After an exhaustive four-year adoption process, capped off by nine months of separation, they’ll be celebrating Thanksgiving together as a family.
The journey begins
“It started four years ago, really, when we decided we wanted to grow our family, but neither of us were super excited about having another baby,” said Tara Kram, associate dean at the Grand Rapids Theological Seminary.
Tara had always wanted to adopt, but her husband, Jared, a teacher at Grand Haven High School, wasn’t so sure. After nearly a year of contemplation, they decided to take the next step and pursue an adoption.
“We looked at all of the different programs, domestically and internationally, and ended up deciding on the Congo,” Tara said. “Adoptions were running pretty quickly there, and we had some friends who had adopted from there. It seemed like a good fit for our family.”
The day after they signed on with an agency to adopt from the African country, the Congolese government stopped issuing exit letters.
“We waited 10 months and they never reopened adoptions,” Tara said. “So then we started looking at websites that listed kids who are waiting to be adopted, and found a little girl in Sierra Leone.”
The Krams decided to pursue the adoption of the young girl from Sierra Leone, a small nation just north of Liberia in western Africa.
“We started with her three years ago in July — and then Ebola (virus) hit, and they lost track of her,” Tara said. “A lot of people fled to villages.”
By January 2015, the Krams were referred to another little girl in Sierra Leone. That young girl, Nasu, is now their daughter.
The Krams accepted the referral and began the legal process of adopting Nasu.
“By March, I went there to meet her,” Tara said. “You have to start your guardianship process with them, which is a six-month process. I went there, met her, started the paperwork, then had to wait six months before we could go back. During that six months, we found out that our agency was negligent at best, unethical.”
Tara headed back to Sierra Leone to investigate further, and in December 2015, the Krams terminated their contract with the agency.
“We were so uncomfortable with their practices in-country, so we terminated with them, but we were still pursing Nasu,” she said.
However, families can’t complete an international adoption on their own, so the Krams hired an attorney familiar with the process.
“At that point, we didn’t know if we’d still be able to adopt her because of the way the agency had handled things,” Tara said. “We didn’t even know if she should be adopted.”
The Krams hired a private social worker in Sierra Leone to investigate the situation, as well as an attorney there. By that point, Nasu was living in an orphanage. She then moved in with the social worker the Krams had hired from February 2016 to February 2017. During that time, the Krams waded through the paperwork and suffered through the waiting process.
Finally, this past February, Tara flew to Sierra Leone to pick up her daughter and bring her home.
A family divided
“When I went there, the expectation was that we were at the end of our process,” Tara said. “We were just waiting for the approval of our paperwork from the U.S., so shortly thereafter we should have our exit interview in Sierra Leone.”
That exit interview happened, but things did not go as planned.
“Everything went south,” Tara said. “We had one problem after another. ... Everything that could go wrong went wrong.”
Instead of a few weeks in Sierra Leone, Tara spent nine months in Freetown, the nation’s capital. Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world, ravaged with poverty.
“It’s hard to see every day,” Tara said. “It makes you very thankful for what you have here. We know we’re blessed, but you don’t realize the severity of it. Literally, people are living meal to meal there, not knowing what’s coming the next day, There’s an 80 percent unemployment rate. It’s hard to see good people who are struggling.”
At the same time, Jared and Tara had both unwittingly become single parents. While Tara was halfway across the world with their adopted daughter, Jared was in Grand Haven, caring for their 7-year-old biological daughter, Savana.
“We were super blessed with people who wanted to help,” said Jared, who up until this past spring coached the Buccaneers’ varsity girls soccer team. “We had people to babysit. My parents took Savana to school every morning.”
Jared said the hardest part of the ordeal was not knowing when it would end.
“If you knew it was going to be eight months, you can get your head around it, you can cope with it,” he said. ‘But this was such a roller coaster. You’d get your hopes up just to have them dashed. Get your hopes up and have them dashed again. It was a repetitive cycle of anxiety over what we hoped would happen versus what ended up happening.”
The family kept in touch with instant messages. They couldn’t use video chats very often because of the poor internet connection in Sierra Leone.
Jared said he and Savana struggled through some tough times, but they leaned on each other and kept looking forward.
“We had some hard moments, especially at night,” Jared said. “We hugged it out, we cried together, felt sad together, but you don’t dwell. ... You go out for ice cream, go to a park, visit friends, and it’s amazing how one week turns to three turns to a month and a half turns to five, and finally eight months.”
The journey ends
Finally, on a Monday morning in mid-October, Tara received word that their visa was ready. She called Jared, ecstatic to share the news, but he was still asleep.
“I woke up to 6-7 messages on my phone,” Jared said. “It was early, and I felt sick because I was thinking something tragic had happened, with that many phone calls. I figured something terrible had happened. Then I called and I heard Tara screaming with joy.”
“Then it was fast,” Tara said. “That was Monday morning. We bought tickets that day. On Tuesday, Nasu went to school to say goodbye to everyone. On Wednesday, we were on the plane to come home.”
A family reunited
Jared remembers his trip to the Gerald R. Ford Airport in Grand Rapids, arriving way too early because he was too excited to stay home any longer.
“I was standing there, waiting, staring at the hallway that I knew they’d be coming down, and the first thing I saw was Nasu sprinting down the hallway screaming ‘Daddy, Daddy,’ and running into my arms,” he said. “After not seeing each other for nine months, all the dynamics — Savana and Nasu, Tara and I, Tara and Savana — it was a lot of emotions, some of which you can’t really process at the moment. It was mostly relief and excitement.”
Life goes on
It’s been a month since Tara and Nasu returned to the United States and things are going well at the Kram household. Nasu is enjoying kindergarten at Mary A. White Elementary School, one year behind her sister, Savana.
It’s taken a while for the two girls to find a comfort zone together, but it gets easier each day, the Krams say.
Nasu — whose two favorite foods are pizza and chicken feet — said she likes to play at school, and also enjoys music and S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering, math) class. On the playground, she loves the swings. She and Savana attend a gymnastics class together.
Today, sitting in the comfort of their living room with their two girls giggling as they snack on candy, the Krams are able to look back on their journey with a fresh perspective.
“It’s surreal to be sitting here,” Tara said. “At this point, after everything we’ve been through, there were a lot of moments where I never thought we’d sit here. Times when I thought we’d have to end the adoption or I’d still be there.”
Jared said the uncertainty made the adoption process so grueling.
“The biggest lesson, when I talk to people, I think it’s important to be real about it,” Jared said. “Explain the joy of it, but also make sure you have a very realistic perspective on what it’s going to be like, everything from emotionally to financially. You just don’t know.
“I don’t want our story to diminish anyone’s hopes of adopting,” he added. “Other people have had much easier adoptions and others have had much harder. The point is, if you’re really focused on what you want, what you’re hoping for, it can change your family, and change the life of someone else, as well.”