Building a family often requires a leap of faith. Bob Lepine and Dennis Rainey talk with Carolyn Tweetmeyer about adopting special needs children from Africa, including HIV positive orphans.
Building a family often requires a leap of faith. Bob Lepine and Dennis Rainey talk with Carolyn Tweetmeyer about adopting special needs children from Africa, including HIV positive orphans.
Bob: Carolyn Twietmeyer and her husband had decided to make a very courageous decision. They had decided to adopt a little girl—a ten-year-old who weighed 32 pounds and who was HIV-positive, living as an orphan in Africa. But before Carolyn left Africa to bring her new daughter back to the United States, she wanted to give the little girl a chance to say, “Good bye” to her younger brother and sister.
Carolyn: At that point in time, I found out that they weren’t actually living with anyone. They were living on their own in a little 10x10 mud-walled room, with no supervision, just on their own. As soon as I met them, I loved them. I saw how much they loved each other; and I realized the gravity of what they’d already been through and what so many children go through, especially with HIV—that they lose their parents.
So, I called my husband: “Babe”— (Laughter)
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, September 26th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. Carolyn Twietmeyer joins us today to tell us how God gave her and her husband a big heart for kids in need. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Monday edition. You know, I wish our listeners could have been with us back in Louisville, Kentucky, back in May. We were there for a special event. Actually, it’s an event that FamilyLife helped to pioneer seven years ago, right?
Dennis: We partnered with Focus on the Family®, Steven Curtis Chapman, Bethany Christian Services, and a number of orphan care agencies to help pull together a meeting, really a collection point, of all those folks who care about orphans and the issue of adoption and foster care. We made it possible for everybody to begin to dialogue with each other. It has grown into a huge conference.
Bob: Yes, the first meeting had about 30 people there. This one in Louisville had about 1,500 people who were in the audience.
Dennis: We decided to do something really unusual. We decided to actually take FamilyLife Today onstage.
Bob: We had a guest there, Carolyn Twietmeyer, who was present at the summit and had a great story to tell. We thought, “Let’s record a program and let our listeners hear what it was like to be at the summit and get a chance to meet Carolyn as well.”
So, here from the Christian Alliance for the Orphan Summit VII, back in Louisville in May, is a special live edition of FamilyLife Today.
(Recorded in May 2011):
Bob: You know, we have, over 19 years now, done a number of programs where we’ve had a little studio audience joining us.
Dennis: Yes, you know, half a dozen folks will be outside watching us.
Bob: I don’t think we’ve ever done one where we’ve had this many folks.
Dennis: This is the largest studio I’ve ever been in.
Bob: This seats, what, 9,000 people?
Dennis: 9,000 people. (Laughter)
Bob: And we do have an audience here with us—not a full 9,000, but a bunch of folks. Hi, everybody! (Loud applause)
Bob: How’s that?
Dennis: Well, these folks are here because they care about the needs of orphans. What FamilyLife Today has attempted to do, since our inception, is give voice to those who have no voice. We’ve attempted to champion the cause of orphans on FamilyLife Today by talking about the Christian Alliance for Orphans®.
We’ve teamed up with Focus on the Family, with Stephen Curtis Chapman, our own Hope for Orphans® ministry that we have. We’ve interviewed heroes who stand for meeting the needs of orphans.
We have a bona fide hero to introduce to our audience today. Carolyn Twietmeyer joins us on FamilyLife Today. (Applause) Carolyn, welcome.
Carolyn: Thank you! Thank you for having me.
Bob: Wait, wait, wait. She brought a fan club with her or something!
Dennis: She did bring a fan club. Carolyn and her husband Kiel live in Chicago. They are the founders of Project HOPEFUL, which helps families who are considering adopting HIV-positive children.
I guess what I want to do—just to bring our audience—who have already cheered and they haven’t even heard your story yet—Carolyn, let’s go back to the beginning. Where did this journey start for you?
