When the VanDorsten family traveled to China in May 2019, they did all of the things that American tourists might do. They explored Beijing and visited cultural sites including the Great Wall and Buddhist temples.
In addition to the souvenirs and photos from a memorable trip, they returned home with something more lasting – their new daughter, a six-year-old Chinese girl named Lily.
U.S. Army Maj. Jeremiah VanDorsten and his wife Andrea have two biological sons, Isaac and Loyal, 12 and 10, respectively, and two adopted daughters — Lily, who turns six in January, and Mae who is 10. They adopted Mae from a Chinese orphanage in 2011 when she was 17 months old.
“We usually don’t say our ‘adopted’ children,” said Andrea. “They’re all our children. We use the word adopted as a verb and not an adjective. We adopted our girls, and now they’re our daughters. We never think of them or refer to them as our ‘adopted children.’”
Jeremiah serves in the 100th Missile Defense Brigade (Ground-based Midcourse Defense), based in Colorado Springs, a subordinate unit of the Colorado National Guard and U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command.
Andrea and Jeremiah met at Berea College, a small liberal-arts school in Kentucky. They married in 2003. The two Kentucky natives have lived in Colorado Springs since 2004 when Jeremiah accepted a job with the then newly-activated 100th MDB to serve as a missile defender.
Raising a blended family with biological and adopted children was always their plan.
“I always knew I would adopt,” Andrea said. “I knew I would have a daughter from China. That was something God put in my heart, and it never left me. When Jeremiah and I talked about getting married, that was part of it. I knew if he wasn’t open to that, it wouldn’t work out for us. Thankfully, he was.”
Jeremiah credits Andrea with inspiring him to adopt and said his Christian beliefs also aligned with the concept of embracing an abandoned child as his own. “The Bible tells us to take care of orphans and widows in the book of James, so we openly discussed that as a Christian couple before getting married.”
Andrea cited China’s one-child policy as her motivation to adopt a Chinese girl. The Chinese government enacted its one-child policy in 1979 in order to control population growth. Most families could only raise one child. China has since relaxed this policy, but decades of Chinese families favoring boys over girls to be their one child resulted in thousands of orphaned girls.
According to the U.S. Department of State website, travel.state.gov, China is the top country of origin for international adoptions to the United States and American families adopted some 81,637 Chinese children between 1999 and 2018. Among them, nearly 85 percent were girls.
The VanDorstens submitted their initial adoption application shortly after Loyal, their second son, was born in 2009. One year later, the couple traveled to China for the first time to bring Mae home.
China has a traditional adoption program wherein foreign families can adopt a healthy child. There is also the Waiting Child program that includes children with minor to severe special needs. Mae was an orphan under the Waiting Child program.
“Our thought was that we wanted to give someone a home who needed it the most,” Andrea said. “We knew those healthy kids would be adopted quickly. There was a long waiting list for them.”
When a prospective family chooses to adopt a child under the Waiting Child program, they’re able to choose the severity of special needs they think they can accommodate. These needs vary and include children with missing limbs, or who were born with HIV or Downs Syndrome. The VanDorstens chose to adopt a waiting child whose health needs weren’t as serious – or so they thought.
“Mae was born with a cleft lip and palate,” Andrea said. “We were naïve about what that entailed and what the process would be to correct that. We thought it would be one simple surgery, and she’s fixed.”
On the contrary, Mae has endured eight surgeries. She has been in speech therapy for years. Andrea said Mae will have extensive dental work throughout her future and that she sees a team of doctors at Denver’s Children’s Hospital regularly.
“We are thankful we were so naïve because I think we would have been scared to say yes if we knew then what we know now,” Andrea said. “I cannot even let myself think about what would have happened if we wouldn’t have brought Mae home.”
Loyal and Mae are both 10, and their respective birthdays are only a few weeks apart. They are virtual twins, a term applied to genetic strangers who have shared an environment from an early age. Now, they’re in the same class at school and are inseparable.
“They act like any brother and sister you’ve ever seen,” said Jeremiah. “They’re best friends one day and fighting and wrestling the next.”
Integrating Lily into the family wasn’t as seamless.
“Lily’s adoption file was lost for years,” Andrea said. “She was in paperwork limbo. Nobody had the opportunity to adopt her because there was no file on her. Her file became available one month before we saw her. The day that we saw her file, we called the adoption agency and said, ‘That’s our girl.’”
The process from application to placement with Lily took three years, but the VanDorstens believe the long wait helped the family better prepare and built the excitement.
“We’d tell them ‘Your sister is over there. She’s living in an orphanage. Let’s go rescue her and bring her home,’” Jeremiah said. “Taking all the kids to China in May, they got to experience that on a deeper level. Seeing where Lily was from and the situation she was leaving had a deep impact on them.”
The couple said that the first several weeks following Lily’s homecoming were a challenge.
“We expected that,” Jeremiah said. “Part of the preparation for adopting an international child is (that) you’re required to take a lot of classes related to adoption. We knew bringing home an older child would present different challenges than bringing home a baby. So, we tried to prepare for that, but it was rough.
“The anticipation of wondering how it’s going to go is also tough,” he said. “You wonder, ‘How’s this going to work?’ ‘Are we going to be able to bond and mesh as a family?’ All that stuff comes naturally in a house with love. It may be instant. It may take a couple of months or years, but it has happened, and it is happening for us.”
Andrea said one factor people don’t always consider regarding adoption is the emotional trauma the child bears.
“There’s a lot of loss for the child in adoption,” she said. “We’re happy to have daughters. They’re happy to have a family. But they do not know their biological parents. They left the country that they were born in. They left the language they first learned. Lily made that loss known to us.”
One of Jeremiah’s biggest concerns with both adoptions was the financial commitment. The VanDorstens raised funds through their church and volunteer work to help cover the up-front costs. They also qualified for adoption reimbursement of $2,000 per child through the Department of Defense Adoption Reimbursement Policy.
As a military family, all of the VanDorsten children receive the same benefits including health care and education assistance.
“Once we received their certificates of adoption and certificate of citizenship, they’re assigned a DOD identification number,” Jeremiah said. “They’ve got full military benefits because they have a DOD ID number and a Social Security Number. There’s no difference between any of my children for benefits.”
Andrea also credits Jeremiah’s military service with the financial stability that allows her to stay home and raise the kids, part of which includes part-time homeschooling. The VanDorstens agreed that adoption may not be a good fit for every family and that there are many challenges in merely navigating the application process.
“There is a lot of paperwork,” Andrea said. “It takes months and months to compile that. It’s like a full-time job putting everything together. We even had to submit a floor plan of our house to the social worker that they will be required to see for the next five years to make sure the girls are doing well.”
Jeremiah said that there are other ways people can help adoptive families. “You can help financially. You can help with prayers. Talk to adoptive families and ask candid questions about how you can help.”
“We are blessed. All of our children are huge blessings in our lives,” Andrea said. “I cannot imagine our family without our girls. We would all be different. They were meant for us, and we can’t say enough about what a positive experience it’s been. We’re so thankful for our girls. It’s a scary thing, and it’s hard, but it’s so worth it.”
“They’re like arrows in our quiver,” Jeremiah said, referring to the Old Testament’s Book of Psalms, Psalm 127, 4-5.