STERLING – “Elmo! Elmo!” shouts a curly-haired toddler.
Wearing a big smile and Elmo pajamas, Lena runs to the television and dances to a favorite “Sesame Street” song. Meanwhile, her bouncy baby sister, Lily, giggles and plays with toys on the floor.
Their mother, Melanie Reis, 30, of Sterling, never imagined such a scene in her living room.
After battling ovarian disease, failed fertility treatments, a dead-end domestic adoption journey, and a painful miscarriage, Melanie’s dreams finally came true.
She and her husband, Jeff, 31, are the parents of a little Ethiopian princess and a miracle baby.
‘The worst look he had ever seen’
Melanie suffers from polycystic ovary syndrome and endometriosis. She and Jeff always wanted a family but struggled to conceive. And their efforts to adopt within the United States led nowhere.
When Melanie finally became pregnant in November 2011, the couple were overjoyed – until a devastating appointment knocked the wind out of them.
The ultrasound technician listened for the baby’s heartbeat. No thumping. No more life inside Melanie.
“Jeff was with me,” she said, “and he said that was the worst look he had ever seen on my face. He was like, ‘I don’t ever want to see that again.’”
‘Glitch after glitch’
Although heartbroken, Jeff and Melanie never stopped hoping for a family.
On Christmas Day 2011, they received a special gift – online information about an Ethiopian orphan in need of a loving home. The infant’s name was Elsa, but orphanage workers called her “Medanit” after one of the nannies.
Melanie had dreamed of adopting from Africa. The previous summer, she had gone on a mission trip to Ethiopia and Rwanda to care for orphans. She and Jeff quickly applied for the adoption. When the agency approved, Jeff summed up his reaction simply – “excited.”
“We’ve waited so long,” he said.
With support from friends and family, Jeff and Melanie hosted fundraisers to help cover the whopping $40,000 needed for legal fees, travel expenses and other costs. They climbed mountains of paperwork, and muddled through payment problems, miscommunication with the agency, and other challenges.
“Glitch after glitch, it seemed like,” Melanie said.
Jeff and Melanie chose the name “Lena” and started decorating her nursery. Little did the couple know, they would need an extra crib.
‘Are you pregnant?’
On Mother’s Day 2012, Melanie’s stomach began to churn. She decided to take a pregnancy test. The result? Positive.
Melanie was shocked. Fearing another letdown, she kept the news from everyone – including her husband – and went to a clinic for verification.
When the clinic called Melanie to report good news, Jeff listened, completely dumbfounded.
“He said, ‘Wait a minute. Who are you talking to? Are you pregnant?’” Melanie recalled with a laugh.
Melanie said she spent her first trimester on the couch battling headaches, nausea, and loss of appetite.
“It felt like an eternity,” she said.
The baby tried to make a grand appearance on Christmas Day 2012.
Melanie’s contractions started more than 3 weeks early, while she celebrated with her family in Newton. They rushed her to a hospital in Effingham.
About 10 a.m. Dec. 26, Melanie delivered a beautiful 6-pound, 1-ounce miracle.
They named her “Lillian,” and call her “Lily.” That would sound cute with “Lena,” they thought.
‘Thankfully, it all worked out’
With a newborn, Melanie could not fly to Africa to meet Lena and finalize the adoption in the Ethiopian court.
Instead, Jeff took a friend, Scott Whalen, 32, of Sterling, for support and company. Whalen is executive pastor at the couple’s church, Sterling First Church of the Nazarene.
After a long flight that included stops in the Netherlands and Sudan, the men landed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Jeff nervously went to court, hoping he had all the right paperwork.
“Thankfully, it all worked out,” he said.
While her husband and friend navigated this new world, Melanie stayed with her parents, Jack and Nancy Brown, and prayed.
Jeff will never forget seeing his little girl for the first time.
“It was like a dream come true,” he said. “It had been such a long process, and I was so happy to finally meet her. ...The first several times she didn’t want to leave the nannies at the foster home, but by the end of the trip, she was holding her arms out for me.”
After a life-changing week, Jeff said goodbye to Lena.
Two months later, in March 2013, he returned to Ethiopia to bring 1-year-old Lena home. This time, Melanie’s parents watched Lily, and she joined the adventure.
For Melanie, it was love at first sight.
“The first thing out of my mouth was, ‘She’s gorgeous’ or ‘She’s beautiful,’” Melanie said. “I just couldn’t believe it. I just started crying.”
The once-orphan raised her tiny hand to wave “hello,” and Melanie scooped her up.
Lena called them “mama” and “papa” – words that melted their hearts. She became a “daddy’s girl” from Day 1, clinging to him with white knuckles, Melanie said.
The family enjoyed some sightseeing, but spent most of the week in their guest home – just the three of them – to strengthen their bond.
‘We would take the best care of her’
The Reises visited the orphanage where Lena’s biological mother had dropped her off because of economic reasons. She takes care of homes and moves from place to place.
The adoption took much longer than expected because the mother was difficult to track down. Jeff and Melanie met her in a car on the side of a road. Their driver interpreted.
“She was extremely shy, painfully shy,” Melanie said. “She basically just listened to what we had to say and would just nod.”
The couple told her about their jobs – Jeff, a transportation engineer, and Melanie, a teaching aide. Today, she is a stay-at-home mom, but hopes to return to the profession someday.
They also told her that Lena would have a sister.
“We told her, of course, that we would take the best care of her that we could, and that we already loved her,” Melanie said.
Lena’s biological mother kissed Lena. Jeff and Melanie photographed them together.
“We would love for Lena to be able to meet her in the future,” Melanie said.
Exhausted and ill, Lena slept soundly the first night in her new American home. However, the nights that followed were rough. She would fall asleep only when daddy was beside her.
‘We call her Lilly monster’
Soon, the little girl adjusted to her new time zone, home and family. Lena, now 2, was officially adopted in the U.S. She has been home for 10 months. Her baby sister recently turned 1.
The family has already created many memories – swimming, visiting a pumpkin patch, admiring animals at the zoo, celebrating birthdays, and enjoying their first Christmas together, to name a few.
The sisters are inseparable. They love bathing together, playing together, holding hands, laughing, and squealing. Melanie enjoys hearing Lena’s greeting when they wake up.
“Morning, ‘Giggy,’” she says, unable to pronounce “Lily.”
One has chocolate-colored skin and the other ivory, but the sisters are color-blind.
“It’s cool to learn from them,” Melanie said. “They can’t tell the difference.”
Lily is wild, athletic, and always on the go, Melanie said. She loves to throw balls and wrestle with daddy.
“We call her Lilly monster,” Melanie said.
Lena is “artsy-fartsy,” Melanie said, because she loves songs. She dances and shouts, “More, more!” when watching her favorite music videos – especially those with Elmo.
The long, hard road to a family taught Jeff patience, he said.
“We never thought it would take this long to start our family, but it was worth the wait.”
Melanie agreed, remembering sleepless nights and tears.
“I would do it all again.”