In 1980, at the age of 14, Rhonda Ballard read a magazine article, and that was all it took to change the trajectory of her life.
The story was about China’s one-child policy – a population-control policy in a culture that favored boys, leading to tens of thousands of baby girls abandoned between the late 1970s and 2015. Today, at nearly 50, Rhonda remembers holding that magazine, staring at a picture of four women holding baby girls, and making up her mind then and there to adopt a baby girl from China when she grew up.
When she met her future husband – Scott, a Marine – she told him about this dream she had carried with her since adolescence. Eight years after their wedding in 1992, they traveled to Hong Kong with a group of more than 30 other adoptive parents to meet their first child. Rhonda recalls riding a bus into the People’s Republic of China, walking into the hotel, hearing babies crying, then spotting their daughter in the crowd of nannies holding babies. Two weeks later, they brought Lindsay home to Virginia. She was 12 months old.
Just two months after Lindsay’s arrival, Rhonda chanced to meet a woman who shared a story of adopting a little boy from Korea. Ready to grow their family, within a year the Ballards had adopted their own little boy from Korea, a five-month-old newborn they named Eric. They were now a happy family of four, following Scott’s career in the Marines from Virginia to Louisiana to Georgia.
It was Scott who first said he wanted another daughter. Soon after, Rhonda traveled to China to meet 15-month-old Kelli Ann for the first time on May 9, 2004, which happened to be Mother’s Day.
Scott left for a 7-month-deployment in Iraq later that summer, and once he was safely back home, Rhonda told him that now that Lindsay had a sister from China, Eric needed a brother from his culture. While working through the process of adopting their next child from Korea, the family was living in Louisiana, where hurricanes were wreaking havoc on their communities and lives.
“We had to evacuate three kids, plus dogs and cats, and we ended up having bigger ones – and then Katrina hit,” she says. “We evacuated up to Georgia, and we stayed there two or three weeks. It was terrible to have to evacuate so many times, and I knew I couldn’t live like that with four kids. So we found a home here in my hometown of Gainesville, Georgia, and we closed on it in January 2006. Brandon arrived from Korea on May 9 – the same ‘gotcha day’ as Kelli Ann.”
Brandon was seven months old, and it was their fourth adoption in six years.
“After that we were pretty settled, but in the back of my mind I kept thinking I really wanted to adopt an older child with special needs,” she says. “So I bugged Scott for about four years, and he kept saying, ‘I have to retire sometime.’ But it kept staying on my mind.”
Through the moves, Rhonda had kept a special box labeled “future daughter,” where she stored little things for the child she dreamed would complete her family. On one trip to China, she had bought five small stuffed animals, and had given one to each of her children. The fifth was waiting inside that box for a child that had yet to come home.
“I didn’t know yet who she was, but I was hoping for her,” she says.
Then it hit Rhonda in church one day in 2010. “Wow, this is what life is really all about,” she remembers. “We have room, we have great insurance through the military. We can do this. So I talked to Scott, and he said OK.”
With her first four adoptions, Rhonda had simply requested an age range and waited to be matched. This time, she filled out a medical needs checklist for different medical conditions they would be willing to accept. And rather than simply waiting, she went online to look at profiles of special needs Chinese children in need of families.
“I ended up torturing myself for about three months,” she remembers. “You see kids with deformities, burns – all kinds of awful problems. You think, ‘They are never going to be adopted.’ It’s heartbreaking. But I was drawn to look. Those kids never look happy, but one little girl was smiling away, with her striped socks on and a shaved head. Her label was spina bifida and scoliosis. That’s a scary label, whether you have one or four other kids.”
A few weeks later, she happened to see that child’s name assigned to an agency in Oregon. And when she saw her smiling face again, Rhonda picked up the phone and learned that everyone else had been too afraid to adopt her. Rhonda and Scott had the file transferred to their own agency, took the information to their pediatrician, and talked it through.
“We said, ‘That’s our daughter,’” Rhonda says. Within a year, Rhonda was on her way back to China to meet the three-year-old they would name Danielle. She was amazed to find a healthy, active little girl.
Her spina bidifa was low on her spinal cord and did not affect her ability to walk or run, and the base of her spine was surgically repaired by a specialist back in the United States. Her spine is being straightened with expandable rods that are adjusted to grow with her.
“They label children as special needs, but once you have the child, that’s your child, so you go to doctor and do what needs to be done,” Rhonda says. “It makes me sad that people look at that label and say, ‘No way.’”
Just like that early picture, Danielle has kept right on smiling. An intelligent and funny child, her big personality keeps her family laughing.
“She came into our family at three years old like she was born with us,” Rhonda says. “She has no special needs. She will live a totally normal life, and she is loved everywhere she goes.”
Rhonda sometimes thinks about what Danielle’s life in China would have been like if she had stayed. Without medical treatment, she likely would have become wheelchair-bound. At 16, she might have been forced out of the orphanage and on her own for the rest of her life, living with the stigma of being abandoned.
While none of her five children know why their birth parents made the choice they did, they know a lot about the cultures they came from. Every year, the family celebrates each child’s birthday and “gotcha day.” There’s a special dinner and cake, and often, they look through baby albums that record both the child’s life in the orphanages and their earliest days as a treasured part of a family.
“I don’t ever want them to forget where they came from, and to know that they do have a birth family in another country,” she says. “Their lives began there, and they had people who loved and cared for them, and wanted something better for them.
Each child has two English names and the Chinese or Korean names that were theirs for their first few months.
“I always tell my kids, ‘Your birth parents would be so proud of you and so happy if they could see you now, playing piano, being in the band, playing soccer, doing well in school, having the life they prayed for for you when they had to leave you,’” Rhonda says.
All five adoptions required time, lots of paperwork, and money that covered necessary services and expenses. But unlike some international adoption horror stories involving bribes and corruption, Rhonda never encountered a single instance of anything inappropriate or uncomfortable.
Today, Lindsay is 16, Eric is 14, Kelli Ann is 13, Brandon is 10, and Danielle is seven.
“We didn’t set out to adopt five kids,” Rhonda laughs. “They’re just happy, regular kids. It’s amazing to think that God allowed this to happen: To match me and my husband with the most wonderful group of kids in the world.”
Rhonda is convinced that being their Mom was God’s plan for her life. “Scott just happened to marry me,” she laughs. But both she and Scott have become advocates for international adoption, and have influenced many others to embrace it and build their own families.
“Once your eyes are opened, it’s hard to turn away,” Rhonda says. “You’re talking about a person’s life here. It’s so worth it.”