Adoption of three African children led a Saukville family to a two-year sojourn in Ethiopia and a commitment to make life better for orphans
With three biological children already in their family, Mark and Bridget Sullivan of Saukville decided to adopt.
A blind referral five years ago led to Eyob from Ethiopia, which sparked two more adoptions, a pending fourth, a world-changing Christian mission and life-changing experiences for every member of the family.
Today, more than 50 children in Ethiopia didn’t become orphans because of the Strong Families Care Center.
Three American children and two adults have added a second home in a country in which they never planned to visit, much less live.
After the Sullivans adopted Eyob, their lives were touched.
“We just felt like orphan prevention was a big need. We weren’t sure how it was going to happen. We just decided to do it,” Mark said.
The colossal endeavor included living in Ethiopia for a time.
Mark first approached the men’s group at Christ Church in Mequon.
“Every single one of them said we knew this was coming,” he said.
The pastor said he had been waiting for this kind of mission, and fundraising and plans got underway within two months.
“The church kind of took us on as a mission family,” Mark said.
“It’s a faith thing,” Bridget said. “Follow where God leads you.”
In the meantime, 7-year-old Eyob and the Sullivans’ more recently adopted children, Abeba, now 18, and Mary, 15, had been adjusting to life in America and getting to know their new siblings, Hailey, 12, Jewel, 10, and Ty, 8.
Abeba and Mary both worked at McDonald’s last summer, though after spending time in her home country Abeba lost the taste for fast food. She likes snacks like crackers, hummus and nuts.
“I still love pizza and lasagna,” she said.
Abeba likes watching “Friends” and Mary likes “Pretty Little Liars.” They both enjoy attending Port Washington High School. Abeba excels in cross country and Mary plays basketball.
Experiencing the Midwest’s most popular precipitation was new for both.
“I actually thought it was salt when I first saw it,” Mary said. “I don’t like cold but I like snow.”
While the new Sullivans adjusted to life in the free world, all the children were given news the family was leaving its Cedarburg home, at least for a short time. Mark and Bridget told the children of plans to live in Ethiopia to start the family center.
“We had two criers in the room that day,” Mark said.
“But we didn’t regret going there because it was a really great experience,” Hailey said.
Gone were family, friends, holidays, American pop culture, food, unlimited running water and reliable electricity. The family spent two years in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, a city bigger and denser than Chicago.
Three of the children, however, were going to see old friends and family, experience their native culture and enjoy familiar foods. Abeba and Mary got to see their brother, Kai, whom the Sullivans are trying to adopt.
“I was excited to go back. It was kind of home,” Abeba said.
“It brought back some memories which was good,” Mary said.
The family of eight lived in a concrete home. Power outages happened daily. The city rationed water. Food lacked variety. Meat was rare, milk was hard to find, and imports like peanut butter were expensive. A common meal was picking up stew with pieces of pita bread.
“We ate a lot of bread, a lot of grains,” Hailey said.
Mark ended up finding a 1996 van called a Toyota HiAce that had 450,000 kilometers on it. Gas costs about the same in Ethiopia as in the U.S., but the van cost $21,000 in the Third World country.
“Most of our supporters didn’t understand. It’s not cheap to live there,” Mark said.
But it was secure, for the most part. Once when the family wasn’t home, an unarmed man broke in, took a shower and walked out naked while holding a computer and his clothes. Mark said the man had committed similar crimes in the area.
The ebola outbreak in Africa was not a threat, though family members back home were worried. The disease was as far from Ethiopoia as New York is from California. Terrorism wasn’t an issue, either.
“Christians and Muslims there live together very nicely,” Mark said. “They get together like brothers and sisters.”
Internet access at 3G speed came courtesy of prepaid scratch-off cards. Access to American TV was limited. The family did catch “Arabs Got Talent” but couldn’t understand what anyone was saying.
Electric bills were prepaid, and if a Friday payment was missed, it was a weekend without power.
Laundry was another issue. Much to Bridget’s chagrin, washers were semi-automatic, meaning they would need to be filled and drained. Clothes were hung to dry.
Ethiopian’s climate includes temperatures in the 70’s for nine months of the year and a three-month rainy season, making drying clothes challenging for those 90 days.
Grocery shopping could include three to four stops as stores would be out of items or without power. Educated residents spoke English. Others did not.
“My biggest adjustment with Ethiopia is everything’s a struggle,” Mark said.
Starting and running the family center wasn’t easy, either. Working with Ethiopians became an education in international business relations. Mark said Ethiopians are about relationships. While Americans hold meetings to address a list of tasks to complete, Ethiopians have to get to know one another for a year before that list would be addressed.
Once, Mark offended someone by sending a business question via email that didn’t start by asking how the person was doing.
“And they don’t like to deliver bad news,” he said.
That leads to issues not being addressed. Mark and Bridget solved most problems by letting the Americans back home discuss the money issues with their Ethiopian friends.
The center, located next to a trash dump poor people dig through to make a living, takes care of children from birth to 4 years old so mothers, on the brink of giving up their children for adoption, may acquire training or look for work.
“We know these moms love their kids just as much as any moms love their kids,” Mark said.
Children’s physical, medical and spiritual needs were met. Along with a partner organization, training on sewing and hairdressing was offered to the mothers. Some landed jobs.
Bridget said the change is obvious.
“You can just see the moms carry themselves differently. They had a different self-confidence,” she said. “You’re working to support your family.”
The Sullivans liked some of the elements of their new lives as well. Though Thanksgiving or its traditional menu doesn’t exist in Ethiopia, the country has more holidays than America. Christmas celebrations include Halloween-like traditions. Children make pictures of flowers and go house to house for money and candy in exchange for their work.
Birthday celebrations for children at the center included popcorn, bananas and cake that is more like bread. Abeba said she liked “seeing them smile.”
For the first year, Bridget home-schooled the children at the center as they were to be part of the ministry. For the stay-at-home mom, it was an even bigger adjustment than laundry.
Mark later landed a job in information technology at an expensive international mission school, and the children attended there the second year.
Like their Ethiopian counterparts, the American-born children made new friends half a world away, often while playing outside.
“I came home with mud on my hands from making mud pottery with dirt,” Jewel said.
Before the Sullivans left for America, friends hosted a traditional meal of chicken. Empty plates were refilled until they couldn’t eat anymore. Much like when the family left America, tears rolled.
“We had to leave our dog. I had to leave all our new friends we made,” Jewel said.
The Sullivans came back last summer and brought back a new perspective on the world.
“It makes you think a lot more about what we have here,” Hailey said. “We’re so blessed with all that we have.”
Mark said he noticed the difference of “how scary it was to go and how unfounded your fears might be.”
Mark left his computer consulting job working from home before he left for Ethiopia. Job interviews via Skype landed him an IT job at Kohl’s Corp., and he since moved on to become IT director at Discovery World.
Bridget is back to being a stay-at-home mom and using higher-tech appliances.
“Laundry’s so easy,” she said with a laugh.
The Sullivans received an email last week saying they are a few months from adopting Kai. Abeba and Mary are excited to reunite with their brother.
Bridget goes back to the center every three months to handle fundraising. Strong Hearts and its 18 employees — the plan was always to train Ethiopians to run it — has held its first graduation and continues today with 45 children, funded by sponsorships and the hard work of a life lesson.
“Follow God where he wants you to go,” Bridget said.
Photo Credit: Sam Arendt