For an American couple to adopt internationally, the average cost for legal fees, visas, passports, medical care, and travel to bring that child to his or her new home is $40,000. The process often involves years of red tape and heartache, with no certainty about or control over the outcome.
When you look at all the obstacles for a young couple of modest means, it seems like a long shot. An expensive gamble. A crazy and impossible idea.
But if you’re looking at the obstacles, you’re missing the point.
Nikki (Burleson ‘09) and Logan Bahler ‘08 first considered international adoption when they were newlyweds. They heard a preacher speak about the need in many places where war, famine, and disease had swelled the population of children without homes, families, and basic necessities. “We thought then it might be something we would consider...someday,” said Nikki.
They tucked the thought away as they settled into careers--Logan in advertising and graphic design, Nikki in photography. They were very involved in the church that Nikki’s parents, Dale and Geneva Burleson, started in Clear Lake, Iowa, where they made their home. The Bahler’s main ministry focus was youth. A few years later their daughter, Olive, arrived.
The seed planted years before started to germinate when Nikki’s brother, Sam Burleson ‘04 and his wife Laura, became involved in foster care and eventually adopted three children--one from Iowa and two from Democratic Republic of Congo. Their international adoption process was long and challenging: Laura and Sam became the legal parents of their African children in July 2013 and received U.S. visas for them in February 2014. However, the DRC suspended issuing exit permits--the final piece of paperwork needed--for political reasons. Their family was in limbo for two years before the political situation was resolved and they were able to bring Kahilu (6) and Kema (7) home.
Walking through that emotional time with their family was eye opening. “We started to feel called to international adoption, too,” said Nikki. “We did not enter into it thinking it was going to be easy. We saw how hard it could be. But we still felt that this was the road we were supposed to travel.”
Logan was initially reluctant for reasons of practicality. “I knew it was something God wanted me to do, but I was scared of the cost,” he said. His heart was convicted as he was driving to work one morning listening to an audio Bible. When he heard James 1:27, he pulled over, tears in his eyes. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
He texted Nikki: “Ok, let’s do it.”
She didn’t have to ask what he meant.
“It’s been just crazy how God has taken care of the money,” said Logan in retrospect. They started the adoption process in 2014 with a fundraiser garage sale with donated items. People in their small town would come to shop, then return with donations of things to sell as well as money. At the conclusion of that event, they had $9,000.
“I feel like God was just showing off,” said Logan. “We were just blown away.” It was an important reminder: “God is in control of this thing. What’s money to him?” he said.
The first agency the Bahlers worked with was in Tanzania. Within a few weeks they were elated to be matched with a baby boy. “You can completely fall in love with a photograph,” says Nikki.
As they proceeded with the adoption however, they started noticing serious red flags. They suspected corruption. After lots of prayers and tears, they felt they must walk away--a hard decision considering the many months and money they had invested. Still they wondered, what would become of that sweet baby who had captured their hearts?
A few months later, Nikki saw a photo of him and his new mom, a woman from Tanzania. Joy replaced her anxiety. “God in all of his goodness provided a happy ending to that story,” she said.
Undeterred, Nikki and Logan felt they must try again. They worked with the next agency for a year before they saw similar red flags. They walked away a second time. A few weeks later the agency was shut down for child trafficking.
Heartsore, weary and wary, Nikki spent months researching agencies, scouring websites and message boards, and calling directors and adoptive parents. Eventually she connected with a program run out of nearby Marshalltown, Iowa, which supported a Christian children’s home in Central African Republic (CAR). This time all of the pieces fell into place. Within a month they had been matched with their son, Grace, and were on their way to meet him.
A naturally fearful person, Nikki begged everyone she knew to pray for their trip. They were heading into a war ravaged country where tourists were not encouraged to travel due to the grave risks.
Once they arrived in CAR, “There was a moment when our van was surrounded by big men with really big guns,” said Nikki. And yet, “I was never truly afraid there...I could feel the prayers of so many people surrounding us.”
When they met Grace, “it was love at first sight,” said Nikki. Though he was two years old, he was tiny: the 18-month size clothes they had brought for him sagged.
They were able to meet with Grace’s mother, Marie, who was critically ill. “We rehearsed what we would say to her over and over in our minds,” said Nikki. However, when they entered the house and saw her lying on her deathbed, “we just fell on the floor. We had no words.”
Through tears and with the help of an interpreter, they asked Marie if they could raise her son. “We told her that he would always know about her and what she had done for him,” said Nikki.
Marie said yes. She died 10 days later, wrapped in a quilt the Bahlers had given her. They don’t know the cause of death, but they suspect malaria, one of the top killers in that area.
While they were at the children’s home getting to know Grace, the Bahler’s hearts were touched by many of the older boys there. Would they ever find homes, considering so many people are only interested in adopting young children? They revealed to each other that they both felt a calling to adopt one of the older boys as well. “It was not our plan, but sometimes that’s the most beautiful thing,” said Nikki.
The director of the children’s home was the one to tell Jospin, then 11, that the Bahlers would like to adopt him as well. With wisdom beyond his years, Jospin said that he was happy, but that he understood the wait would be long. That was in 2016.
He was not wrong.
Adopting from the CAR is challenging as there is little governmental infrastructure, few medical resources (the boys must have a physical before they are cleared to come to the U.S.), and no American embassy. The family celebrated in July 2018, when Grace and Jospin officially became Bahlers after a tedious series of corrections on required forms for both countries. If all goes according to plan, they may be able to bring their sons home in the spring.
“There are so many things that could still go wrong, but we can’t dwell on it,” Nikki said. “The reality is our boys are being raised in a frightening country.” Twice the Bahlers have received word that militant factions were in nearby villages and that the children would need to go into the bush to hide. Both times, the enemy was turned away at the last moment.
Through everything, the Bahlers say their faith has only grown deeper. “We pray constantly for their safety. We also pray for their souls and their little hearts, and the things that they are seeing,” said Nikki. “When prayer is literally all you can do, if you don't believe that it has power, you are living in a very hopeless place.”
Despite everything, “We have a lot of peace,” she said. “God keeps protecting them. We can’t do anything. We have had to surrender control completely and just trust.”
The Burleson Family: Dale and Geneva Burleson (center front) surrounded by their kids and grandkids. All of the Burleson children and some of their spouses attended York College, including Brian Burleson '90, Kristi '94 and Dana '96 Brant, Calley '02 and Jesse '02 Welch, Samuel Burleson '04, adopted son Gerry Ray '07, and Logan '08 and NIkki Bahler '09. Their granddaughter Mikayla Brant (back row, center) is a freshman at YC this year.
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