had on our whole family.
Once we got home to the US, things improved immediately. We, as parents, were on our playing field and were in control. Gone were the days our children could request to go back to Dren or tell people we were abusing them because no one could understand them. They also quickly realized that they could potentially have a wonderful life here filled with far more opportunity. Things from that point steadily improved and the changes in our daughters are nothing short of miraculous.
Tell me about the Bracelets for Brothers project.
Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” Peter 4:10
When Neil and I were first reviewing the files of our two girls, we discovered they had a love for all things artistic. When we were on our first trip to visit them, we went to a play place similar to Chuck-E Cheese– pizza and play. At one of the play stations, there were arts and crafts the kids could do for a small fee. We paid for the girls to be able to make bracelets. We quickly discovered they had quite the knack for it. We also discovered that there were lots of tools available to them to make the bracelets, but they chose not to use any of them. When we asked our translator to ask them why they didn’t use them, they responded that the orphanage didn’t have any of those tools so they preferred to make them using only their hands.
The girls worked tirelessly to make us several bracelets. With orphanage-induced short attention spans and strange behaviors, this was one of the only times we saw them quiet, engaged, thoughtful, and creative on our first trip.
The five month wait between our first trip and second trip to take custody of our girls was torturous. Neil and I wore our bracelets every day as a reminder of why we were doing this and as a source of strength.
Like most things in their lives, since coming home, their bracelet making has improved. Their ability to think creatively and make new designs has come a long way. Their willingness to be committed to excellence and craftsmanship has come a long way. They can now focus on this tedious task for many hours at a time. The have gained the courage to take risks and try new designs. They are able to critique and evaluate their work and decide if someone would want to spend money on the bracelets or if the product is not up to their standards.
Therefore, in many ways, the bracelets are a beautiful metaphor for our lives together. Our girls started with so much
potential, but they lacked the love, support, resources, and encouragement to take risks and to have a foundation on which to build. Now that these fundamental aspects of life are in place for them, they are blossoming. They are thriving. They are doing and achieving at incredible rates. Although they still use their hands only to make the bracelets, the bracelets are are far more intricate and detailed.
Scripture tells us a lot about using our talents for the service of others. I have realized since beginning this project with my girls, that part of the reason our first adoption was so difficult was that I didn’t have a real sense of purpose and drive. Making the bracelets as a family has given us all a sense of purpose, service, and a way to get that energy out in a creative and productive way. There is tangible evidence of our love for each other and for our future sons. We can proudly display our love everywhere we go.
“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.” 1 Corinthians 12:4-6
Our family fundamentally believes that God provided us with this talent to be used for the good of others. For right now, that good is for the brothers of our daughters– our future sons. However, we pledge going forward to never stop using our talents for the service of other families who commit themselves to adoption. We believe in His provision.
*All photos provided by Genny Denton Nelson