When a heartbreaking event led the Lee family back to Korea, Joshua Lee had the chance to meet a very special woman in his life — the woman who cared for him before he came home to his adoptive family.
She spent only five months with Joshua, but remembered him when they came face-to-face 11 years later.
“She was so thrilled to see him,” Joshua’s mother, Barbara Lee, says.
She even wore the necklace — a gleaming dark blue and aqua globe hanging from her neck by a beautiful gold chain. The distance between Korea and Mexico, where the Lee family currently serves as missionaries, was great, but the necklace around her neck made her feel closer to Joshua — and reminded her to pray for him always.
“That’s what she told us,” Barbara says. “She wore the necklace so that she would remember to pray for our son. Hearing that was so wonderful.”
She was Joshua’s foster mother in Korea for only a short time, but, in that time, she loved him as her own. And even as new foster children continued to enter her care — her love for Joshua endured.
Barbara and James Lee knew even before they were married that they would build their family through adoption, as Barbara had suffered from health issues when she was a teenager. “James is Korean,” Barbara says. “So we knew that adopting from Korea would be the obvious choice for us.” At the time, James was finishing up his master’s degree in missionary work from Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, while Barbara was working towards a nursing degree.
When they began the adoption process, the Lees specified that they were open to adopting a child up to 5 years of age, and were shocked when they were matched with a 4-day-old boy named Jae-Min Lee. “He already had our last name,” Barbara says. “And my husband’s Korean name is ‘Jae-Yoo,’ so before we even opened his file, we knew this was our child.”
The time between being matched with their son, who they now call Joshua, and traveling to bring him home was short. But Barbara remembers thinking how blessed she felt knowing that Joshua was with a loving foster family during that time. “It was such a comfort,” she says. “But, at the time, I don’t think I really understood how much of a blessing it was until we had a chance to meet [his foster mom] so many years later.”
Almost two years ago, tragedy befell the Lee family when James’ father, a Korean native residing in Los Angeles, decided to return to Korea with his wife for an extended vacation to visit family. Soon after his arrival, he became very ill and was diagnosed with advanced stage leukemia.
The family was devastated.
“Joshua loved his grandfather so much,” Barbara says. “He was heartbroken at the idea of not being able to see him anymore.” But with the news that their beloved father and grandfather may not survive his cancer treatment, the Lees got on a plane and returned to Korea to “say goodbye to ‘Halbogi (Grandfather).’”
When the family arrived, he was weak, but in good spirits. “Everyone was generally happy,” Barbara says. “And Grandpa felt good that his children and grandchildren had come home.”
In the time since they adopted Joshua, the Lee family had expanded by two biological daughters. “Miracles,” Barbara says. The family of five stayed in Korea for two weeks, spending time with their grandfather and showing Joshua his homeland. “We traveled by train to Gwangju, South Korea, where Joshua was born,” Barbara says. “It was a cold, rainy spring day, but Joshua enjoyed the train ride, and we all enjoyed walking around the city.”
The Lees also ate Korean BBQ and visited museums. “We enjoyed the trip because we knew it was unlikely we would be able to take advantage of being that close to his birth city again,” she says. And after a call to Holt’s post-adoption services department, the Lees were also able to arrange a visit with Joshua’s foster mother.
“Joshua has always known about his adoption,” Barbara says of her son, who was 11 years old during their trip to Korea in April 2018. “And he has never had any troublesome reaction to it. He was very happy about the idea of meeting his foster mother.”
On the day of their meeting, Joshua’s foster mother, foster brother and a new foster baby were waiting in a room for Joshua, and when Joshua and his foster mom embraced for the first time in over a decade, “tears filled her eyes.” What followed was a day filled with laughter and fun.
Barbara says, “Joshua’s foster mother loved his contagious smile and talkativeness.” Talkativeness that came without the need of their Holt-provided interpreter, as Joshua had learned Korean from his father.
At lunch, Joshua “sat proudly” between his foster mother and foster brother, while Joshua’s foster mother told them stories of the over 30 foster children she has cared for and how much she has enjoyed it.
“And of those over 30 children,” Barbara says, “she has only been able to reconnect with three, but says she still prays for them all — and remembers to pray for Joshua, specifically, because of the necklace I gave her when we arrived to meet Joshua.” Barbara says she gave one necklace to his foster mother, kept one for herself, and left one with Holt’s staff in Korea for Joshua’s birth mother — “just in case” she ever comes back and wonders how he is.
“The necklaces connect us all,” Barbara says.
As the lovely day came to an end, it left Joshua “feeling grateful and happy,” and also left him with one final thought as he watched his foster mother hold the baby that was currently in her care. “‘Was I just like that baby?’ That’s what he asked me,” Barbara says. “Seeing her lovingly care for a baby that was once just like him had a huge impact on him.”
The Lee family embraced Joshua’s foster mother once more, and said goodbye. And five days later, they departed Korea and headed back to Mexico. “That was the only real sad moment of the whole trip,” Barbara says. “Everyone cried hard because they knew it would be the last time to see Grandpa alive here on earth. He hugged each grandkid tight and gave a blessing to each one.”
Six months later, Grandpa passed away in Korea, leaving the Lee family distraught, but also feeling wonderfully blessed to have been able to say goodbye to him in Korea, and hello to the wonderful woman who gave so much to Joshua in the first five months of his life,
Ashli Keyser | Contributing Writer
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