Carolyn: Well, the journey started when I was about seven or eight years old, and I would see the Ethiopian drought on TV. There was a lot of footage back then. To me, at that point, even at a young age, it wasn’t rocket science. We had so much and they had nothing. I was always in my head saying, “We have an extra bedroom. We have more food than we need. Why can’t we bring them here?” I was thinking about the neighbors and things like that, too. Why was that not happening? It didn’t make any sense.
That carried on through my life and interestingly enough—in 2002, at a Rekindling Your Romance marriage conference—that you had going on—my husband and I went. We saw our first Stephen Curtis Chapman and Mary Beth Chapman interview, and a video that was played. It was then that God really spoke into me that this was the route we were to go. Amazingly, enough, here we are today.
Bob: Now, you had been married for how many years at that point?
Carolyn: We had just been married for about three years at that point. Kiel married me with four children. I had four children; he married me.
Bob: So, a blended family.
Carolyn: Yes, he didn’t have children at that point in time. He married me with four.
Bob: You still seem a little amazed that that happened! (Laughter)
Carolyn: I am! A lot of people are! (Laughter)
Dennis: And you went on to have three more—you and Kiel?
Carolyn: Kiel and I had three more biological children.
Bob: Had you ever talked about, “Someday it might be cool if we adopted,”—anything like that?
Carolyn: I think I would bring it up to him periodically.
Dennis: He was all for it, right?
Carolyn: No, not so much! (Laughter)
Carolyn: No, he’s logical that way. Most men are. It took a while for God to do what He did.
Bob: So, when you’re sitting in the United Center in Chicago and there are 7,500 people there that day for this marriage event, and there are Stephen Curtis and Mary Beth Chapman, and they’re talking about bringing home Shaohannah and starting Shaohannah’s Hope, you were going, “This is it!”?
Carolyn: I had never seen it spoken about before ever. It was just an idea. I saw them, and I was destroyed for the rest of the conference. I wept through the whole thing. I was on a mission after that.
Dennis: So, what moved you to ultimately go to Ethiopia, then? What were the circumstances or the events that led up to that?
Carolyn: Well, Kiel, after he finally agreed and understood where I believed God was coming from, poor guy— (Laughter)
Bob: Well, you’d been weeping all afternoon. He’s got to understand something’s going on here, right?
Carolyn: I just told him at that point that I believed God was really moving—at least He was moving me. It took a couple more years after that of more seeds being planted. I’m a slow learner. So it was more seeds being planted. Kiel had initially agreed we would do one special-needs girl adoption from India. God had completely other plans.
Dennis: So, how do you get from India to Ethiopia?
Carolyn: I had called about a home study. I had seen pictures of a sibling group of three. There were an older girl, nine years old; a little boy, who was about four years old, that had HIV; and an infant, who at that point was three months old. I thought, “You know, everybody wants that infant, that healthy baby. Fewer people are going to go after the older child.”
I immediately thought, “These children are going to be separated.” My heart just broke. I couldn’t bear the idea. At that point, there was no information about children with HIV being adopted. Only one successful HIV adoption had been completed in Ethiopia at that point in time.
There were no resources. There was nothing. My first fear was, “How can I possibly endanger my entire family?”
Carolyn: It took me four minutes online to find the reality of HIV. I was getting all of my information for when my dear husband walked through the door so I could let him know what God had planned for us! (Laughter)
Dennis: And you kept crying, and crying, and providing the statistics—
Bob: I want to hear a little of the conversation that took place when you said, “Hey, instead of one from India, I’ve got this great idea!”
Carolyn: That’s how it went. I said, “Babe, I found our three kids!”
Bob: “Babe,” is always a good way to start that conversation! (Laughter)
Carolyn: That poor man! I learned the true meaning of a “full quiver.” It’s not what we think it is.
Dennis: What did he say, though, seriously? I mean, you said “three.” What was his response?
Carolyn: “Woman, have you lost your mind?”
Carolyn: “How can we afford three kids?” I waited until a little bit more into the conversation to share that there was a little HIV involved. (Laughter)
Bob: A little HIV involved? Yes.
