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Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/MCT/Landov

'What heaven looks like'

Roe v. Wade | A mission to rescue HIV-positive orphans started with a painter and a stay-at-home mom. God, they say, took it from there

JOLIET, Ill.-Kiel Twietmeyer embraced his wife Carolyn's vision to adopt their first HIV-positive orphan from Ethiopia, but first they fought. Then he prayed.

They were already convinced to adopt a special-needs child, but then Carolyn learned about three Ethiopian children: a healthy youngster, an HIV-positive middle child, and a teen. She spoke with Kiel, a painter already supporting their seven children. He responded emphatically: "Woman, have you lost your mind?"

She yielded after a day's argument, but he couldn't shake the thought. He encountered constant reminders for two weeks and finally, as he prayed on the drive home from work, he heard a song, This Christmas, with the phrase "father to the fatherless." At home he told his wife, "I think those are our kids."

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The next step was talking it through with their children and forewarning them that they'd have a little less materially. The kids saw it clearly: "Dad, they don't have a family." Seven months later, in July 2007, the Twietmeyers adopted Rachel, Samuel, and Seth with the help of donations totaling $20,000 that covered the adoption expenses.

Instead of stopping there, the first adoption led directly to the next, Selah, their "living, breathing miracle of God." In Ethiopia to bring home her new children, Carolyn encountered a tiny girl diagnosed with AIDS. Over six months, no one even asked about adopting her, so she and Kiel did, the process taking another six months. Returning to Ethiopia for her in July 2008, Carolyn found the child slipping away, weighing just 32 pounds at 11 years old. (A picture shows Carolyn with her thumb and forefinger encircling Selah's tiny upper arm.)

Selah was unable to survive the flight to America without a blood transfusion. No blood was available, but Carolyn was a match, giving the blood that strengthened Selah for the journey. "We couldn't talk to each other, so I just sat with her and held her," Carolyn said. Selah is now a smiling, active teenage girl, softly speaking accented English. The virus is undetectable.

The Twietmeyers' next adoption in May 2010 reunited Selah with her two siblings, Andarge and Sarah, who had been surviving on their own in Ethiopia. They adopted the oldest just in time; in a matter of days Andarge would have been too old and unable to go with his sisters.

The 14th Twietmeyer child is 10-month-old Sofia, born with Down syndrome and currently getting an abundance of attention from a houseful of big brothers and sisters.

The family lives in a large, seven-bedroom house in Chicago's southwest suburbs, with a 15-passenger van and a minivan on the driveway. They've dealt with occasional puzzlement, questions, stares, and even disapproval as their integrated family grew. "Why is it so unusual?" Carolyn wonders: "That's what heaven looks like."

Kiel earned $72,000 last year as a union painter and decorator in Chicago, has a good health insurance policy, and supports his family without any state assistance. They do without some possessions and elaborate vacations, and emphasize having fun as a family. They sometimes make their own soap, shampoo, and lotion. They were readying a family dinner with a main dish of noodles as I closed my notebook and left their cheerful yellow living room.

They point out that many countries "warehouse" orphans, and other orphans are out on their own battling for life, often sick, hungry, and unloved. Both groups desperately need homes. God sets the lonely in families and orphans in homes, Carolyn says, recalling Psalm 68. She notes that some Christians are filling available bedrooms as they catch "a glimpse of the gospel" and remember just how far God went to adopt us. Kiel adds, "If we know who we are in Christ, and what we are empowered to do, we'd realize we're here to fulfill needs."

The Twietmeyers say the lingering social stigma and fear surrounding HIV prevents many of the world's most vulnerable children from finding homes, and causes early, unnecessary deaths. Their "Truth Pandemic" video-projecthopeful.org/get-involved/truth-pandemic-deals with some common concerns. Decades into the fight against AIDS, doctors know that HIV is not spread through common household or playground contact but only through sexual transmission, needles or blood transfusions, and-most commonly for orphaned children-from mother to infant at birth or through breastfeeding.

Carolyn worries that shame associated with the disease too often can cause HIV-positive children to feel unloved, even at churches. She says HIV has never been transmitted in any normal family living situation, and all her children know to get an adult if someone's bleeding. Twice in five years, she's taken out gloves to deal with a significant cut: She says there is no need to live in fear.

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