When the Stevenson family gathers around the table in their North Liberty home for their Thanksgiving meal today, they will follow their tradition of taking turns saying what they are thankful for.
At the past couple of Thanksgivings, that has included tears of heartache from Melissa Stevenson over failed attempts to have children, both biologically and through adoption, with her husband, Drew.
She expects to cry again this year, but it will be from the joy of the birth of twin girls in August and the arrival of two adopted children from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in late October.
“This year, even though some days are hard, it’s worth it,” she said, tearing up while sitting on her couch a recent evening.
Also in the room were Aria and Hazel, now 13 weeks old, and 4-year-old Emma and 2-year-old Luke.
Going from no children to four in two months, with two of them newborns and the other two non-English speakers adopted from squalor, is almost incomprehensible. But the story of how they got to that point is even more remarkable.
It involves three years of trying to have children naturally and through adoption, only to have both processes take longer than expected — and then come to fruition almost simultaneously.
When Drew finally left for Africa, his twin girls were 4 weeks old. His mother, Sarah Stevenson, joined him only because his dad, who was plan B after Melissa, had a stroke.
What was supposed to be two-week trip dragged on for 40 days because of corruption and reaction to a U.S.-based adoption scandal.
The family credits their Christian faith — Drew, age 29, is a pastor in Iowa City – with helping them get through it.
“I would say it was everything,” said Melissa, 33.
She was taking turns nursing the twins while Emma and Luke bounced from activity to activity. Emma spun to show off the twirling skirt of her pink dress with brown stripes.
Then, joined by Luke in a gray outfit with a dinosaur print, she flipped through a book called “First 100 Words.”
“Apples. Onions,” Emma said pointing at a page filled with food.
“Cookie,” Luke said.
Later, Emma played a game on an iPhone that had her touch an object, which was then identified. After that was an alphabet game.
Their native language is Lingala, and French is the official language of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Emma’s first name legally is still Mamie, and Luke’s is Moise.
Their mother has two older children and could not afford Emma and Luke, and the Stevensons doubt they have the same father. Their orphanage had a little-used television and toys that rarely came out, the Stevensons said.
Drew and Melissa met in Indiana and married in 2008. Drew planned to attend seminary school, and they had no insurance. But having children biologically and adopting was something they discussed early.
“The reason we wanted to adopt is we believe God has adopted us into his family,” Drew said.
A job opening at Cornerstone Church in Ames brought them to Iowa in early 2010. They soon decided to have biological children, and an adoption meeting that summer led them to start the adoption process a few months later.
It was about one and a half years ago when they were matched with Emma and Luke. But actually getting them kept being delayed.
The Stevensons moved to North Liberty in May 2012 after Drew got a job at Veritas Church in Iowa City, and this past January they learned Melissa was pregnant. At the eight-week ultrasound, they found out they were having twins.
At that point they thought they were just a few weeks from going to the Congo to get Emma and Luke. But because of the increasing number of Congolese adoptions, the U.S. increased its scrutiny of adoptions there to ensure children were orphans.
The Stevensons were told it would be another six to nine months. The reality hit them: All four children were coming at about the same time.
Although there were moments of worry over the next several months, Melissa had run an in-home daycare in Ames and served as a nanny in the Iowa City area, so she was used to caring for several children at once.
Their faith also again came into play. They had been waiting and praying for children for years.
When they found out they were having twins, they already had photographs of Luke and Emma that they showed off to people. This was their family.
Drew’s father, Greg, took Melissa’s place in the plans for the Africa trip. But he suffered a stroke in late July – Greg recently returned to work and continues to improve – so Drew’s mother, Sarah, filled in.
Aria and Hazel were born Aug. 25. They are healthy babies now, but one or the other was in the hospital for most of the next month.
The day after they were all home together for good, Drew left with his mother for Africa, a schedule outside his control.
They flew out of the Eastern Iowa Airport Sept. 20 and made stops in Chicago and Belgium before landing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo 24 hours later.
The central African nation has 75.5 million people and, by some measures, is the poorest country in the world despite being rich in natural resources. It ranks high in infant mortality rate and low in life expectancy.
Systemic corruption since gaining independence from Belgium in 1960 and war since the mid-1990s are the primary causes of its problems, according to the CIA World Factbook.
Congo was the battleground for a conflict from 1997 to 2003 known as the African World War, with an estimated 5 million Congolese killed, according to the U.S. State Department. It has seen continued internal conflicts since then.
There were 240 adoptions of Congolese children by U.S. families in fiscal year 2012, nearly six times more than in 2010, according to the State Department.
Drew and Sarah flew into Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, a city of 9 million people and the home of Emma and Luke.
They arrived on a Saturday and went to their hotel, a converted convent. The next day, Drew was helping a couple leaving for the airport with their luggage. The person driving them was their translator, who also was Drew’s.
To save herself a trip, the translator had brought Emma and Luke and casually mentioned to Drew his kids were over on a couch.
“For three years of waiting, it was almost anti-climactic,” Drew said.
He expected to be in Congo for a couple of weeks. There was some paperwork to finish, and they needed something called an exit permit to leave the country.
But a few corrupt local officials made the final steps of the process harder. Drew does not want too many details published for fear it could affect adoptions by other people, but he said what he encountered was more intense and sinister than what other families experienced. And there was a two-week stretch in which he was unsure if he’d get his children home.
