India: Part I

In February of 2015, we made an announcement on this blog that we were growing our family by adoption. For the next 2.5 years, we posted our progress on our timeline, finally culminating in what happened June 19, 2017. Dhanya Sri Ann Nichols, once a child represented by a vintage globe in our family photos, came into our family.

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I chronicled Evie’s early days home on this blog before moving it over to an Instagram page, and our early days with Dhanya Sri are every bit as important! Before Gotcha Day gets too far away, I’m kicking off this blog series in attempt to both hang on to these sweet memories, and also hope it will encourage others who are considering adoption or going through those early days with an adopted child.

I’ve got to get through some complicated backstory first, so hang with me. Without further ado…

As we approached our 3rd summer of the adoption process, we knew travel time was getting near. We had passed court, and were just waiting for passport to be issued. In India, travel approval is granted when the passport is processed, printed, and in the hands of the SAA (Specialized Adoption Agency). As it turns out, Dhanya, though she lived in a foster home in Hyderabad, Telangana, her legal process was through Ongole, Andhra Pradesh. See, Hyderabad and Ongole used to be in the same state of Andhra Pradesh. When she was transferred from Shishu Gruha in Ongole to Sarah’s Covenant Homes in Hyderabad, they were in the same state. But shortly after she moved, the state split. Hyderabad, once the capital of Andhra Pradesh, became the capital of the new state of Telangana. But, Hyderabad remained the de-facto capital of Andhra Pradesh until March of this year. Do you see how this is getting really complicated?

Let’s add to that complication. We were only the 3rd or 4th international adoption that Ongole had ever processed. I had become good friends with two sweet gals named Alicia and Kelly, whose children, Vignesh and Edi, were like Dhanya—legally processed through Ongole, but lived at SCH Hyderabad. Like us, they spent months waiting for their process to move forward but heard virtually nothing. Finally last fall, we all started to see some movement in our cases. Alicia and her husband traveled as soon as she found out they had a court date, spent one month in India, and came home with Vignesh at Christmas of last year. They had to apply for his passport in person in Hyderabad and wait for it to be processed and printed. Kelly and her husband went in May, and after a drive to Ongole and back to Hyderabad, found out that Edi’s passport had to be processed no, not in Hyderabad….passport operations for Andhra Pradesh had moved to a Vijayawada. Ongole and Hyderabad are 8 hours apart. It’s a hard drive through rural parts of India. If it hadn’t been for them blazing a path for our journey, we would have had no idea what all was in store for us. (More on that later!)

Once we got our written court orders on May 5, 2017 (news that was received in the form of a very tear-filled phone call from our Morgan, our caseworker!), we knew we were getting close, but still had no real clarity on passport. Were we supposed to go over there and apply for it in person? What if we got there and had to go back home and keep waiting? What if we got there and had to stay indefinitely? Traveling before passport is issued is completely against the norm in India, but after my agency got a follow up email from the DCPU (District Child Protection Unit) in Ongole that said, “PAPs [potential adoptive parents] are compulsory to attend passport office in Vijayawada”, and simultaneously getting feedback from Kelly about what they were experiencing with passport, we decided that that was our green light to travel, but knew it was still a risk. May 31, 2017: The day “covfefe” was born into American vernacular, and also the day we finally, finally, finally, got to book our tickets to India. Still seems incovfefeable that after all those years of waiting, this was actually happening.

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Here are some videos of me sharing the big news! No one was at home, so I had to FaceTime Zack and my parents!

By the end of the day, we had 4 round-trip tickets to India booked, plus a 5th one-way ticket from New Delhi to Birmingham. Shout out to Matt at Adoption Airfare who secured a great deal for us, and was an absolute delight to work with. I highly encouraged them if you are planning any type of mission or adoption travel!

We spent the next three weeks getting as prepared as we could.

