As a little girl my dolls found homeless kids and took them in. Also my sister and I regularly played ‘orphanage Annie’. As I grew older and started to learn more about adoption, I knew for certain that this was how I would make my family,” says Amber. In July of 2009 she became certified to adopt as a single parent.

“By October of 2011, I started looking into International adoption. I had always felt a pull toward Africa. I wanted to be a missionary as a teen or perhaps join the Peace Corps after college.” Amber continues. “So in December of 2011, I started the process for adopting a child from the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

Being orphaned is tragic under any circumstance. There are five million orphans in the DRC; most wander the streets. The Congolese believe that orphaned street children are “witched.” Local witch-doctors will often pour bleach on children or set them on fire to exorcise the demons they believe the child has. Children lucky enough to be placed in an orphanage will likely be fed only once a day. Disease is rampant; fear and ostracization cling to them like a pall.

Finding “the one”

On May 19, 2012 Amber found a little girl on a “waiting child” website and contacted her agency. “That child has already been matched with a family,” the agency contact informed Amber.

However, a little girl had just come into one of their orphanages a few days before. They offered to email her a picture. “I said no, she was a little too old,” Amber remembers.

Amber had been approved for and wanted two girls under age five. The agency contact emailed the pictures anyway. “I opened the email and looked at the pictures. The three photos in front of me were the saddest photos I had ever seen. I remember thinking,” says Amber, “Oh sweet girl! She is so so skinny! I hope they find her a family! Look at those long thin legs. She looks so sad. So sad. Ugh, she needs a mommy.”

Amber stared into her computer screen at the little face in the photos. “I kept thinking, I could be her mommy. She needs a mommy and I want a baby; we would be perfect. I want to do it! I can be her mommy. When I typed the response, ‘I want her, I want to be her family,’ I could barely see my phone,” Amber recalls. “The tears kept coming and coming.”

One would think that since Amber had been approved for adopting in the U.S. and since the child was on a waiting list to be adopted from another country, that with a few more fees and a little more paper work Amber and the child would be united and start their lives together. Well, one would think that, only if they had no clue what’s really involved in adopting a child from the DRC.

Waiting and wondering

Once Amber had committed to the child in the photograph, she had to obtain another home-study referral, more fingerprints, background checks, interviews, training and paperwork. Then there was court in the Congo.

On January 25, 2013 the sad little face in the photo became Amber’s legal family. She was then physically, emotionally, financially and spiritually responsible for that little girl, Harper. Still Amber would not be able to wrap her arms around that skinny little body and comfort that wary little heart or work on bringing a smile to that little face. It was passport approval time. In the spring of 2013, just before she was to go get Harper, the U.S. started an investigation process to verify orphan status. In September of 2013 the Congolese suspended all exit permits for adopted children.

Even though getting Harper out of the Congo had ground to a heart-wrenching stop, Amber continued to prepare for the child she wanted so badly. A friend who had been sending her children to Stone Ridge SDA Christian School for several years shared some of her experiences with Amber about the school, its size and values.

Amber asked to have a place in the kindergarten program reserved for her daughter. The kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Carlson, was happy to keep a spot open for the little girl from the Congo. A cubby was reserved for her. A basket with Harper’s brightly colored nametag attached was set on the cubby shelf. All that was needed was the coat and book bag to hang there, and of course the new little girl. The kindergarten class started praying for their unmet friend. Several months went by and the cubby remained empty, waiting, just like Amber.

Near death experience

In November of 2013 Amber received alarming pictures of Harper from a friend. “My little girl was rail thin, her bones were sticking out and her eyes sunken,” Amber recalls with anxiety. “She was dying. I tried to get a travel visa to go and move her from the orphanage to a foster home.

While waiting for permission to travel into the Congo, the orphan status investigation ended; it was December 2013. Harper’s exit visa was issued. It would be issued two more times before she would really be able to leave the country.

In May the kindergarten class at Stone Ridge graduated and prepared for first grade with Mr. Carlson. Still Harper’s cubby remained empty.

Just because something doesn’t happen right away doesn’t mean it isn’t going too, and it doesn’t mean God isn’t listening. A new kindergarten class would start praying for the little girl with the empty cubby.

In February 2014 Amber was finally able to get into the Congo. Amber says, “Some friends of mine were able to pay off the orphanage director the week before I arrived so I would be able to take her to the hospital to be cared for. My little girl had giardiasis, malaria, typhoid, a blood infection, lice and jiggers. She weighed 28 pounds and was 44 inches tall. My sweet friend Laure, a doctor, saved Harper’s life and then let her stay in her home for 14 more months.”

Home at last

Finally on April 2, 2015 Harper came home—just 14 days shy for Amber of three years of working, worrying and waiting. “There were–there are–so many new things, so many first things,” Amber says. “We have hard moments. There is trauma drama and there are sleeping problems and behaviors and emotional roller coasters and that is just me!”

Imagine being eight years old, not understanding the language or culture, and having to go to school with strangers every day. The size of the school, the schedule and the atmosphere becomes even more important than under normal circumstances.

“I knew two years before she came home I wanted Harper to go to Stone Ridge,” says Amber. “I had hopes and dreams of her attending kindergarten with Mrs. Carlson and then moving up with Mr. Carlson.”

Harper now has her own cubby in Mr. Carlson’s classroom. It’s filled with all the things that second grade little girls have in their cubbies—a book bag, a sweater, an extra pair of shoes, and some favorite thing from home for show and tell.

“Thank goodness I had the option of Stone Ridge when Harper finally did come home,” Amber says. “The idea of putting my unschooled, non-English speaking 8-year-old right into a public school second grade classroom was terrifying. I am so excited that she has so much time outside during the day and has so much one-on-one help. Harper has already learned so much!”

One of the advantages of a multi-grade school is that Harper is able to move freely between Mrs. Carlson’s room, as she learns phonics, numbers, colors and object identification, and Mr. Carlson’s room where she spends time in her regular second grade class with the kids her age.

Collene Klick is communication secretary of the Duluth Seventh-day Adventist Church in Duluth, Minnesota.