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The Browns didn’t plan to have kids.
“I couldn’t have children, so we invested in other children and in our students,” says Nealy Brown, assistant dean of the School of Social and Behavioral Studies and a professor at Johnson University Florida.
This included a literal financial investment to sponsor a child named Ngozi in Nigeria. A friend who served as a missionary in the area said Ngozi always reminded her of Nealy.
“We never said, ‘Let’s adopt,’” says Jeff Brown, husband to Nealy and associate professor of business and public leadership at JUFL. “But we corresponded with Ngozi and learned she became an orphan. Eventually we asked the pastor and the missionary who worked with her if it would be a good idea to adopt her.”
The Browns asked the question in February 2004 and moved Ngozi to their home in North Carolina that October.
“We told Ngozi she could change her name or leave it the same,” Nealy says. “Our missionary friend is named Joy, and her pastor’s name was Ayo, which means joy. She chose that as her new name, so our trip from Nigeria to America was a journey to bring Joy.”
Joy was 14 when she arrived in the United States, and she quickly adapted to her new life, completing high school online in three years and graduating with a year and a half of college credits. Today she lives in Atlanta and works as a nurse practitioner.
Four years after Joy arrived, another 14-year-old entered the Browns’ life when Zack Peterson moved in with them for his first two years of high school. He finished high school living at his mother’s house, then moved back in with the Browns after high school graduation.
“These two are remarkable people who have overcome significant obstacles,” says Nealy. “We are so proud of them both, and our lives are better with them in our family.”
Johnson University faculty and staff often talk about the “uncommon community” at JU. But when Rafael and Andrea Rodriguez and Jason and Kealy Mead began exploring adoption, they had no idea this community would become a family.
The Meads had one biological child when they considered Chinese adoption in 2006. After seeing a picture of three-year-old Cassady in 2009, they knew he was their son. After completing the paperwork and proving they had resources in place to accommodate his hearing loss, the Meads flew to Beijing in August 2009 and “that was it,” says Kealy, health services coordinator at Johnson. “He was with us.”
Meanwhile, Rafael and Andrea lived in Sheffield, England, where he was completing his Ph.D. and where they had just had Janelle, who was born in 2005. In 2007, after returning to the States, they decided to pursue adoption for their second child.
“Well, Andrea did,” says Rafael, professor of New Testament. “She did all the paperwork and dragged me to meetings. Eventually I grew more open to the idea, and nine months after we were approved to adopt, we called our agency to say we were ready. And they said, ‘Great, because we’ve got news for you.’” A birth mom had chosen the Rodriguezes for her infant daughter.
“We weren’t supposed to know anything about the birth mom, but the hospital band included her name,” says Andrea, an administrative assistant in Johnson’s department of online education. Their adoption of Josephina was final in November 2010.
The Meads and Rodriguezes connected in 2013 when the Meads moved onto the JU campus in Knoxville. Andrea interpreted for the deaf and developed a friendship with Cassady so he could have another person to talk to in American Sign Language. In January 2015 the Meads received a call about a baby in the NICU who might be deaf.
“She was less than two pounds when she was born,” Kealy says. “We began visiting her and fostered her in the NICU until she could come home with oxygen.” The Meads adopted DeDe later that year.
Before the adoption was final, the Meads and Rodriguezes shared their stories while at a party on campus.
“Kealy asked if we knew the name of Josie’s birth mom,” Andrea says. “I told her, and she said, ‘That’s DeDe’s birth mother.’ And we just stood and stared at each other for a moment while it sunk in—Josie and DeDe are sisters.”
Today, the two families live two doors down from each other, and DeDe, now five, and Josie, now ten, see each other almost every day.
“Our daughters are being raised as sisters in an extended household,” says Jason, associate professor of history. “We get together for family gatherings, DeDe wears the clothes Josie has outgrown, and Janelle watches DeDe for us.”
“When you adopt a child, you know very little about her biological history,” says Rafael. “If we hadn’t happened to see the birth mom’s name, we would never have known these two girls are related. They could have grown up separately, even on the same campus. It is such a gift that they know a biological sister and can grow up together.”
When Ben Linton was five years old, he told his parents, “I don’t want to be an only child.” Fortunately for Ben, his mom and dad had been thinking about adoption for years.
“We wanted to adopt a child near Ben’s age,” says Kim Linton, administrative analyst with the School of Intercultural Studies. She and her husband Greg, interim provost and professor of New Testament, also knew fostering wasn’t right for them—Ben would too quickly grow attached to another child. They began exploring international adoption in Ethiopia.
In January 2010, the Lintons completed all the required training and paperwork and settled in to wait. Just weeks later they got a call, an email, and a picture of a seven-year-old boy named Manayeh. They flew to Ethiopia in May to bring him home.
Today, Ben is 16 and Manayeh is 17; after spending elementary school in the same grade, Manayeh skipped sixth grade and is on track to graduate from high school next year. In fall 2021 he’ll head to Union University to study business and marketing and to play soccer.