We got vaccinations and started a malaria preventative…

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Ev and I had our last mommy-daughter breakfast date with it just being “us”, and we celebrated my parent’s anniversary with them…3

I plowed through all the paperwork and appointments that we needed to get in order before we arrived, like calling MaxMed at 2:00 am and making an appointment, getting our big accordion file filled up with the right paperwork, emailing the US Embassy in New Delhi, sorting through our visa applications, and all kinds of fun stuff like that. This is basically the adoption equivalent of nesting! It was tedious, but it gave me a great sense of accomplishment!IMG_1387

Evie looked forward to updating our countdown each morning…IMG_1471

And Zack had his own way of getting ready to go…by printing t-shirts with his favorite Bollywood stars on them. He thought they’d be good conversation starters in India. He wasn’t wrong! Hahaha. I love this guy. IMG_1460.JPG

And I started putting together all of the little activities and supplies together for the girls’ travel packs. In the months leading up to travel, every time I went to Target, I picked up a couple more things for their packs. They were a Godsend at all of our appointments, waiting at the airports, the long stretches of air and car travel, and the time we spent in our hotel room. 4IMG_1497

The white packages in the photo below were given to the girls by my dear friend Jennifer Scott. She got Shopkins and other blind bag-type toys and wrapped them up for the girls to open on the trip. These were huge for Dhanya, because they helped us convey that we cared for her, even in those early days when communication was very difficult. So grateful for you, Jennifer! 5

Finally, it was June 17th. I woke up early, went downstairs and made my coffee, and had the realization that this would be my last quiet morning to myself for quite some time. I couldn’t believe this day was actually here. After getting a surprise visit from our friend Ian, eating some McDonalds (a slightly shameful “last meal” before a long trip away from the familiar!), we did a quick video tour of our house on the iPad for Dhanya to watch, loaded up the car, and drove to my parent’s house. They rented a big van and we—me, Zack, Evie, Zack’s mom, my mom and dad, plus my nephew and niece—headed to the Atlanta airport. IMG_1522

Let me break for a second to talk about my mom and Zack’s mom. My mom had been planning to go to India with us for a long time. It was a big step outside of anything she was really comfortable with, but she was there for us because she knew that we’d need help with Evie. It was very important that Evie go with us, because we wanted our family to all be together from the get-go, instead of waiting to come back home and then introducing E and D to each other.

Mom was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer last December, shattering any chance of her going to India with us. This past Spring was the hardest season of my life to date. The uncertainty of India, Mom’s health, church planting, being a first year teacher….it all took a pretty hard toll on me. I’m really close to my mom, she is literally my best friend, and to not have her with me on this journey was like being stabbed and having someone twist the knife. Our goodbye at the airport was pretty weepy! IMG_1532

Enter my mother-in-law. Pam is as intrepid and level-headed as any person you’d hope to meet, and she bravely stepped in when we realized that taking Evie without a support person would be very unwise. She had all of 5 weeks to make this decision, get her shots, prepare, and go. And she did. And we love her for it. 7

We went through security with ease (thanks to Pam), popped our malaria meds for the evening, grabbed a bite to eat, and settled in at the gate. It was about 10:00 pm when they called for early boarding—families with young children. Boom, that was us. We were the first ones in line ready to get on that plane. Then out of the corner of my eye, I see Evie and Pam fall to the ground. Pam was holding Evie’s hand so she wouldn’t run around like a maniac, when Evie decided she was going to start swinging around like she was a monkey and her grandmother’s arm was a vine. Down they went. Pam immediately grabbed her wrist and we knew something was wrong. 30 minutes later, boarding was complete with everyone but us. Paramedics were surrounding Pam trying to determine what had happened.

Should she get on the plane and hope she had merely sustained a sprain? What if the pressure of the cabin made it worse and we had to make an emergency landing? What if it was broken? What if it wasn’t? Could we get medical help during our layover at Heathrow if she needed it?

Finally, we had to make a decision. We had to get on the plane without Pam. She had to go to the ER, and we had to go to India. All of our appointments were lined up, and being delayed by even 24 hours would create a domino effect that would mess up everything. But what about Evie? Could Zack and I really manage BOTH girls, a 4 year old and a 3 year old, by ourselves in an unfamiliar country? What if Evie stayed with Pam? Pam had to get in a taxi and go to the ER and then find a hotel room in the middle of the night in Atlanta. Maybe they’d both be able to get on the flight the next night and meet us in Hyderabad?

