Jack and Benjamin saw themselves as brothers. Both entered the same Chinese orphanage as infants. Only nine months apart, they shared a room for 10 years. Despite being close, they maintained their individuality: Benjamin outgoing and artistic, whereas Jack is introverted, analytical and conscientious.
At 9 and 10 years old, the probability they’d be adopted before aging out of the orphanage system at 14 diminished. Even less likely was being adopted together since they were not biological siblings.
The boys meet Michael and Elizabeth
A fateful advocacy trip coordinated by Children’s Home Society of Minnesota changed the boys’ lives. Among the volunteers who came on the trip were Michael and Elizabeth O’Leary. “The trip was a fact-finding mission, our chance to see inside an orphanage and experience the culture,” Michael said.
The childhood sweethearts from small-town Iowa often broke with conventions, including the traditional route to a family. “For us, adoption was 100 percent choice,” he said.
On Monday morning of the trip, they were assigned to Jack, two other school-age children and a dedicated interpreter for a week filled with fun and activities. Benjamin was paired with other adults that week. During group outings and unstructured times, Michael and Elizabeth interacted with both boys and learned of their closeness. Both boys were among only four kids who joined Michael and Elizabeth at the G20 Summit opening ceremonies.
“By Wednesday, we knew we wanted to adopt both boys,” they said. “We knew immediately we wanted to make sure they stayed together.”
Molly Rochon, Children’s Home’s China program manager and trip coordinator, suggested they wait until returning home to make any definitive decisions. “I was surprised they felt such a strong draw early on,” she said. “They expressed an authentic certainty that this was right.”
Returning home: the work and the waiting
Michael and Elizabeth returned home, leaving the boys behind who thought they would not see the couple again.
“We couldn’t have any communication with China once we returned home,” Michael said. “It was really tough to go dark. The kids didn’t know what was going on.”
Within a week, Michael and Elizabeth devoted themselves to the required paperwork and training. “The reality is the boys were older and growing up quickly,” Elizabeth said. “It felt unfair to us that the boys would have to wait any longer.”
According to Molly, because of China’s centralized adoption system, adoptions can move quickly, particularly when older children are involved. While nearly nine months passed before the boys learned that Michael and Elizabeth were adopting them, for a process as complex as international adoption,
9-12 months is fairly quick for finalization.
Becoming a family
“It can’t be true!” the boys reacted with disbelief, then giddily poured over a care package introducing them to their life-to-be: photos of extended family and the family dog labeled in Chinese, and maps of the United States and Minnesota. Throughout the summer, the four of them, along with a nanny and translator, bonded via video calls, discussing everyday topics: weekend activities, school subjects and favorite foods.
Michael and Elizabeth completed the adoptions with a return trip to China. Their hearts overflowed at the sound of thunderous footsteps and gleeful squeals as the boys came running to greet them.
In less than a year, the boys have assimilated well into life in Minnesota. They have leaned on each other in school and at home to help navigate unfamiliar language, cultural and social complexities. They speak English proficiently, regularly watch their favorite Chinese TV shows on the internet and dream of their future — Jack as a pilot and Benjamin as a game programmer. The boys, now 11 and 12, once brothers in spirit, have truly become brothers for life.