Emotions were both heavy and hopeful for Puyallup residents Emily and Jim Ohlinger as they attended a funeral in Uganda for a mother who passed away after giving birth in September 2013.
The Ohlingers had been living in Uganda for a month, and had moved there with adoption on their minds. When they first held Evelyn Grace at the funeral, they were filled with both grief for the baby girl’s lost mother and hope for her future.
The couple knew in that moment they had to take care of Evelyn. The Ohlingers found their daughter.
“I don’t even think my mind had gotten there yet,” said Emily, 28. “Jim just blurted out, ‘We’ll do it. We’ll take care of her.’”
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Evelyn’s family agreed to allow the Ohlingers to take care of the infant, and for several months, the couple quickly learned what it was like to be parents.
In the months of taking care of Evelyn, the Ohlingers discovered two things. The first was that they were considering officially adopting Evelyn. The second was that they heard Evelyn had a 6-year-old biological brother, Aven James.
“We weren’t sure what to do,” Emily said. “(Adoption) is a long process. But as soon as I met (Aven), I knew.”
We believe children belong in families. We realize we can’t do it all but we feel we’ve been really blessed. We wouldn’t change it. They’re our greatest joy.
In February 2014, the Ohlingers took custody of Aven, and they began to start the journey toward adopting the two siblings. They got a court date in June 2014, and it was in that Uganda courtroom that the Ohlingers found that their adoption story wasn’t over: Aven and Evelyn had a third biological brother, 10-year-old Jensen.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. There’s three! What did I miss? How did I miss this?’” Emily said.
The Ohlingers returned home to Puyallup with their two children, but Jensen was never far from their thoughts.
“As soon as we got home we started the adoption process all over,” Emily said.
Emily became a school nurse at Emerald Ridge High School, where she still works. Jim is a math teacher in Tacoma.
Evelyn and Aven were getting used to their new home. Upon first seeing a hose, Aven picked it up and drank the water straight from it.
“He was so shocked that he could drink the water,” Emily said. “It was just seeing all the firsts. They’re experiencing things so fast.”
While waiting to return to Uganda to gain custody of Jensen, Emily met a boy named Brian where she worked. Brian, now a senior at Emerald Ridge, was in the foster care system. Brian’s social worker asked if the teenager could move in with the Ohlingers, and in September 2015 — one year to the day when the couple brought home Evelyn and Aven — the Ohlinger household welcomed Brian home.
“We just wanted to be a mentor to him, originally,” said Jim, 27. “We don’t know what he went through for 16 years, but he’s my son.”
One of the nannies had to pry this little boy off of me. And the nanny looked at me — and I’ll never forget it — (and) she said, ‘He just wants to be picked up and not be put back down.’ This little boy changed my perspective.
The Ohlingers always had their hearts open to adoption. Emily was 16 years old when she came to understand the realities of many children living in orphanages while she visited Thailand with her father, a pastor at a church in Tacoma.
“(Thailand) was my first experience with an orphanage and understanding what it is,” she said.
While she was there, Emily encountered a 2-year-old boy. She held him for a while, and when she went to set him down, he began screaming and crying.
“One of the nannies had to pry this little boy off of me,” Emily recalled. “And the nanny looked at me — and I’ll never forget it — (and) she said, ‘He just wants to be picked up and not be put back down.’ This little boy changed my perspective.”
Emily returned to Puyallup, and in 2010, graduated nursing school. Before meeting Jim and marrying him in 2011, she traveled to Uganda on another mission trip with her father, where she visited orphanages.
Emily didn’t know it then, but her fifth child, a 6-year-old boy, was there waiting for her. It wasn’t until May 2016 that Emily read a report about that boy, who has special needs. He was found at the age of 3 on the side of the road, unable to sit, stand, talk or walk.
“I just remember thinking that I’m going to (be an) advocate for this child,” Emily said. “A month later I got a second report on him. It said he was not born with any special needs. Rather, he incurred such severe abuse, he now has lifelong issues due to severe abuse.”
The boy is close to being at an age where he can no longer be in the orphanage, added Emily, and that the need for special care is urgent.
The Ohlingers are working to raise money at adoptalovestory.com/family/Ohlinger, and have already raised more than $19,000.
I’m excited to see him be tucked into his own bed and get to wake up and be a part of the family.
“Adoption is expensive,” Emily said. “Our community has been amazing.”
“I’m excited to see him be tucked into his own bed and get to wake up and be a part of the family,” Jim added.
Now, the Ohlingers are waiting to finalize the adoption in the United States and adjusting as a family of six. Evelyn just turned 3 years old.
“We’ve had (Evelyn) since she was 10 days old,” Emily said. “It was crazy to see her grow. She can keep up with her brothers.”
The Ohlingers consider one day moving back to Uganda, and feel it’s important that their children are connected to their birth place. Adoption is still a possibility, too.
“We believe children belong in families,” Emily said. “We realize we can’t do it all but we feel we’ve been really blessed. We wouldn’t change it. They’re our greatest joy.”