By Keeli Parkey
Adoption can be a long process, one that Unicoi County native Rachel (Whitson) Davis and her husband, Kurt, know well. But even they couldn’t have anticipated the challenges involved in adopting for the second time.
In September 2017, the couple, who now reside in Kansas where Kurt practices medicine, adopted four siblings – Kevin now 15, Faridis now 14, Vicente now 11 and Michael now 9 – from Colombia. The four became siblings with the Davis’ biological children – Sarah Beth now 11, Issac now 9 and Tabitha now 7.
Adopting was something Kurt, who is a native of central Illinois, and Rachel had wanted to do and they began the process of adopting for the first time during the fall of 2016.
“Kurt and I have always had a heart for adoption. His brother is adopted and we’ve always talked about growing our family through adoption,” Rachel recently told The Erwin Record.
They didn’t expect, however, to grow their family so quickly. But, a social media post changed their lives forever.
“We actually found out about our four children through a Facebook advocacy post. When we saw our first photo of the four we both knew instantly they were meant to be our children,” Rachel said. “We weren’t looking to add four at once (or at all) but there was no doubt they were meant to be ours.”
Bringing Kevin, Faridis, Vicente and Michael into their family has been a true blessing to Kurt, Rachel, Sarah Beth, Isaac and Tabitha.
“It turned our lives upside down in the best way. The first few months were incredibly difficult but we came out of it stronger,” Rachel said. “We had to find a way to balance time between seven kids. It was challenging to overcome the language barrier and meet all the emotional needs. However, two years post adoption and I can easily say it was way worth it – worth the challenges, the tears, the fighting for their hearts. All worth it to hear them call me ‘mom’.”
Another trip to Colombia would again bring change to the Davis family.
“In May of 2019, I went on an advocacy trip with our adoption agency to Colombia. During that trip, I met over 120 kids in six cities across Colombia. My purpose for the trip was to talk with orphanage staff and foster parents about what life is like after kids are adopted and help them understand what kids need to know prior to adoption,” Rachel said. “I also worked with the kids doing games and crafts to gauge their social skills and cognitive abilities. I had zero intention of adopting again. I’d planned on meeting kids and advocating like crazy when I got home to help find families for them.”
The day before she was due to leave Colombia, Rachel met Elkin, then age 16, and Alex, age 14 – the two boys who would become her sons in less than a year.
“The last day of our trip we were at a large orphanage in Bogota where I was scheduled to give a training session in the afternoon. That morning I was informed that two teenage boys would be flying in to meet the team. The oldest was 16 and would be aging out soon,” Rachel said. “Basically our team was his last hope of finding a family. My heart has always been for the older kids so I was excited to meet them. As soon as they walked in the door my agency representative said, ‘Rachel, your boys are here.’ When I turned to look it hit me. They really were my boys. I couldn’t stop thinking about them. They stood out from all the other kids.”
Back at her hotel later that day, Rachel called Kurt and shared the experience with him.
“He knew as soon as I started talking about them where the conversation was going. We prayed about it and felt like we were meant to adopt again,” Rachel said. “Two weeks after I returned from my trip we started the adoption process. The process itself went pretty smoothly. There were a few delays and bumps, but those are to be expected.”
During this process, Elkin and Alex did not know the Davis family was planning to adopt them.
“The way the process works is the kids have no idea they are being adopted until about two months before travel. That protects them in case families change their minds,” Rachel said. “That’s the hardest part – as a parent you’re doing all the paperwork and getting government approvals and the kids have no idea how loved and wanted they are.”
Unlike their first time, this adoption came with a deadline.
“This process was different than our last one because we were racing the clock. If we didn’t travel before March 14 our oldest would age out of the system and become unadoptable,” Rachel said. “Every delay felt critical, but was always resolved.”
This adoption also allowed Kevin, Faridis, Vicente and Michael to see how their family fought to adopt them.
“Our four from Colombia were seeing it from the other side now. They had no idea how long it took or all the paperwork,” Rachel said. “It was actually a great way for them to understand our love and dedication to them.”
After months of paperwork, prayers and planning, the time came for the Davis family to fly to Colombia to complete the final steps of adopting Elkin and Alex.