We had about 3 minutes to think through this all. Finally, we got on the plane with Evie. I was sobbing. SOBBING. The flight attendants were loading me up with wine and water trying to settle me down! Zack was pulling every encouraging and sweet word out of the dictionary he could think of. I tried to not tell Evie, “this is all your fault!” Wow. What a night.

Once God supernaturally gave me the ability to calm the heck down, it ended up being a lovely flight. Evie slept most of it, and was a rock star when she was awake.

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Here’s Evie and our super cute British Airways flight attendant. I mean, super helpful flight attendant! 9

We landed at Heathrow and prayed that we’d have a message from Pam that it was a small sprain and she’d been on the next flight. Turns out, her wrist was in fact, very broken. Zack and I had to go at this alone. I cried some more. It’s what I do.

The London to Hyderabad flight wasn’t nearly as lovely as the one to London. The crew was cranky, Pam’s seat was given away to someone on standby so we didn’t have room to stretch out, the food was bad, and Zack and I both were so riddled with anxiety that we didn’t even know which way was up. Um, the view of Eastern Europe were pretty though?

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That said, looking at the seat-back monitor and realizing we were able to land in the same city as our daughter…surreal. IMG_1566.JPG

We landed in Hyderabad and things continued to go downhill. Evie was exhausted, and rightfully so, after two back-to-back trans-continental long-haul flights. It had been something like 29 hours since we had left our house after all. When we finally got out of customs and immigration, our suitcases were no where to be found. While Zack elbowed his way to the front of baggage claim just in case, I took Evie to the customer service counter to file a report. The baggage handlers kept telling me that they would watch Evie while I looked for my suitcases. “She is like a baby doll!” they told me. Now I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt that they were NOT child traffickers, but no way am I going to leave me kid alone with you in an airport, dude.

We spent about 2 hours trying to sort out luggage. 2 pieces were found, but the 3rd was not. That suitcase had most of Evie’s clothes, as well as gifts for Dhanya’s caregivers, the SCH staff, and government officials in there. It’d be a week before we saw it again.

We got to the other side of security and met our guide, Alex. (More on Alex later!) It was raining buckets, and we were soaked as we waited for our car to pull around. Yay, monsoon season! I told Zack I was only taking this photo so we could remember this part of the journey. It was a hard part. We hooked up to Alex’s personal hotspot and had a follow up message from Pam that her wrist was broken so bad that she had to have surgery and physical therapy. Jesus, come quickly.

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Our driver got lost, but we made it to the hotel eventually. Alex kept trying to make jokes, but we were zombies. I also was still crying and texting things to my mom like, “please send Dad to pick up Evie and take her home” and “I can’t even remember why I’m here.” I was in a BAD PLACE.

We then had about 3 hours to shower, change into clean clothes, rest, eat, and get ready to meet Dhanya for the first time.

Luckily at this point, Evie was doing ok. Praise the Lord for our sweet little firstborn.

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Our hotel was beautiful, but our nerves were completely shot. Satan was cranked up to 10 as he tried to diminish the beauty of what was about to happen.

But Satan lost.

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Part 2 coming soon.

 

 

Nichols, Party of 4

If you know us, you’ve heard us talk about how much we have loved visiting this country or that country. How we loved the food, the people, the museums, the culture, etc. etc. But there is a country that has been pressed so hard onto our hearts, a country we love so much…and we have never even been there. There is no particular reason why we would be drawn to this country, but sometimes God tells you something so clearly that you know it could only be from Him.

What is it about Ind!a that I couldn’t get out of my head? The bright colors of the Holi Festival? The way it lights up at Diwali? The marigold flower chains? I mean, I’ve pinned the same photo of the Pink Palace in Jaipur on my Ind!a & Nepal Pinterest Board more than once. Wait, why do I even know about Holi, Diwali, marigold flower chains, or the Pink Palace? Why do I have a Pinterest board JUST for Ind!a and Nepal?

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Well, God spoke India into our hearts, and this where Nichols #4 will be from. 

