Parents read a book with toddler

When the Free family opened their hearts to adopting a child from Colombia, they had no idea the roller coaster they’d face — or the immense fulfillment they’d find.

In July 2019, we were two years into our marriage when we started talking seriously about growing our family. I felt passionately about international adoption, and had started researching every available country program. My husband Nate was open, but not yet enthusiastic about jumping into any particular adoption program.

One night, I got an email from Holt – “Last chance to meet the kids!” was the subject line.

“Meet the kids?” I read and read again. From everything I knew about international adoption up to this point, I understood that families rarely ever met a child prior to landing in that child’s country to complete their adoption process. That uncertainty was something I was comfortable with, but Nate was worried about.

Family with toddler and dog takes a family picture on the shore of a lake
Misty and Nate Free with the boy they would eventually adopt, Santi.

In the “Last chance to meet the kids!” email, Holt gave an overview of Kidsave’s Summer Miracles program. This is a partnership with Colombia that brings older children to the U.S. to stay with host families. While the kids are in the U.S., their host families advocate for them to find a potential adoptive family. Many are considering adoption themselves. Kidsave hosts community events where prospective families have the chance to get to know the kids and learn more about Colombian culture and traditions.

Nate read over my shoulder and said “Colombia, that would be really great!” Nate had lived in Mexico for two years. He had also majored in Spanish with a minor in Latin American studies and had taught Spanish to junior high students. For him, Colombia and the prospect of meeting our potential future child were enough compelling. It pushed him over the edge from entertaining the idea of adoption to actually taking a big step forward. This was the turning point for us!

That “last chance” that Holt and Kidsave were referring to in their email was for an event in Los Angeles the upcoming weekend. It was the final event of the Summer Miracles program, before the kids packed up to go back to Colombia. With only a few days between the email and the event, we got in touch with Kidsave. They told us about two kids for whom a family had not yet come forward. So, we packed our bags and drove to Los Angeles.

Meeting the Kidsave Team and Waiting Kids

We got to Los Angeles and went straight to the Kidsave event. The kids were compiling photos of their summers into scrapbooks, their last memory-keeping activity before going home. We met the first of the two kids we had learned about. This was the child who, based on everything Kidsave had told us, was the one we thought we’d want to spend the most time with that day. We liked her, but we didn’t feel a strong connection.

Then the second of the two kids came in. She was about an hour late to the event, and I felt my heart leap. I’ll call her Luz. It was like love at first sight, but with an overwhelming sensation of parental affection for this stranger. We sat with Luz while she scrapbooked, Nate gently leading the conversation. She was initially shocked at his Spanish, and then she gradually became more comfortable and delighted at their ability to communicate so easily. I quietly sat and held my tears in, sprinkling in what little I could say in Spanish at that point. We were short on time, and someone from Kidsave pulled me aside to ask if we would like more time with Luz, outside of the event. I was so grateful to have a little more time and shocked that this was even a possibility.

We went on a chaperoned outing to Universal Studios. During that outing, we learned that Luz loved reggaetón, cheeseburgers and French fries (although they made her sick), and dancing. We taught her about Harry Potter and Hogwarts, and she taught us a hand-clapping game. It was an amazing day. We dropped her off later that night at her host family’s house, and she ran to go inside. She stopped, turned around, and ran back to hug us both goodbye.

On the drive home, we talked about Luz’s special needs and what it would take for us to support her. There were so many things that both worried and excited us about the prospect of being her parents. The week after getting home, we officially decided to pursue Luz’s adoption. We submitted our application to Holt at the end of July 2019.

The Heartbreaking Turn in Our Journey

We soon had our first visit with the social worker from the Holt coordinating agency  that was completing our homestudy. Everything was perfect. She left with a lighthearted goodbye, saying that she would write up the report and get it back to us and Holt in a couple of weeks. A week after the visit, the social worker called me. She said she had been up at night thinking of us and Luz, that she was deeply concerned it was not a good match.

parents and toddler smile together at Disneyland
The Free family at Disneyland.