“We decided early on in the adoption process we would all travel to Colombia when the time came. The bonding that takes place during those first few weeks is critical,” Rachel said. “We also wanted our four to have a chance to return to Colombia. We wouldn’t be going to their hometown, but they could still experience the culture and food again.
“We do a lot of traveling as a family, but this was our first time flying with everyone since our previous adoption. It was challenging finding plane tickets and basically impossible to find seats together. Luckily airline agents took pity on us and moved seats around so we could be close together. Our kids are amazing travelers and had no issues navigating the airports and immigration stations.”
They arrived in Colombia on March 2, at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic was thought to only be spreading through a handful of countries. That would change in a matter of weeks.
“Neither the U.S. nor Colombia were under an alert then,” Rachel said. “We settled into our Airbnb where we’d planned on staying for the week and prepared to meet the boys the next day. We met the boys and started bonding week. The purpose of that week is to see how everyone fits as a family. It is concluded by a visit from the psychologist where he or she approves for the adoption to move forward.
“Typically that should be exactly seven days. Due to a scheduling conflict, ours was nine days. Those two days turned out to be critical. After our approval came we moved to another town where the adoption would be finalized. You have to establish residency in the town for five days while waiting on the judge to see you. It’s a beautiful location so it is usually the best part of the trip. We settled in on Thursday (March 12) expecting court Monday (March 16) afternoon.”
While enjoying their first days as a family of 11, Kurt and Rachel continued to monitor the news for any COVID-19 updates. As the virus spread so did uncertainty about when, or even if, they could complete the adoption in March – and when they could travel back to the United States.
“It was starting to hit the U.S. pretty hard, but Colombia only had four cases, all of which were international visitors,” Rachel said. “On the Saturday (March 14) before our court appointment, I received a message from my attorney that all courts had closed in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus. She assured me it would only last a few days. On Monday things started to escalate.
“The town we were in was closing its borders and all visitors were required to leave. There were rumors of a countrywide quarantine, but nothing was official yet. We decided it was best to return to Bogota and wait out the court closing. By that afternoon we decided it was best for Kurt and six of the kids to return to the U.S.”
Staying in Colombia with Rachel to help with translation was 15-year-old Kevin.
“Kurt and the kids were able to get one of the last flights out before the airport closed for international flights. The day they left, Colombia announced a four-day quarantine,” Rachel said. “I was presented with the option of returning the boys to the orphanage and returning to the states with Kevin. We could then return to Colombia in a few months to complete the adoption process. Kurt and I both agreed that was not an option for our family. We did not want the boys to feel rejection another time. I committed to stay with the boys as long as needed.”
Kurt and the six children left Colombia on March 18 and arrived safely in Kansas and began a 14-day quarantine as Rachel, Kevin, Elkin and Alex stocked up on groceries and prepared to stay inside for the weekend; however, that weekend became weeks.
“The four-day quarantine turned into a three-week quarantine,” Rachel said. “It was announced that the quarantine would extend through the end of April.”
While staying at home was a strong suggestion for much of the U.S. in March, staying in was mandated in Colombia.
“Colombia has strict instructions for the lockdown. Only one person per family is allowed out during the day. They can only leave for groceries, medical appointments, or to walk a dog for 10 minutes at a time,” Rachel said. “Grocery stores only allow 10 people in at a time. The lines to get in span blocks and involves hours of waiting. Also, only men are allowed out on odd numbered days and women on even numbered days.”
Rachel faced even more stringent restrictions.
“Because I am a U.S. citizen I had to carry my passport and a written note at all times saying I was there for adoption and am awaiting courts to reopen. If I’m caught without these things I could be arrested,” Rachel said. “Unlike the U.S., the lockdown is mandatory, not suggested, and violators face severe punishment for breaking the rules. The boys and I stayed in our room every day. We spent our time working on school, reading, watching movies and cooking. It was challenging to be stuck in one room with energetic boys all day. Even with the limitation, we made memories and got to know each other better. There were days where we all thought we would go stir crazy, but we stayed positive. The boys understood this was beyond our control, but were ready to finalize and go home.”
With Rachel and three of his sons in Colombia, Kurt was in charge of homeschooling the other six. During their two-week self-quarantine this was doable; however, Kurt needed to return to work as soon as he was cleared to do so. To help out he called in his sister, a high school history teacher, Megan Davis. She eagerly agreed to drive to Kansas to help her family.