Years and years ago, we felt that we were called to international adoption. I actually can pinpoint it, for me at least, specifically to meeting the Hooten family, who had 2 biological sons followed by several adopted children. I just thought it was one of the most beautiful, Godly things I had ever witnessed.

We were married almost 6 years before Evie came into the picture, and had been saying for years that when our biological child turned 1, we would begin the adoption process. Well, God has a way of shooting down your plans in a way only He can. He knows timing better than we do, so we’ve learned to just trust Him and go with it. When Evie turned 1 (March 2014), we were literally in the midst of moving into a new home and of course the financial burden that came with it. We knew it wasn’t the right time, but we had a peace about that. Not to mention, the adoption agency we wanted to go through didn’t have a program for India at that time, so we just waited and prayed for God to make his timing super obvious. (Fun fact: we closed on this home one year ago to this very day! Almost to the minute that I’m typing this even. And Evie turns two this Monday!)

Last fall, I told Zack that I wanted to go to an informational meeting at Lifeline, the agency we knew we wanted for this. We expressed to them our interest in Ind!a, knowing full well that there wasn’t a chance of us being accepted into their non-existent program. But what do you know, there was a program.

It’s what called a pilot program. One family here in Alabama was pursuing their second Indian adoption. The first was with the only other agency in Alabama that does India adoptions, but this second one was through Lifeline. We left the informational meeting that night affirmed more than ever that Lifeline was the agency, excited that India was on their radar. But we also knew it would be a while, because they didn’t even officially have an Indian program. (Like, years.) We even decided try for another biological child sometime in 2015 and then hopefully when s/he was a year or so, India would be open through Lifeline, and what’s more, we’d have a couple years to get some finances in order before jumping in. Heck y’all, we even cashed in our airline miles and booked a vacation. HA! Let’s not talk about that right now, because I gave up stress/worry/anxiety for Lent, and I’m not going to hold to that if I talk about what we have planned for next month.

Anyway, imagine my surprise when I got a call from a gal at Lifeline just before Christmas wanting to talk more about our interest in Ind!a. Wait, what? I kind of felt like maybe she just wanted to have a casual convo, so when we had a hard time linking up around the holidays, I didn’t think too much about it.

Last month, the conversations went from informational to hypothetical to realistic. And on January 30, 2014, at 10:13 am, as I was sitting in the car with my mom driving up to the Summit, Meredith, the program director at Lifeline said “our group has been praying, and under my direction, we would like to accept you as the pilot family for Ind!a. We are so excited for you.”

WHAT?! I cried, obvi. Because I wear my heart of my sleeve and I couldn’t help it. We had a full conversation before she even said those words, those words I will NEVER forget…and wasn’t even expecting. My mom heard them too and grabbed my hand and squeezed it, how awesome she was there to hear the news! And I’m not even sure what I said next except for some version of “we’ll be praying about it.”

We had so much to process: we still want another biological child, when is that supposed to happen? How long will this take? How much will this cost? Weren’t we supposed to begin this process a few years from now? Isn’t that what God was saying? What happened to the other family in their pilot program? Is this timing right? Needless to say, I didn’t sleep a lot that night. (BTW, I have connected with the first pilot family through the wonders of social media and her blog, and she is amazing. They are now pursuing a waiting child from China, and we are so happy for our new friends!)

Two days later, never so sure of anything in my life, I emailed our social worker with a “YES!” Two days after that we began the application process. And now here we are:

We are the Nichols, and we are actively in the process of pursuing an adoption from Ind!a.

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We’ve been fielding some questions already from people who know, so here is a little FAQ section for you. We LOVE talking about this, because each person who hears our story also hears the story of the orphan crisis in India, a country that has meant so much to us, but now means even more.

Why are you adopting? And why Ind!a?
As Christians, why do we pursue anything of substance? Because God tugs our heart in certain directions and gives each of His children a calling. Quite simply, God has called us to Ind!a. Our entire married lives we have felt called to advocate for the unheard voices of the marginalized and impoverished (and the International Justice Mission is one of our favorite charities for this reason). Every Christian is called to orphan care in some capacity, and we feel this is the capacity to which we have been called.