“When you consider adoption, the driving thought is wanting to bless a child,” Kim says. “But Manayeh has been as big a blessing to us as we have been to him.”
Over the last 12 years, the Saylor family has experienced joy, grief, surprise, despair, and lots of love in their adoption journey. It began in 2008 when Nicole, professor of social and behavioral sciences at Johnson, and her husband Kevin began the home study process and paperwork to adopt domestically. Three times in six months they were chosen to parent a baby only to have the birth mother change her mind after the baby was born.
“In 2011 we decided to try international adoption, and in July I got an email about a little boy. We immediately felt like he was our son,” Nicole says. “We started the process and discovered he had developmental delays and cerebral palsy. But we believed we had access to the necessary medical resources, and we had decided he was our child.”
Kai was 18 months old when the process began, and because he was not thriving in the social welfare institution where he was living in China, the Saylors pushed to expedite the process. On Easter Sunday 2012, Kai’s second birthday, he was placed in their arms.
As they consulted with medical specialists and learned to parent Kai, their domestic adoption profile remained active at the local agency.
“I had completely forgotten it, and we were thinking of pursuing a second adoption from China,” Nicole says. “But one Monday in 2014 we got a call saying a birth mom wanted to meet us. We met her that same day and immediately hit it off. Three weeks later we brought our daughter Juniper home.”
The surprises continued the following year, since Nicole put them on the list for China one more time.
“I thought we needed a third kid,” she laughs. “One night I got a call about a six-month-old boy in China. I walked into a friend’s office and said, ‘I think we’re going to adopt this little boy, but Kevin doesn’t know it yet.’” The Saylors brought Grayson home a year later.
“Now we’re just tired!” she says. “Parenting children with trauma and medical issues is complex. And adoption doesn’t end when you ‘get a baby.’ It includes the child, their first family, and us. First parents are present emotionally no matter the extent of their physical presence. Our children carry those parents with them, and I cannot devalue or dismiss that first parent. I have to be pushed to a radical hospitality and outpouring of love toward the moms and dads of my children, even if they made choices that hurt my child. This is the calling of Christ-like love.
“The fact that many first parents also demonstrated Christ-like love by making adoption plans cannot be lost on us. So we come full circle to a new understanding of God’s love that recognizes God calls all of us beyond ourselves.”
“I grew up without my mom as a homemaker,” says Nikki Votaw, director of education graduate studies at Johnson. “I always thought that’s how my life would go, but instead I pursued my doctorate and didn’t take time to have a family.”
After moving to Johnson in 2008, she considered what adoption might look like for her as a single woman.
“I became overwhelmed with all the gifts I’d received–being in this community, with work I love,” she says. “I had been given so much, and I wanted to share it.”
Nikki discovered All God’s Children International, which works to restore families and place orphans for adoption. She focused on Bulgaria, which allowed single women to adopt.
“The organization sent emails about children who hadn’t found a match,” she says. “Often the kids had special needs. One summer day I got an email with a picture of this little girl who was two but not yet speaking. Something about her struck me.”
Nikki worked with her case manager to arrange a visit with the girl, then named Gyulche, and her foster family in the Balkan mountains. For several days, they explored the village, enjoyed local parks, and played together. At the end of the week Nikki started paperwork to begin the process and five months later, in February 2015, she brought Gyulche home to Knoxville.
“I originally wanted to keep her name, but I was afraid it was too unusual,” Nikki says. “I named her Delaney, my paternal grandfather’s name. I wanted her name to have a meaningful connection to her new family.”
Five years and lots of speech and occupational therapy later, Delaney is an active, healthy eight-year-old who “is doing flips and who never stops talking,” Nikki says. “She’s an extrovert who says what she thinks! She is a reminder of God’s love for me and his adoption of me into his own family.”
A few years ago, Erica and I began talking about our desire to become foster parents. We researched the process and sought advice from others. We attended Tennessee PATH classes at a local church, and set into motion what has become one of the greatest gifts for our family.
During the eight weeks of class, it became evident that being a foster parent is not something to be taken lightly. The topics were heavy, yet informative, and the further we progressed in the program, the more we wanted to foster.
Once we completed our classes and were approved by the state, our placement happened rather quickly. We welcomed McKayla into our family in February 2020. She is sixteen years old and actively involved in youth group, pre-college Upward Bound at the University of Tennessee, and school choir. She is also an honors student. McKayla enjoys spending time with her friends, she loves swimming, and she is very creative. Paisley and Grady love having an older foster sister, and Grady has even given McKayla the nickname “KK.”
We feel very fortunate to have McKayla as a part of our family. She is a great kid with a heart for others, and we love seeing her enjoy time with us and her friends. The path to becoming foster parents was worth every step we took. Having her join our family has been a true blessing.
–Ben Fair, assistant JUTN athletic director and head baseball coach