“It was a no-brainer for me to go help Kurt and the kids,” Megan said. “I was teaching my classes virtually, which allowed me to travel. I could do the work I needed to do in Tennessee or in Kansas.”
Despite the circumstances, Megan said this was a great opportunity to see some of her nieces and nephews.
“Because we live so far away from one another, I usually don’t see them except during holidays,” Megan said. “As a high school teacher, I am not familiar with teaching elementary school curriculum. But, because they are such great kids, it was easy.”
Back in Colombia, the wait continued, but not just for the Davis family – 18 other families from Italy, Canada and the U.S. were waiting for their adoptions to be completed so they could return home. During March, they joined forces.
“The families remaining in country filed a civil suit against the Colombian government,” Rachel said. “We felt it was a human rights violation to keep children from their families. Until the adoption is finalized the children still belong to the child welfare system. Our case made its way to the Supreme Court here.”
The Supreme Court met on April 11 and decided the Columbian government needed to process adoptions. This, however, had to be approved by Colombian President Ivan Duque Marquez. He said that only families who had already filed paperwork in court could move forward. Luckily, the Davis family had already taken that step.
The next few days were a “whirlwind,” Rachel said. On April 14, a Colombian judge met with the Davis family lawyer via Zoom and finalized the adoption. The next day, Elkin and Alex’s birth certificates were updated with Kurt and Rachel listed as their parents. On April 16, the boys were issued emergency passports. The next day, they were issued visas at the U.S. Embassy so they could travel to the United States.
With the adoption finally complete and Elkin and Alex officially members of the Davis family, the next phase for Rachel and her boys was to fly home on April 22.
“Our return trip was pieced together at the last minute. The U.S. Embassy arranged an emergency flight out of Bogota into Fort Lauderdale. The flight sold out in a matter of hours,” Rachel said. “From Fort Lauderdale I rented a car and drove to Miami to stay the night. From there I was able to get a flight to Dallas and then into Garden City, Kansas.”
Her flights home were different than others.
“Traveling during this time is terrifying. Every single person was required to wear a mask. The airport checked our temperature as we walked in the building. Later they did a body heat scan and took our temperatures again before boarding,” Rachel said. “Even though the flight was considered an emergency transport they only booked the plane half full so there would be space between the passengers. Masks were required during the flight and no food/beverage services were available. Once we arrived at Fort Lauderdale we were required to do a body heat scan again. Our flight into Kansas only had six people (four of those being us). It was crazy to see the airports silent and empty. It seemed sad to see the shops and restaurants closed up and dark.”
Finally, the Davis family was reunited on April 23.
“Guests weren’t allowed on the airport in Garden City so we met Kurt and the other kids in the parking lot,” Rachel said. “It was a far cry from the crowded, wonderful, welcoming homecoming we had during our last adoption. Nonetheless the pure relief and joy I felt to see Kurt and the kids was overwhelming. For the first time in weeks I felt complete.”
The Davis children embraced the chance to be together again.
“The car ride home from the airport was so loud. The kids were catching up on everything they’ve done in the last month,” Rachel said. “There were stories in two languages being told at the same time. It was amazing to hear them all talk and see them enjoy being together.”
Rachel and the boys quarantined at home for two weeks after their arrival in Kansas without any issues. Kurt, Rachel and the children are all happy and healthy and enjoying their time as a family.
“Things are going much better than expected,” Rachel said. “The boys have settled in and are loving on their siblings.”
Despite being unexpectedly stuck in a foreign country for weeks during a global pandemic, Rachel encourages those who have a heart for adoption to pursue it.
“If anyone is interested in adoption they should reach out to other foster or adoptive families and ask questions. There are also several agencies that teach classes on the different avenues to adopt – Lifeline Children’s Services, Bethany, Free Will Baptist Family Ministries, Youth Villages,” Rachel said. “Any of these places would love to walk a family through any questions. I would encourage any family interested in it to find out more. So many kids need homes. All children deserve to be in a safe, loving family. Don’t let fear overwhelm you.”
Rachel is the daughter of Tim and Debbie Whitson of Erwin.