The quick increase of Congolese adoptions means families and adoption agencies need to do their due diligence, said Chuck Johnson, president and CEO of the Virginia-based National Council for Adoption.
“The DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo) has been a hard one because the need is so great (for adoptions), … but the conditions are ripe for abuse,” he said.
The exit permits were a separate matter. The Congolese government suspended their issuance effective Sept. 25 “due to concerns over reports that children adopted from the Democratic Republic of the Congo may be either abused by adoptive families or adopted by a second set of parents once in their receiving countries,” according to a U.S. State Department news release.
That decision followed publication of an investigation by Reuters news agency on an underground market in which American parents seek new homes for children they adopted, many of them from overseas.
The suspension could last up to 12 months, the country said.
Emma and Luke by now were legally Drew and Melissa’s children, but Drew could not take them home to North Liberty.
“I can’t imagine leaving them there and putting them back in an orphanage because they’re my kids,” Drew said. “But I also cannot imagine not seeing my kids here” in Iowa.
Drew had left his newborn daughters, Aria and Hazel, at 4 weeks of age. Melissa was getting help from her mother, Susan Heyne, who came from her home near Dayton, Ohio, the week before the twins were born.
She planned to stay a month. She is still in North Liberty today.
Drew and Melissa kept in touch through text messages and video calls.
In Africa, the Stevensons woke and had breakfast at about 7 a.m. each day and went for walk around the hotel compound, which was about a half-mile in diameter and included a Catholic church and a priest's residence.
The children played outside or in a common room on the second floor where other adoptive families would gather. At the peak, there were 11 families and 17 children.
There were crayons and balls, but no one had brought many toys because they were not planning to stay long. The same was true of clothes, which Sarah washed in a bucket of water in their hotel room.
There was cold water only. It and the power went out intermittently.
Their room had an air-conditioning unit, which helped in the hot, humid weather, when the power worked. Bugs were everywhere.
Luke suffered from severe diarrhea for a month, going through 10 diapers a day with only cold water to clean up. Emma contracted malaria.
There were afternoon naps for the children and bedtime included playing, cold showers, singing, reading and prayer.
After it was apparent they would not be leaving soon, the families started holding church services on the hotel veranda. Pounding on a coffee table provided percussion to accompany songs.
Sarah is the leader of the women’s ministry at the same Ames church where Drew had worked, and they both have said their conviction that what was happening was God’s will helped them endure.
“I would say it was our faith in Christ and knowing he was in charge and we could trust him,” Sarah said.
They rarely left the hotel grounds, and Sarah did not at all after the first week for safety reasons.
Drew’s issues with local officials eventually were resolved and exit permits again were distributed. Drew, Sarah, Emma and Luke left the Congo on Oct. 30.
The Biblical symbolism of the 40-day trip was not lost on Drew. It rained for 40 days and nights in the story of Noah’s flood, Moses spent 40 days on Mount Sinai, Jesus fasted for 40 days while being tempted by Satan.
Drew and Sarah each said the Congo trip was the worst experience of their lives, but still worthwhile. Drew said it was, conversely, probably among the best days of Emma’s and Luke’s lives up to that point because they had stability, regular meals and love.
Melissa and a group of people greeted them at the airport. Drew exited the gate carrying Luke, and Melissa gave them a hug.
Sarah and Emma were a few steps behind and, with some urging, Emma hugged her mother’s leg before Melissa knelt to be face to face with her daughter.
The couple said the time apart probably was for the best. Melissa was able to concentrate on Aria and Hazel and get them on a schedule. Drew was able to work closely with Emma and Luke and bond with them.
“And now we can mesh them together, so it was a blessing in disguise that he was gone,” said Susan, Melissa’s mother.
Drew and Melissa still aren’t sure Emma and Luke understand that they are their parents.
On a recent night, Luke pointed at Hazel in a bouncy seat. “Buckle. Buckle.” He likes to strap her in.
Hazel is mostly still. Aria is called “little ninja” by her parents for her constantly moving arms and legs.
Another day, Luke and Emma played with a toy nativity set. “Baby,” Emma said holding the baby Jesus figure. She grabbed Mary, too, and had them kiss while she made smooching sounds.
The family has received a lot of help from the church community. There have been donated meals, clothes and visitors to lend a hand.
As the Africa trip kept getting extended, an online fundraiser was started that brought in $6,326 to help cover the unexpected expenses. One of those was Luke turning 2 on Oct. 27, which added about $1,000 to his airfare.
Emma and Luke still have a lot of work in front of them. Living in an institution will have an effect on anyone, said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Donaldson Adoption Institute, a think tank based in New York City, and author of the book, “Adoption Nation.”
That could be developmental delay, attachment issues and more, he explained. And then there are challenges surrounding race and culture from leaving their country of origin.
“They will inevitably deal with those issues large and small,” Pertman said. “And they will deal with issues that arise normally … because it’s a transracial adoption.”
None of those are reasons why someone should not adopt, he said, but parents must be willing to get support and services.
The Stevensons already have had developmental assessments for Emma and Luke and set up language tutors through the local Area Education Agency. A friend from Ames who is of Congolese descent is coming for Thanksgiving.
Melissa’s dad and sister also are to be in town today, the first time they’ve met the four new Stevenson children.
It also will be the first holiday together for Drew, Melissa, Emma, Luke, Aria and Hazel.“We’re really thankful to all be under one roof,” Drew said. “It seemed like a distant dream when we found out we were pregnant with the twins.”