Dennis: Now, you all are not independently wealthy.
Bob: And you already had seven kids in the home?
Bob: “Woman, are you out of your mind?”
Dennis: How did you get Kiel to get on that plane to go over there?
Carolyn: Well, it took two weeks for the Lord to work it out with Kiel.
I said, “I am going to keep my mouth shut, Lord. If this is You (and I believed with all my heart that it was), then Kiel will be convinced that this was the route to go.”
Believe it or not, I shut my mouth for two weeks; and I prayed. I kept my mouth shut. He came home one day after work and had been just completely broken. He spent every single day of those 14 days on worksites, wearing hard hats, hearing something about adoption.
The Lord would bring something to him every single day. So, he came to me and he was finished. He looked like a deer in the headlights. God had used every person, every song on the radio, to open his heart. He said, “Honey, these are our three kids. We are to be their parents.”
Bob: You know, it’s interesting, I don’t know how many times we’ve heard somebody say, “I decided I would quit talking about it and just let the Lord work in this,” and how many times that ends up in God doing a move.
Dennis: Well, Carolyn was smart to do that because this is too big of a decision.
You and I were talking before we came up here. It’s imperative that a husband and a wife be one about this because you don’t know what is all wrapped up in caring for an adopted child—the dynamics that creates in your family, let alone the HIV issue.
So, you finally get Kiel to go to Ethiopia. Did you have all the money in hand?
Carolyn: No, we left; and we took a second mortgage out. We didn’t get a single grant after I had already told him that, “God said He’s going to pay for this adoption.” I believed it!
We are still in Ethiopia at this point, for a week. I said, “He’s going to pay for this adoption.” I told a whole roomful of 19-year-old kids there on a mission trip, when they asked how we were affording this—I said, “Well, we took out a second mortgage, but God’s going to pay for this!”
So, probably about 10 o’clock at night, we’re all sitting around in this very quiet room—no TV or anything—and the phone rings. It was my mom. She said, “I have to tell you something. Are you sitting down?” I said, “Yes. What’s going on?”
Dennis: You’re in Ethiopia?
Carolyn: We’re in Ethiopia, with a second mortgage and no grants. She said, “I have to tell you that someone from Shaohannah’s Hope just called.” (It was Shaohannah’s Hope at the time.) “Someone made an anonymous donation of $20,000 to your adoption.” So every penny, every need, was met for that adoption.
Bob: As you told that story, there’s a little emotion still attached to that, isn’t there?
Carolyn: It’s amazing! It’s amazing because I believed what I heard. I heard Him and I knew that He was going to do it. Even when it was a little embarrassing to say, “He’s going to still do this,” He came through. And He comes through so miraculously, so often, as we operate in this.
Dennis: That was not the only way He came through while you were in Ethiopia. There was an additional encounter that occurred while you were there.
Carolyn: Yes! In Ethiopia—in most countries—they separate children with HIV from children without HIV. I had gone back to the orphanage with Samuel to allow him to play with his friends and visit there. This was the HIV-positive orphanage.
While I was in there, in walked two social workers and this beautiful little girl, with the most incredible devastation I’ve ever witnessed in my life on her face. I had no idea what was going on. Even the social workers were teary and distraught. I thought, “Certainly they’ve seen everything by now. What in the world could possibly happen that would wreck some social workers here of all places?”
Just through some speaking to them, and feeling such a desperate need to comfort this child, they explained to me that she had just been taken away from her older brother and sister who had to make the decision to relinquish her in order to save her life because she was HIV-positive.
We had no thoughts of parenting another child. We were bringing three home; we didn’t believe I was wrong there. But I thought I would go and advocate for her. I sat with her and I held her hand, and I spoke with her. Her condition was still relatively good.
It was about six months in, after we had left Ethiopia—I had introduced her to Kiel because she was just such a beautiful, precious, precious child. Six months later, I found out she had had no inquiries from any families to adopt her. Her health was rapidly declining.
Dennis: And you made her a promise, right?