As far as why India specifically, please feel free to ask us more about this in person!

So what about THIS child? YOUR child?
We don’t know yet, of course, if it will be a boy or girl, what part of India he or she will be from, or anything much more than that. But, we do know that it most likely will be a little girl, as almost 70% of the estimated 25 million orphans in Ind!a are girls.

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We also know that our child will have a special need. The only children available to non-Indian nationals are waiting children, which means that Indian parents or those with Ind!an citizenship get (and this is hard to type) “first pick” of “healthy” babies. What “special needs” means can vary WIDELY…it can be something totally correctable, and you might never even know that at one point in his or her life, s/he was considered “special needs.” Or it is very possible that there will be some extra considerations we’ll have to make for our child during his/her life. We have a lot to pray about for this aspect of our adoption process, and we would covet your prayers too.

We also know that our little one will be, in fact, a little one! From the information our agency has gathered, India prefers for their adoptive families to maintain natural birth order. Evie will be 2 on March 2nd, so we have set “parameters” for birth to 2 years. We would be perfectly ok with a older child, but we feel that we need to “play it safe” and request what Ind!a wants. And we are totally fine with bringing home a tiny, sweet li’l bit!

How long will this process take?
If you know, please tell us! We could get a referral before the year is up, or it could be 4 years from now before we’re home with our newest Nichols. It’s not a secret that I’m not the most patient of people, so we’d love it if you could join us in praying for a quick process. There is even a small chance that s/he is already born, which means that everyday that we spend in-process is another day that our family is missing a member, and another day that s/he has to go without his/her mommy, daddy, and big sister. I can hardly stomach the thought.

Also, there are certain steps that can only move forward when we can pay for it. And that’s a nice segway to…

How much does it cost to adopt from Ind!a?
A pretty penny, folks. Here’s a breakdown:

AGENCY FEES
Application Fee: $250
Agency Fee: $6000
Orphan Care Sustainability Projects: $250
Home Study Fee: $1750
Post-Placement Services: $1950
Post-Adoption Management: $250
Shipping Costs: $360
TOTAL: $10,560 that is due in 4 equal payments of $2640 (not including $250 app fee). As the pilot family, the 4th installment is scholarshipped, bringing our total to $8170

DOSSIER PREPARATION
Citizenship and Immigration Services Fees: $890
Immigration Affidavit of Support Review Fee: $88
Ind!a Visas for 2 adults, plus Courier Fee: $350 (only option available is a 10-year visas at $175 each)
Prepare & Enrich Marriage Assessment: $35
Crossings Training: $100
NCFA Parent Training: $195
Birth Certificates & Marriage License (5 copies of each): $107
FedEx Fees (dossier sent to Ind!a): $400
Legalization of Dossier: $600
TOTAL: $2,765

OTHER U.S. ADOPTION EXPENSES
Fingerprinting for 2 adults: $100
Full medical reports for 2 adults: $200
USCIS Update: $500 (This may or may not be ultimately be required of us; we will have to pay it if our immigration expires while we are waiting to travel to Ind!a and then back home. Please pray we do not have to pay this!):
TOTAL: $800

ESTIMATED IN-COUNTRY EXPENSES WHILE IN IND!A
(Based on 10 Days In-Country)
Round-Trip Airfare for 2 Adult: $3500
One-way ticket home for our child: $1500
Translator/Guide Fees ($100/day): $1000
Accommodations in Dehli and RIPA region: $1500
Accommodations for Translator/Guide outside of Dehli: $1500
Transportation within Ind!a: $800
Food (appx. $100/day/person): $1000
TOTAL: $10,800

FIXED IN-COUNTRY EXPENSES WHILE IN IND!A
Child Care Corpus Fee: $5000 (Paid in two installments to the orphanage and covers the care of our child and court costs. This fee may vary from RIPA to RIPA. A RIPA is an Ind!an orphanage.)
Child’s Medical $275
Child’s Visa $325
Bond posted for child $1000
TOTAL: $6600

POST-ADOPTION EXPENSES
US Court Adoption: $2000
Citizenship Certificate: $420
Birth Certificate: $20
Court Costs: $80
TOTAL: $2,520

TOTAL ESTIMATED ADOPTION COSTS: $31,655

And how are you going to come up with $32K exactly?
This is a scary number. I can’t even tell you how much this makes me want to look at heaven and scream “Are you KIDDING ME God?!” But we know for a fact that God will not let this stand in the way, because our God values all life, and He honors orphan care and adoption. God is the one who told us to do this, and He’s not going to let some dollar amount stand in our way.