My brain couldn’t process a “no” on the child we already considered our daughter. We fought the decision, our social worker had calls with Holt, more meetings with us, and landed on the same decision — she didn’t think it was a good idea for us to adopt Luz. Luz was an older child with a significant trauma history, and we were first-time parents who wanted Luz to be our first of multiple children. Our social worker saw this as a mismatch. She did not want to put us on a path where we could potentially not have other children because Luz’s needs were so heavy.

I was devastated. We spent weeks grieving. There was good reasoning behind our social worker’s decision, but I could see nothing more than an impediment to Luz becoming part of a forever family. Part of our forever family.

After some time, we reconvened with our social worker. She gave us guidelines for the profile of child she thought would be the best fit in our family, and again I was devastated as I realized that if Luz had only been a couple years younger or if she had experienced less trauma, our age request would have been approved.

Holt and our homestudy social worker gave us options for next steps. We could pursue a younger child on a waiting child list, pivot to a traditional program where we would wait for a child match or abandon the process altogether. We decided to stay in the Colombia program, but on the traditional path. I couldn’t take the heartbreak again of attaching ourselves to a specific child, knowing the likelihood of that match falling through for any number of reasons. Losing the opportunity to parent Luz was not our only heartbreak in the adoption process, but it was our deepest one. She was eventually matched with another family, something I’m extremely grateful for.

Moving Through Colombia’s Traditional Adoption Path

After we’d submitted all our dossier materials and gotten them approved by the Colombian government, the waiting began. Before we started the adoption process, I had heard that the wait was the hardest part. After our mounds of paperwork, psychological testing and evaluation, and medical appointments, I thought everyone saying that was being silly. How could waiting be hard? You literally don’t have to do anything. Boy, was I wrong.

Santi playing at home.

Going through all the steps prior to the wait gave us milestones, and things to look forward to. Once we were through all that and only waiting, there was nothing we could do to give ourselves any sense of forward movement. Waiting was so, so hard. Every single day we prayed to be matched to our child. For any families in the waiting period, I recommend lots of hobbies, and savoring whatever family dynamic you’re in today. I practiced Spanish on Duolingo every day — I’m currently on a 1,123-day streak! We went on a lot of weekend trips, since we wanted to save our vacation days for Colombia. We enjoyed brunches, concerts and other activities that are more challenging with a young child.

Being Matched to OUR SON

In September 2021, a year and a half after our dossier had been approved, and over two years after we applied to Holt’s Colombia program, we learned about the boy — I’ll call him Santi — who we were matched with. We were cautiously elated. On September 15, we received his full file.

On September 23, we submitted our letter of acceptance, expressing our appreciation and acceptance of our child match. Having an actual child, who we knew by name, who we had Zoomed with, read to, sang to, and prayed for, made it so hard to wait for the remaining processing steps to be completed. We had to wait over the holidays, and going through Christmas without our son was especially hard. We knew that he was safe and cared for, but we desperately wanted to start the process of truly knowing him.

Parents and toddler smile together in front of shop

Meeting Santi in Colombia

Finally, on January 10, 2022, we landed in Bogotá. On January 13, we went to the orphanage, La Casa, and met our (then) 19-month-old son for the first time. He eyed us suspiciously and sucked his thumb vigorously. We read the book “Monstruo Triste, Monstruo Feliz” to him as a La Casa social worker slowly transitioned him into my arms. I moved him into his dad’s arms and he abruptly fell asleep. In retrospect, we see how fear caused him to freeze. He spent the next two days “frozen,” inadvertently tricking us into thinking we had the most peaceful, quiet toddler of all time. Aside from being frozen, he also ate everything as if it would be his last meal. He could put down a large plate full of fruit, arepas and pancakes in minutes. So we thought we had a calm, quiet, perfect eater!

But after two days, his fight response kicked in — especially at bedtime. Putting Santi down to sleep was emotionally and physically exhausting for us and traumatizing for him every single night. He also stopped eating. He had an ear infection we were treating with antibiotics for our first several days together. At the time of our meeting, he had spent the most recent 90% of his life living at the same children’s home. Our entrance into his life was a complete shock to his system. We spent many of our first nights together with each of us in tears. We couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Parents and toddler smile together outside ornate public building in Colombia
The Free family sightseeing in Colombia.

