A Tri-Cities man’s vision has given 14 orphans from an Ebola-ravaged nation new homes

Excitement was in the air Friday evening as nearly 60 people crowded into the Tri-Cities Airport awaiting a special arrival.

They had spent more than a day tracking the course of their loved ones as they flew from Sierra Leone in west Africa to France then to Seattle and finally Pasco.

And they all wore their anticipation in different ways — a grandmother was near tears, children darted between parents and teens carted signs and balloons.

“I see them. Here they come.”

There was an eruption of chatter, laughter and hugs as some Tri-Cities parents finished a journey that started more than a year ago when they heard about a plan to adopt all of the children from an orphanage in Sierra Leone.

Ralph Perko, who was waiting for his wife, Amanda, and his two new daughters, Naomi, 13, and Amelia, 8.

The Perkos had gone to Sierra Leone a year ago and spent six months supporting the girls’ education while waiting for the government to agree to the adoption.

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Ralph Perko, right, waits with friends and families for his new adopted daughters and other children to arrive from an orphanage in Sierra Leon. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

A hitch in the paperwork had halted the process and Amanda Perko left the Tri-Cities a week ago prepared to stay there for the summer while awaiting word of the girls’ visas.

“Then, just a miraculous change of events on Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy in Sierra Leone told us we could pick up their visas and come home,” Ralph Perko said.

Building a family

The story began with one teen’s church mission to the west African country. Jim and Jill Mailloux’s daughter took the trip in 2016. During her mission, she worked with kids left without parents following the most recent Ebola outbreak.

The epidemic, which began in December 2013 in Guinea, killed more than 11,000 people in three years, mostly in three western African countries.

It was during that mission that the Maillouxes’ daughter met and became friends with a Sierra Leone girl named Esther. When she returned to the United States, they kept talking — this time through letters.

“So we started talking about what can we do, and I’m thinking, ‘Let’s send $100,’” Jim Mailloux said. “So we called a man who was connected with the orphanage, who lives here in the states, and he said, ‘Well, our board just met and we realize that now that the Ebola crisis is over, it’s time to begin to find families for these kids.’”

Esther Mailloux, left, embraces Rachel Rhoden inside the Tri-Cities Airport in Pasco. The girls lived together in a Sierre Leone orphanage for four years. Mailloux arrived in the Tri-Cities before the other children. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

That’s when they decided they would adopt Esther and her little brother and sister. The pastor and his wife were no strangers to adoption. They had three children and adopted four others.

So in April 2017, Jim Mailloux flew to Sierra Leone to visit Esther and her siblings and get approval from their extended family.

When he came home, he had a vision that God was telling him that all 22 children in the orphanage would find their way to homes in the United States.

Just adding family

His vision of bringing this family of children across the world is coming true. Since bringing the children home, families from across the Tri-Cities began reaching out to him.

Naomi Perko, left, and Esther Mailloux, right, watch as Rachel Rhoden smells flowers she received when she arrived at the Tri-Cities Airport in Pasco. Naomi and Rachel arrived from Sierra Leone with other children from the same orphanage in the Ebola-ravage country where Esther also once lived. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

“We knew some of them through church, and then we just started getting people calling us, saying, ‘You don’t know me, but I talked to someone at my church that knows you, and I hear that you are doing something with something in Africa. I want to hear about it,” he said.

With the latest arrivals, 14 of the 19 youngsters still eligible to be adopted have been brought to the United States. The rest will soon make their way to the U.S., Jim Mailloux said. Another family at Friday’s event is in the process of adopting children, as well.

While some of the kids ended up in Wenatchee, Bellingham, Utah and South Carolina, it was important for the children to keep in touch with their roots, Jill Mailloux said.

“With foster and adopted kids, you don’t try to take away more things. You just add people to their lives,” Jim Mailloux said. “So we were trying to see if we could bring the whole orphanage here and just add family.”

Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.