Carolyn: Yes. I promised her, myself, and whoever else would listen, that I would pray her into a family. We’d done it before. I was going to go pray that kid into a family.
Bob: Let me go back to coming home now with three kids from Ethiopia, one of them who is HIV-positive. Your family is now ten children. Where do you put ten children in a house?
Carolyn: We use our vertical space.
Bob: I see. (Laughter)
Carolyn: We do have a “triple-decker” bunk bed. Truthfully, we do have enough bedrooms. Kiel built on two more. One’s an office; so we have eight bedrooms. The reality is that our kids like to be together as often as possible. They’re like little hamsters heaped up in the morning.
They would rather be together anyway. As much as we try to understand the privacy issue; and, for most of the world, that’s a question people often ask us, “Where do you put them all? Do they have their own rooms?” They prefer to be together.
Bob: And dealing with the HIV issue. What has that required of you, as a mom, now?
Carolyn: Well, it’s required universal precautions, as everybody should use. That’s not even an issue. We go to the doctor every three months or so now and get blood work. One of them takes medication twice a day.
It’s been no different than most other adoptions I know of. It’s not that big of a deal.
Bob: And the four, plus the three, plus the three—because there were four kids who came into the family when you got married; there were three more who are yours and Kiel’s; and then here are your three adopted kids.
Carolyn: Well, we had adopted Selah first.
Carolyn: Then, when I was there with her for the month—some other amazing things that happened. Oddly enough, I could not even drive on an expressway or go to a grocery store by myself. The next thing you know, the Lord has me in Ethiopia by myself with a little girl in the end-stage of AIDS when I went back to get her. She was thirty-two pounds at ten years old. They were telling me she wasn’t going to survive to make it home.
Dennis: This is Selah, now?
Carolyn: This is Selah; and this is me, in Africa by myself! (Laughter)
Dennis: Ten kids back home?
Bob: And Kiel going, “Woman, you are out of your mind!” again?
Carolyn: Yes! (Laughter) Actually, by this time, when I said, “Nobody’s inquired about Selah”—her name was Erodanos. I said, “Nobody’s inquired about her, and her health is declining.” That time, he said, “Oh, well that’s a no-brainer. We have to go get her.”
Carolyn: I was thinking, “What!?” (Applause) “Wait a minute.”
Dennis: So, how did you move from Selah, then, to her brother and sister?
Carolyn: Yes. Well, while we were there, Selah’s health was so bad that they were actually telling me I should probably have her siblings come see her because she probably wouldn’t even survive to get on the airplane and go home.
So we worked that out. At that point in time, I found out that they weren’t actually living with anyone. They were on their own in a little 10x10, mud-walled room with no supervision—just on their own. As soon as I met them, I loved them. I saw how much they loved each other. I realized the gravity of what they’d already been through; what so many children go through, especially with HIV—that they lose their parents. If one of those children is infected, it’s not typically the situation that they are together. It’s a tragedy that can be prevented.
So, I called my husband— (Laughter)
Carolyn: “Babe?” (Laughter) So, while we were in the hospital with Selah—she had a hemoglobin level of 4. You can’t even get on an airplane unless you’re an 8 or a 9; and even then it’s low. So the only way to help her would have been if I was a match for her blood.
Carolyn: And, lo and behold, I was a match for Selah. I was able to give her my blood, and get her on an airplane, and get her to the University of Chicago Hospital where they just whipped her back into shape.
Dennis: Wow. Amazing! And then you went back and got the brother and sister.
Carolyn: Two years—it took two years. One week before my son turned 18—which, at the embassy, they cannot come after they turn 18—one week before, we had a successful embassy appointment. We went back to the airport and brought our very healthy and robust Selah to meet with her brother and sister who never thought they’d see her again.
Dennis: Amazing! (Applause) I’m looking at the clock, and there’s one last question I have to ask you. Now you have 13. Then, the God of all surprises—
Carolyn: Yes! The phone call was something like, “Babe?” (Laughter) “So, what would you do if God said, ‘I want you to adopt again’?” By now, he knows better. So he said, “Well, of course, I would never say, ‘No’ to God.” We know what comes out of this—
Bob: I’d say, “Put Him on the line and let me talk to Him!” (Laughter) I want to go direct with Him on this one!
