Life with Gracie: Parents who met in China to adopt children became a family, too

As another weekend together drew to a close, four families from four states crowded around Amy Venn’s Alpharetta kitchen table.

One family had already said its goodbyes and headed out the day before. Two others could not make it this year. Not because they didn’t want to but because life just demanded something else. You know how that is.

The days between Friday when they arrived and the following Monday had flown by the way time does when friends — separated by state lines — get the chance to gather.

There was no specific moment that set these gatherings in motion, just a conversation in which one thing leads to another and someone says we’re coming to visit and does.

That was in the summer of 2007, and they’ve been meeting like this once every two years ever since.

Only months before that summer, they had gathered in the Jiangxi Province of China, joined together by a single desire to have a child, and bucking a trend toward fewer foreign adoptions by U.S. parents.

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According to new State Department figures, there were only 5,372 adoptions abroad in the 2016 fiscal year, down from 5,648 in 2015 and more than 76 percent below the high of 22,884 in 2004. The number has fallen every year since then. China alone accounted for the most children adopted in the U.S. even though its total of 2,231 was down slightly from 2015 and far below a peak of 7,903 in 2005.

Some foreign countries had become resistant to international adoption because of “illegal and unethical” practices by some U.S. adoption agencies or adoption facilitators operating abroad, failure of some families to complete required post-adoption reports and a lack of comprehensive, nationwide laws that prevent adoptive parents from transferring custody to another family without official authorization.

Had it not been for the America World Adoption Association, it’s a good bet Venn might not have ever met the men and women crowded into her kitchen. As it were, only one other couple was from Georgia. Phil and Julie Neppl hailed from Madison, Wis. Charles and Lydia Headrick from Monroe, La. David and Jackie Wimberly from Winter Garden, Fla., and Suzanne Curry, single at the time she adopted her daughter, from Madison, Ala.

Two years before they set off for China, the agency connected them via Yahoo Groups to help facilitate communicating with one another while they waited for a child.

On Feb. 1, 2007, they each received calls telling them they had baby girls. On Feb. 2, all received FedEx packages with photos and information about the infants.

They arrived in China in late March; then on April 2, their long wait was over. They were ushered into the Civil Affairs Office in Nanchang with three other anxious parents-to-be.

“It was very loud,” Phil Neppl remembered. “Very noisy. And very emotional.”

They had been waiting an hour when suddenly the elevator doors flew open, and the nannies with their babies in their arms stepped off in a single file and marched across the room to face the waiting families.

They took a moment to match the paperwork with each family and handed the babies, all between 9 and 13 months of age, over to their adoptive parents.

Amy Venn cried.

After nearly six years of trying to conceive a child, she and her husband were introduced to the America World Adoption Association at a 2004 church seminar headlined by singer Steven Curtis Chapman.

They had heard about international adoption, but listening to Chapman’s story, they were convinced their child was in China.

“It felt like a love thing,” Amy Venn said.

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When those elevator doors opened that day and the nannies placed the little girl she named Emily Grace Mei in her arms, that was the feeling exactly.

“It was beautiful,” Venn said.

But it wasn’t just about adopting the babies, said Lydia Headrick.

“We adopted each other,” she said, “spiritually and emotionally.”

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In the years since the adoption, they have become more like members of an extended family, not just friends, forever bound by the gifts they’ve been given. That means showing up for special events, being there in sickness and in health, and making supplications in prayer one for another.

“It’s a community,” Curry said. “It’s connection and checking in with each other. I was a single mom but they never made me feel like I was a single mom … just a mom. These people have prayed for me to have a husband and for Cate to have a dad.”

When that prayer was answered in 2016, they showed up for the wedding. Venn said that it was a beautiful moment to watch another dream materialize in their family.

Perhaps the best part of all of this is the girls themselves — Cate, Dora, Eliana, Emily Grace and Anna Claire, all 11 now, all with varied interests, talents and dreams.

Monday, the last of the three-day weekend together, they said, was the hardest. For the parents, but most especially for the girls. Memories have been shared, stories retold, new memories have been made, and new items added to the time capsule that began when the girls were just 2 years old.

On Monday morning around 10 a.m., it was time to hug and pray and give thanks for one another and the days spent together. They know there will likely be at least a few visits by phone and in person until the next official reunion time, but the tears come anyway because if there’s anything they have learned over the years, it is this: Nothing is definite.

“All we know is that we will gather,” Curry said. “We are family, and that’s what family does.”

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