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'What heaven looks like'

A mission to rescue HIV-positive orphans started with a painter and a stay-at-home mom. God, they say, took it from there

'What heaven looks like'

(Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/MCT/Landov)

Drew and Lily/Handout photo

JOLIET, Ill.-Kiel Twietmeyer embraced his wife Carolyn's vision to adopt their first HIV-positive orphan from Ethiopia, but first they fought. Then he prayed.

They were already convinced to adopt a special-needs child, but then Carolyn learned about three Ethiopian children: a healthy youngster, an HIV-positive middle child, and a teen. She spoke with Kiel, a painter already supporting their seven children. He responded emphatically: "Woman, have you lost your mind?"

She yielded after a day's argument, but he couldn't shake the thought. He encountered constant reminders for two weeks and finally, as he prayed on the drive home from work, he heard a song, This Christmas, with the phrase "father to the fatherless." At home he told his wife, "I think those are our kids."

The next step was talking it through with their children and forewarning them that they'd have a little less materially. The kids saw it clearly: "Dad, they don't have a family." Seven months later, in July 2007, the Twietmeyers adopted Rachel, Samuel, and Seth with the help of donations totaling $20,000 that covered the adoption expenses.

Instead of stopping there, the first adoption led directly to the next, Selah, their "living, breathing miracle of God." In Ethiopia to bring home her new children, Carolyn encountered a tiny girl diagnosed with AIDS. Over six months, no one even asked about adopting her, so she and Kiel did, the process taking another six months. Returning to Ethiopia for her in July 2008, Carolyn found the child slipping away, weighing just 32 pounds at 11 years old. (A picture shows Carolyn with her thumb and forefinger encircling Selah's tiny upper arm.)

Selah was unable to survive the flight to America without a blood transfusion. No blood was available, but Carolyn was a match, giving the blood that strengthened Selah for the journey. "We couldn't talk to each other, so I just sat with her and held her," Carolyn said. Selah is now a smiling, active teenage girl, softly speaking accented English. The virus is undetectable.

The Twietmeyers' next adoption in May 2010 reunited Selah with her two siblings, Andarge and Sarah, who had been surviving on their own in Ethiopia. They adopted the oldest just in time; in a matter of days Andarge would have been too old and unable to go with his sisters.

The 14th Twietmeyer child is 10-month-old Sofia, born with Down syndrome and currently getting an abundance of attention from a houseful of big brothers and sisters.

The family lives in a large, seven-bedroom house in Chicago's southwest suburbs, with a 15-passenger van and a minivan on the driveway. They've dealt with occasional puzzlement, questions, stares, and even disapproval as their integrated family grew. "Why is it so unusual?" Carolyn wonders: "That's what heaven looks like."

Kiel earned $72,000 last year as a union painter and decorator in Chicago, has a good health insurance policy, and supports his family without any state assistance. They do without some possessions and elaborate vacations, and emphasize having fun as a family. They sometimes make their own soap, shampoo, and lotion. They were readying a family dinner with a main dish of noodles as I closed my notebook and left their cheerful yellow living room.

They point out that many countries "warehouse" orphans, and other orphans are out on their own battling for life, often sick, hungry, and unloved. Both groups desperately need homes. God sets the lonely in families and orphans in homes, Carolyn says, recalling Psalm 68. She notes that some Christians are filling available bedrooms as they catch "a glimpse of the gospel" and remember just how far God went to adopt us. Kiel adds, "If we know who we are in Christ, and what we are empowered to do, we'd realize we're here to fulfill needs."

The Twietmeyers say the lingering social stigma and fear surrounding HIV prevents many of the world's most vulnerable children from finding homes, and causes early, unnecessary deaths. Their "Truth Pandemic" video-projecthopeful.org/get-involved/truth-pandemic-deals with some common concerns. Decades into the fight against AIDS, doctors know that HIV is not spread through common household or playground contact but only through sexual transmission, needles or blood transfusions, and-most commonly for orphaned children-from mother to infant at birth or through breastfeeding.

Carolyn worries that shame associated with the disease too often can cause HIV-positive children to feel unloved, even at churches. She says HIV has never been transmitted in any normal family living situation, and all her children know to get an adult if someone's bleeding. Twice in five years, she's taken out gloves to deal with a significant cut: She says there is no need to live in fear.

With Kiel's support, Carolyn founded a nonprofit enterprise, Project Hopeful, designed to raise awareness of children's needs. Efforts of the family and volunteers have now assisted nearly 300 families and helped HIV-positive children from 15 countries. Project Hopeful publishes a waiting list of children in need of adoption and helps American families look into possibilities.

Project Hopeful also has a Family in the Gap program that connects orphans to foster families and a Hope+ Sisterhood program that is starting by assisting eight HIV-positive mothers and their children within Ethiopia by providing medical care, shelter, clothing, and job training. The goal is to make them self-sufficient in their own country and prevent their children from becoming orphans.

Read articles from past Roe v. Wade issues from our archives.

Miracles

My brother Drew and I are identical twins. We each married a woman named Rebecca Anne. Within months each of us, with our wives, had to make life-or-death decisions concerning our unborn daughters.

The challenge to Drew and his Becca came first. In August 2008, after three hours of ultrasounds and tests, a pediatric cardiologist told them, "Your daughter has a very serious heart defect. She has no right ventricle. She has transposition of the ventricles and aortic stenosis. She's only at 21 weeks. Would you like to terminate the pregnancy?"

Drew and Becca, without looking at each other, both said no. Surprisingly, the doctor smiled and said, "Good, because we are confident that with a series of open heart surgeries, we can repair your daughter's heart." Lily was born Aug. 26, 2008. Two days later Dr. Richard Jonas performed the first of what became three heart surgeries. Lily is now a healthy and happy 3-year-old.

Hospital personnel were not so optimistic at 3 a.m. on Nov. 4, 2008. For several days I had watched my Becca hemorrhage off and on. Doctors told us, "Very large blood clots are forming. All the amniotic fluid is gone. There is a very good chance this pregnancy will have to end today to protect your wife."

Our little girl, whom we had decided to name Charlotte Love, was only gestationally 24 weeks old-still four months from her due date. Doctors gave us staggering odds: They said she would almost certainly have brain damage, blindness, and long-term health problems. Three times hospital personnel suggested that we consider ending the pregnancy.

This was the time Becca and I had to authenticate and validate our belief system or destroy it through our actions. We refused to do anything that could contribute to ending Charlotte's life. We told the doctors and nurses they should work to revive Charlotte should she not be breathing after delivery.

In the morning our wonderful personal doctor walked in, in her scrubs, and asked how we were doing. I replied that we were hanging in there and then asked if the emergency C-section would be in the afternoon. She smiled and said, "No, you have 15 minutes. The operating room is ready. We'll wheel Becca down, you'll get your scrubs on, and we are delivering the baby."

She delivered Charlotte-1 pound, 7 ounces-at 10 a.m. on Nov. 4. Charlotte went into the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Her ups and downs over the next four months included an emergency heart surgery and a bacterial infection. But she never had bleeding on the brain, never needed eye surgery, and never suffered anything that would lead to long-term health or disability issues.

When I look back at what doctors in the middle of the night said would almost certainly happen, Charlotte's health seems nothing less than a miracle. We had no guarantees that Charlotte would live or even be healthy, but we chose life, no matter the consequences. I think about the experience often when I get Charlotte up in the morning, or she climbs on my lap to cuddle, and I know that this all took place for a reason. It certainly showed God's love.

-Ned Ryun lives in Virginia and is president of American Majority

Joel Hannahs

Joel Hannahs