Santi’s Success

Despite the grief, Santi also triumphed in our first days together. He went from barely crawling to fully walking in 17 days. We had to baby-proof our apartment midway through our trip. By 20 days, he was running. We went on so many park visits, outings to explore Bogotá, and enjoyed so many laughs and snuggles along the way. By the time we returned to the children’s home near the end of our four-week trip for a final meeting, it was clear that he was ours and we were his. He was anxious throughout that visit and clung to us. He visibly relaxed when we left, together.

To be abundantly clear, I’m not saying that the home was in any way a bad place. Santi received exceptional care and love while he was there, and we’re forever grateful for everyone who touched his life there. But he had found his home with us and he knew it.

Welcoming Santi Home

On February 3, 2022, we flew back home with Santi. He met our dog, Oso. Initially, Santi was scared of the 90-lb teddy bear that kept trying to lick his face, but now they are best friends. Slowly but surely, Santi has become comfortable in his own room, in his own bed, and now has to be dragged out of bed on weekend mornings like a teenager. The miracle of seeing Santi happily laying down in his bed is not lost on me. There were nights in Colombia and in the early days at home that I thought we’d never see the day.

toddler in rain boots stands next to large dog
Santi and Oso

Santi had a difficult history and complex medical file. This included a VSD, which is a hole in the wall between the two lower chambers of the heart. When we discussed it with our doctor, she advised us to mentally prepare for open-heart surgery when he’s older. Because Santi was especially small for his age and growing slowly, we had reason to believe the VSD was affecting him significantly.

The Miracle

In May 2022, a few months after coming home, Santi had an EKG, an echocardiogram. A pediatric cardiologist carefully listened to his heart. In June 2022, we got the call from that cardiologist that the VSD had closed! Santi could immediately stop his medication, and he needed no follow-up appointments. There have been other medical things in the 18 months that we’ve been home with Santi, but his VSD closing itself is a miracle that makes life a little more care-free for Santi and for us.

Like many children from similar backgrounds, Santi is delayed in some areas of his development. We’ve benefited from early childhood intervention, which sent a specialist to our home every one to two weeks until Santi turned 3, to work on speech development through play and to advise us on other things we can do to aid his development. He’s continuing to go to speech therapy at our local children’s rehabilitation center. Day after day, he’s doing and saying more. It’s an honor to have a front-row seat to his life and growth. He is full of joy, laughter and love. We are incredibly blessed to have him in our family.

toddler stands up holding a soccer ball

What We’ve Learned

Some things that we’ve learned on this journey that we want other prospective parents to know:

Learning #1

If you have a plan for how and who you’re adopting, crumple it up and throw it in the trash. In our story, I only described the one, most major turn of events, but there were several. You truly need to “expect the unexpected” throughout the adoption journey.

Learning #2

Your life, your child’s life and your bond can become so much richer when you take the time to learn (or re-learn) their native language. We realize we’re on an uphill climb to preserve Santi’s Spanish in a primarily English-speaking world, but we’re doing our best. We speak Spanish with him, with each other, and we want to eventually put him in a dual immersion program. It’s one piece of his Colombian identity that we hope he can always preserve. Don’t underestimate the power of a few minutes on Duolingo every day, especially if you’re like me with some formal Spanish education in your background! It is worth the time to seek out Spanish-speaking providers — doctors, dentists, teachers, therapists, etc. You won’t always be successful, but it is worth a little wait to give your child that extra comfort and connection with a provider who sounds like the people from their first home. Spanish playgroups are also plentiful, even if you have to “play” through Zoom. And speaking Spanish in public together has led us to meet so many kind and supportive native Spanish speakers, even a lot of Colombians!

Learning #3

Don’t waste your time obsessing over timelines and comparing others’ timelines to your own. I was so guilty of this, trying to make my own crystal ball of predictions for when each thing would happen. Your dossier could be approved in a month or in a year. Your match could come quickly or could take three years. Don’t get hung up on travel approval coming before any particular holidays, birthdays or other milestones. Eventually, you’ll get to the finish line. And then you have a lifetime to go after that with the family you were meant to have! 

smiling older brother with arms around smiling younger sister in a park

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