Our goal is ambitious: to do this adoption debt-free. In addition to being the most budget-conscious people on the planet for the next while (no offense if we don’t go out to dinner with you, we got a kid to get home), we also plan on doing lots of fundraisers. FUN fundraisers. Funraisers? We don’t want to sit here and ask for hand-outs, but rather we hope to provide ways that benefit both us and you! Birmingham Craft Night will be a big one, my cupcake/cake orders will completely be going to the adoption fund. I also do substitute teaching here in Shelby County, we have a really awesome t-shirt in the works, and we are planning a huge multi-family garage sale with the help of our friends at House Peace. There are some great grants out there, and who knows what else? There was a point in time that M. Night Shyamalan had a grant for US families pursuing Ind!a adoptions, but I don’t think that exists anymore. Too bad, because I’d love to tell our kiddo that a super awesome director helped bring him/her home!

Please stay tuned to this blog and follow us on social media for the ways you can get involved if you want to!

So what can I do?
Pray for us. Love us. Encourage us. There will be times during this process that we will struggle hard. We will have roadblocks that will discourage us and try to break us. There will be times that it will feel like it’s taking so frustratingly long to get our child home, knowing that we are helpless over here in our comfy house will our child rocks herself to sleep in an orphanage an entire world away. After we have our referral (which is when we are matched and see his/her face), it will be months before we meet him/her. I can’t imagine what I would do if someone took Evie away from us for months, and I can’t help but feel that this will give me the same gut-wrenching feeling. This child is no less our son or daughter than Evie after all! After we are all home together, the process of bonding as a family will be tough. Nothing can be done in any point of this process without prayers, love, and encouragement.

And please pray for our child. A LOT. That s/he is being loved, held, fed, taken care of. If s/he hasn’t been born yet, please pray that the birth will be safe. Please pray for the birth parents who will not experience the joy of seeing him/her grow up. Adoption is an amazing way of showing God’s love, but it’s not natural. It’s not how families were meant to be. (That is a whole blog post on its own.)

Also, if you feel like you are led to support us in bringing our child to his/her forever home, there are so many ways. Donating items to our garage sale, buying a fundraising t-shirt from us, ordering some cupcakes from Malinda, babysit Evie while we work through our mountain of paperwork, sponsoring a fundraising event…like, whatever. We’re open to whatever blessings people want to bless us with, and are appreciative and humble beyond words!

What’s next?
Our application is submitted and approved (if you’ve ever adopted before, you know that’s a milestone in its own right), and now we come up with $2640 and start to put our dossier together. A dossier is a huge file of paperwork regarding every detail of our lives: fingerprints, birth certificates, marriage license, result of our home studies, etc., which then ships to Ind!a for translation and approval. There are three agencies in Ind!a who will either approve us or reject us, so please pray with us that not only will this process go quickly, but that it will also just…go. It’s terrifying to think “what if someone over there just stamps a ‘NO!’ across our application?” so please be praying specifically for those people in India who hold the fate of our family in their hands. (Also, this is about the most simplified I can make this. It’s way more complicated than this.)

Also, we’ll be hitting up fundraising pretty hard here pretty soon. But again, we hope this will be a lot of fun, a great way to expand our community, bring awareness to adoption and orphan advocacy, and more. Got a donation to make to our garage sale? Let us know, we’ll come get it from you!

Thank you all for taking the time to read a little more about us and our family…our growing family! And thank you for the love, prayers, and support we already feel around us. We couldn’t have made it through these last 2 years of parenthood without the love our people, and there’s no way we’ll be able to make it through this process without you either.

-Zack, Malinda, and Evie June Nichols