Here's the story of a family named Donahue. It's a familiar tale of a modern-day blended family, with a slight twist. Instead of a husband and wife blending their children from former marriages, three Colombian children joined the American-based Donahues.
The story begins in the early 2000s. A Colombian mother, living in the poor, crime-ridden city of Bucaramanga, puts her three children into foster care to protect them from their abusive father. She literally sneaks the kids out of the house. The kids spent time in three different foster homes over the next few years, usually sharing space with other foster children. Oscar, the eldest, was 8 when he first attended school.
Meanwhile in Pendleton, the Donahues contemplated having a fourth child, preferably a second son to match their two daughters. Already in their early 40s, Paul and Clare Donahue were not prepared to raise a baby, nor did they want to foster an older child that may be taken away from them. Through a conversation with Baker Victory Services, they learned of FANA, the Spanish acronym for the Foundation for the Assistance of Abandoned Children, an orphanage in Bogota, Colombia. Baker Victory Services had an arrangement handle adoptions from FANA in Western New York and Pennsylvania.
After looking at profiles at Baker Victory Services, they found Oscar, Silvia and Cristian. They prayed about doubling their household, then said "yes."
"We knew once we saw Oscar's face. He was our 14-year-old. We knew they were ours," said Clare Donahue. "They fit in like they lived in my house forever, they've been a part of our family forever."
During the summer of 2010, Oscar, Silvia and Cristian flew to America, where they spent three weeks with the Donahues as part of FANA's Summer Magic program.
"They spent three weeks not speaking any English, mind you. That was a little tough on my husband. The kids get off the plane. We meet them for the first time. They meet us for the first time. We have an interpreter who spends probably about an hour and a half with us, then off we go with these three beautiful Colombian children, my daughter starts speaking Spanish to them, which was great," Donahue said.
Daughter Eileen, then 15, took Spanish in high school and kept up with it through work. She interpreted through the three weeks. Clare said that was when they first felt like a family.
"We stayed up all night and watched movies in Spanish. When they flew back to Colombia after three weeks, the news cameras were everywhere. My son finally pushed the camera away and said, 'This is a family moment. Please leave us alone.' That was a tough moment for the Donahue family, for sure."
The very idea of doubling the number of children in the house was shocking for Emily, Matthew and Eileen, all in their mid to late teens at the time.
"I was a 15-year-old girl and my family was adopting a 14-year-old boy. It was pretty scary to think someone so close in age was going to be living in my house and was going to be my brother," related Eileen. "I remember we went to the airport the next day, as soon as I met them, every fear just vanished. Oscar is the gentlest human being on the face of the earth. It's funny how things change as soon as you meet somebody."
The kids all met during Summer Magic, a three-week trial period for families and children to meet.
"It was three weeks of getting to know each other, seeing if you could work out routines, and see if its going to work because they're not babies. They're not as mendable. After 24 hours we all knew it was a perfect match. It seemed like they have been my brothers and sister since forever," said Eileen, who recalled it feel natural to have these new people in their home.
The youngest of the Donahues' biological children, Eileen was the only who know enough Spanish to communicate with her new siblings, so she served as middleman when she could. It has inspired her to teach English as a second language to immigrants.
"I loved being the middleman," she said. "I loved teaching them English. It helped me figure out that I wanted to be an ESL teacher. I couldn't be happier."
Three months later, in October, Paul and Clare flew to Colombia to begin the adoption process. The three younger Donahues flew out a week later. The family, all eight of them, spent 10 days in Colombia, before Paul and the older kids flew back home. Clare stayed with the younger three to deal with paperwork and court appearances and get visas and birth certificates.
On Thanksgiving 2010, the family was reunited in their home.
"I doubled my family in a day," Donahue said, admitting they had to make a big adjustment. "Just getting meals on the table. The Tuesday after Thanksgiving, they began school at Starpoint (in Lockport) and did not speak English. They kind of stuck out the school year really well, but just preparing meals and laundry was a big adjustment. But everybody chipped in. Dinnertime was a major event. Sitting down at the dinner table and my three Colombians wanting to talk all at once and tell us all about their day. Dinner went from half an hour to two hours every night."
It took a while for Oscar, Silvia and Cristian to get used to their new home. Everything was foreign to them, from the language to the food, to the concept of sharing. They also had to adjust to the fact that there was plenty of food. Each kid would take one bite out of their pizza slice to mark it as his or her own.
Now, seven years later, Oscar is a sophomore at St. Bonaventure University. Sylvia is a junior at Starpoint, and a member of the National Honor Society. Cristian is a freshman on the soccer and track teams.
The family attends Good Shepherd Parish in Pendleton, where the children were baptized, possibly for the second time. The Donahues could not find any records of their baptism in Colombia. At his baptism, Oscar asked to change his middle name. He did not want to carry on his birth father's name, so he took on his spiritual father's name, Daniel, after Father Dan Young, pastor of Good Shepherd.
"We believe, but we don't really know, they were Catholic. They do have some memories of going to church at Christmas with their foster family. Every now and again, they would talk about going to church for hours," said Clare.
Paul and Clare now serve on the board of Families of FANA, a support network of over 400 families who have completed or are in the process of completing an adoption through FANA. They provide adoption and educational services to families who have completed or are in the process of adoption. In addition, it promotes a social and cultural connection for families from Western New York, Ontario and Pennsylvania to foster their children's appreciation and understanding of Colombia.
Families that are interested in adopting a Colombian child can contact familiesoffana.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Anne-Marie Dobies, adoption coordinator with Families of FANA WNY, will take them through the pre-application process to make sure they meet the Colombian adoption guidelines. Then, she will set up a homestudy and link them to an agency that will handle paperwork.
"The whole goal is to link a child with a family, not a family with a child. The child's needs are what we need to match first. Then find families that can help support and love that child with the needs they have," Dobies explained.
The FANA orphanage has been running for 45 years. Over 300 families in Western New York area have adopted from this one orphanage.