Adopting an Older Child: The Gill Family’s Adoption Journey, Part 1

“When I first saw Howie’s picture, I was captivated by his sweet face,” Lisa Gill told us. “And even more so after reading a paragraph about him and how he wanted to have a family. I kept looking at other children, but I was really drawn to Hao Han.”

Scott and Lisa Gill recently celebrated thirty years of marriage. Scott works in sales here at Real Wood Floors and Lisa works in fund development for a nonprofit organization. In 2017, they adopted from China a twelve-year-old boy, Hao Han, whom they call Howie.

“You do feel like if you choose him, you’re saying no to all those other kids.” Scott commented. “It’s tough. Not to get too mystical, but both our hearts were drawn to Howie, and we prayed about it together.”

The Gills have six biological children from the oldest Jordan, an army captain, to the youngest Joshua, a senior in high school. Three years ago they could foresee when their sixth child Joshua would go out on his own and they’d be empty-nesters. But despite how wonderful that other life might be, they knew they had to say yes to Hao Han.

It was a family decision.

Scott and Lisa made the adoption decision a family decision. When they started thinking about adopting Hao Han, they had two kids, Sarah and Joshua, at home.

“We talked about the adoption as an entire family,” Scott said, “and especially with Sarah and Joshua because we knew it would impact their lives more than any of the other kids. We talked about it and prayed about it as a family and really wanted them to be all-in because we knew that introducing another child would change the family dynamic.”

The Gills also talked about the adoption with their four older children who embraced the idea immediately. Even though the older siblings were no longer living at home, they really made an effort to bond with Howie.

Their second oldest son Jeremi felt lucky to get some special bonding time with Howie because of a life change. After Jeremi graduated from college in New York City, he took a job there but moved back to West Plains for a year, in large part to connect with Howie as an older brother. Scott joked that he and Lisa left the birds-and-bees talk up to Jeremi.

Hao Han (Howie): An older child.

Left to right: Josh, Scott, Howie, and Lisa

When the Gills adopted Howie, he was thirteen years old, almost fourteen. He was about to “age out” and not be eligible for adoption.

When Lisa and Scott first started talking about adoption, they were clear they wanted an older child since they were older parents with mostly grown kids. Their youngest Joshua is just six months older than Howie.

“We had raised four boys, so were more comfortable than most with an older child,” Lisa said. “We wanted to adopt an older boy because they are the least adopted.” The Gills knew Howie’s future would have been a question mark without them because he might get sent to an institution.

Since Howie was nearly fourteen, they knew they had to move quickly.

Following the normal litany of paperwork, interviews and preparation, Scott and Lisa were ready. Three of the Gill children, Jordan, Sarah, and Joshua journeyed with Scott and Lisa to China to meet Hao Han and bring him home. The family felt it important for Howie to connect with some of his siblings as soon as possible.

While in China the Gills visited Howie’s “finding place.” When Howie was just four, a woman discovered the small boy crying on her doorstep at midnight. She took him in, fed him, let him sleep, and the following morning she walked him down to the police station. That same day, little Hao Han was sent to an orphanage. During their China visit, the Gill family also met Howie’s foster mother who kept Howie on the weekends, and this created a deeper, quicker connection for the Gill children with Hao Han.

Early challenges.

With Howie at the Great Wall of China.

“When we met Howie in China, finished the adoption process and spent our two weeks there with him, we thought, ‘Hey, this is pretty easy,’” Lisa shared with us. “And now we giggle. In China you’re at a nice hotel, you’re eating good food and doing fun things. We’re pretty sure it felt like a vacation for Howie, and it was easy for him. Most people around him looked like him and spoke his language, but then suddenly he lands in West Plains.”

Since Howie didn’t know any English and the Gills’ Chinese was limited, his first questions were through Google Translate.

Why is there nobody here who looks like me?

Why are there no tall buildings?

Where are the police?

These were tough questions to answer, and the language barrier was a challenge.

The Gills joke that Scott’s first attempts at “I am your father,” sounded very much like the famous Star Wars line, “Luuuuke, I am your faaather.”

Early on, the Gills would ask Howie in Chinese, “What would you like to eat?”, and he would proceed to answer in Chinese for the next two minutes. So they asked him to speak simple and concise words to Google Translate, and they did the same.

About a month after Howie’s arrival, the Gills learned that a local high school teacher Lara Strong spoke Mandarin, so they invited her over for a visit.

“That was a huge breakthrough,” Lisa said. “Howie was able to speak to someone who understood what he was saying, who culturally got him.”

“Lara became a cultural guide for him,” Scott chimed in. “She could unpack things he was feeling in the context of what was going on around him. She helped us understand what he was going through emotionally. It was hard for him to express what he felt, like frustrations. It was good for him to be able to express his thoughts and feelings to someone in his native language.”

Not only that, the Gills learned that Lara was also an excellent cook. She graciously made authentic Chinese dishes for Howie and the whole Gill family.

Lara continues to tutor Howie and cook occasional meals for the family. Because of this experience with her, Howie remains fluent in Mandarin, and his English improves every day.

Later challenges, including those with an older adoptive child.

For new or potential adoptive parents, the unknown can be daunting—especially when adopting an older child.

The Gills met these challenges head-on.

One typical challenge when adopting older children is their feelings of frustration. They can project those frustrations on to their parents or even siblings. “For Howie, sometimes he would say unkind things to us,” Lisa said. “I remember he got angry with us while fishing once, but these types of frustrations with experience and language or living in a new place dissipated after about five months.” That is sometimes the case in other households as well.

No matter the age of the child, the Gills commented that you have to be prepared with your finances. You can expect to pay around thirty-five to forty thousand dollars for an overseas adoption. That covers a list of fees and expenses such as: agency fees, in-country medical fees, government fees, travel and lodging for anywhere from 2-6 weeks, home study costs, in-country fees, and immigration fees.

The Gills submitted dozens of grant requests to various organizations, and many of them came through. One of the most prized grants came from Real Wood Floors. Scott said, “The Real Wood Floors grant served as a bridge to get over that economic chasm we faced. It also made us feel like someone else is with us in this. We have a partner who is going to walk through this process with us.” The Gills had put back some money, so when the time came, they were able to meet the financial barrier.

Many Chinese children, no matter the age, might have disabilities. Howie has some executive function issues. He had a learning disability that was diagnosed in China, but the agency did not disclose that to the Gills. But they had a hunch since he attended a school composed mainly of children with disabilities.

When the Gills served as missionaries in Bulgaria, their children attended school, and they watched how quickly their kids learned the language. They knew that Howie was certainly older than their kids in Bulgarian schools, but they noticed that Howie did not pick up on the language very quickly, signaling that he possibly had a learning disability. With no appropriate testing facilities in West Plains, and since the International Clinic in St. Louis did not test children after the age of eleven, the Gills had to come up with a plan. They kept researching and in St. Louis, they found an educational specialist who identified issues that the Gills were able to take to the educators at the high school to improve Howie’s chances for success.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

In most of our adoption stories, the journey isn’t simple, so we like to use two blog entries to fully highlight the process. Check back soon to read Part 2 of the Gills’ story and to learn about the ripple effect of adoption in the Gill family, Howie’s part in making a stronger family and his adventure in photographing nature.

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