Carolyn: But this time, it was a little more like, “So what do you think about a little Downs Syndrome?” Miracle after miracle happened, and we found out about our baby four weeks prior. On Easter Sunday, our baby arrived. On Monday, we had court and we have 14 amazing, amazing children; and a little Sophia Hope who has rocked my world!
Bob: Has your husband canceled your cell phone service or anything? (Laughter)
Dennis: Carolyn, I’m looking at James 1:27, which could be the theme verse of the Summit here. It says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
You’ve really demonstrated, I believe, what the Gospel is all about. Jesus Christ paid an enormous price to adopt us. I think a lot of people expect adoption to be easy, a noble thing. It involves challenges, faith, perseverance, confronting fears, and courage.
Carolyn mentioned that in five years, they’ve only been able to tell their story in one church. The church is not expressing interest in, I think, adopting children who have HIV/AIDS. I think it’s because we don’t know what to do.
I’m grateful for Project HOPEFUL, which you’re giving leadership to and communicating to the Christian community the truth about the disease and how it can be managed and how the church can embrace those who have AIDS. You really are a hero of the faith, and I’ve got a feeling there’ll be a few churches calling. (Applause)
God bless you.
Carolyn: Thank you.
Bob: You know, it’s obvious that God has given Carolyn a heart for needy kids, for the orphan. Honestly, God’s called all of us to have a heart for children in need. The Bible talks pretty clearly about that. That doesn’t mean that everybody’s going to adopt, but it does mean that we should all be asking, “What can we do?”
Coming up in November, FamilyLife’s Hope for Orphans is helping to sponsor the annual “Cry of the Orphan” campaign to draw awareness to the need and to urge churches to be involved in helping to meet the needs of orphans all around the world. If you go to FamilyLifeToday.com, there’s information available there about how your church can participate in this year’s “Cry of the Orphan” campaign. There’s a DVD that’s available that features the author of the book Bonhoeffer, Eric Metaxas, as the special guest. The DVD is something that you could play in a church or a Sunday school or a small group.
There’s more information on how you can participate in this year’s “Cry of the Orphan” campaign. Again, go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information on how to participate; or if you need information on resources available to help you and your church know how to care for the needs of orphans and what you can do, call us at 1-800-FLTODAY. Just ask about the information that we have available on caring for the needs of orphans.
Again, the toll-free number is 1-800-FLTODAY; but of course, if you have internet access, it’s easiest just to go to FamilyLifeToday.com.
Now, as a program note, later this week we’re going to be talking with Stephen and Alex Kendrick, the producers of the new movie, Courageous, that opens this weekend in theaters all around the country. We’re going to talk about the film and how they are hoping this will be a rally cry for men all around the country to step up and be God’s men.
We have partnered with Stephen and Alex and their pastor, Michael Catt, to develop a Bible study for men called Courageous Living. This week, if you can help support the ministry of FamilyLIfe Today with a donation, we’d love to send you a copy of this men’s Bible study. It’s something you could do in a small group or just do it on your own. It’s the Courageous Living Bible study by Stephen and Alex Kendrick and Michael Catt. If you make a donation this week at FamilyLifeToday.com, just type the word “STUDY” in the key code box and we’ll send a copy of this study guide out to you.
Or call 1-800-FLTODAY; make a donation over the phone and ask for the Courageous Living men’s Bible study. Again, we’ll send it to you. We do appreciate your financial support. We are listener-supported, and so those donations are critical to keep FamilyLife Today on this station and on our network of stations all across the country. So, “Thanks,” for doing whatever you can do in supporting this ministry.
And we hope you can be back with us tomorrow when we’re going to meet another couple that has a huge heart for the needs of orphans all around the world. We’ll hear how they’ve responded to that tomorrow.
Hope you can be with us.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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