November 2, 2020

​For Their Son Across the World

Traveling thousands of miles to make their family complete.

Wilona Karimabadi

YouTube, for all its criticism, is an educational powerhouse. I have learned to prepare all kinds of recipes, researched topics I’ve been interested in, learned proper form for new exercises, and have been brought to tears by wedding, reunion, and adoption videos. And it was through that last genre that I stumbled upon Korean Family Adventures.

The page, run by David Kim and his wife, Esther, chronicles their journey of adopting their youngest child, Levi, from Korea. The family is based in the Atlanta, Georgia, area. The parents have been married for seven years. Their two older children are biological. Seth is 5. Ezra and Levi are turning 3 and 2, respectively, this month. David is a family practice physician, and Esther is an acupuncturist currently focusing on being a stay-at-home mom.

In the adoption community, “Gotcha Days” are as significant as birthdays. These are the days that adoptive parents take official custody of their children, and Levi’s Gotcha Day video was a definite tearjerker. The Kims, who immigrated to the United States from Korea as children, were drawn to international adoption from Korea for obvious reasons—language and cultural barriers would not exist, making Levi’s adaptation to his new family a little bit easier.

If you’ve ever watched a Gotcha Day video, it tugs at your heartstrings to witness an international adoption in which children leave all that is familiar to them to go with a new family they can’t communicate with. But the tears really come when you witness how quickly love transforms everything.

Taking the Plunge

With two biological children, what led the Kims to adoption at all? “I was open to it because the Bible often talks about how, as followers of Jesus, we need to be helping widows and orphans,” says David. “That phrase comes up often throughout the Scriptures. That was always in the back of my mind, and so when attending Christian conferences that would feature adoption stories, I thought, You know, if an opportunity ever arises, I’m open to it.”

Esther felt the call to adoption from childhood. An elderly neighbor, who was Adventist, became separated from her husband and children in South Korea when the Demilitarized Zone split Korea in two in 1953. The woman then made it her life’s mission to care for orphans, and Esther deeply internalized her influence. In college, a student missionary opportunity in South Korea cemented her desire to one day become an adoptive mother. So when David and Esther got serious in their dating relationship and the topic of potential adoption came up, both were on the same page.

“We had absolutely no idea our YouTube video would get so many viewers,” says Esther. We thought several hundred at most, but 250,000 views?

They began the process—which can sometimes take years, especially if international—when Seth was a toddler. With all the paperwork filed and hope filling their hearts, they went through both a setback and blessing. Esther became pregnant with Ezra, and the couple was unaware that the adoption process would come to a screeching halt in that situation. Advised to start again only when Ezra was at least a year old, the Kims found themselves back at the starting line, but with a sweet new baby to love and care for. They applied again when Ezra was one month old, and a year and half later they were matched to Levi.

Levi was given up when he was a few days old. In Korea these babies are cared for in the nurseries of the three main international adoption agencies. Once matched, Levi was placed in the care of a foster family who loved him dearly. In the international adoption community, Korean adoptions are considered the gold standard. Complete social, mental, and physical health records are meticulously kept, along with a thorough documentation of every facet of the baby’s growth. All these records are provided to adoptive parents, giving them a more complete picture of their child. This alone can make the process of acclimating to a new member of the family easier than most.

But adoption, for all its beauty, is still very challenging. For the Kims, a worldwide pandemic was thrown into the mix. To adopt from Korea, parents have to make two trips. The first is to meet the child and establish some familiarity in a short amount of time; and to file requisite paperwork in court. Levi warmed up to David and Esther cautiously but quickly on that first trip. One month later the Kims headed back to pick up their little boy and bring him home. “On that first trip the pandemic was just starting. It was peaking in China and had just started to come into Korea,” says David. “But one month later, when we were about to fly out, it was full-blown. So we were very apprehensive.” Esther’s parents had arrived to watch Seth and Ezra while their parents were gone. And according to Esther, they advised them to put the adoption on hold.

But the Kims would not leave a member of their family in another country without them. To them, Levi was just as much their child as Seth and Ezra. So postponing was out of the question. With news of the virus and country and flight bans changing daily, they decided to get in and out of Korea within 48 hours.

The Kims Grow by One

There is no adequate way to describe the scene when Levi left his foster mother to go with David and Esther. Honestly, you just need to watch their YouTube channel to see. After many tears, the tiny boy, who quickly bonded with David first, was with his forever family now. On the long flight back to Atlanta, Levi slept most of the way (a blessing all traveling parents of small children hope for).

Once home, Seth and Ezra were happy to meet their new baby brother, who toddled around surveying his new home, new toys to play with, and two new big brothers to run after. Life as a family of five had begun.

The Kims were prepared for many of the behavioral challenges that would arise during Levi’s transition to his new life with them. But there was something that took them by surprise. “The grieving process,” says Esther. “Those first several weeks he must have been waking up 50 times, crying.” Grieving is a process that comes in stages—even for little ones—and it was no different with Levi. “One of the grieving stages is anger,” says Esther. “So, before, it would be a bawling cry, heart-wrenching. But now it’s just angry screaming. Then he’ll wake up, but two minutes later fall back asleep.” As any parent knows, a sleepless night with a crying child affects the whole family—especially as the Kim boys sleep Korean-style, with a mattress on the floor for all three of them.48-1.jpg

Another challenge was Levi’s grief manifesting itself in the form of overeating. “So, like, 50 times a day he’d keep asking for food. I think it was emotional eating, but I thought, Physiologically, there is no way he could put that much food in that little body, but he did it.” With two other growing boys, having the kitchen open 24 hours of the day was a bit much for Esther. The solution came just recently: three meals a day with no snacks. The boys eat their fill and go on with their day—including Levi, who is adapting.

It wasn’t too long after arriving home from Korea that the pandemic started moving quickly throughout the United States. As cases began to climb in the Atlanta area, David quickly went on the front line, administering COVID-19 tests to patients of his practice. Because of his close proximity to the virus, the family made the decision for Esther and the boys to move to her parents’ farm in Tennessee to limit the risk of exposure. That was a difficult separation for everyone; it added to Levi’s grieving
process because of his special bond with David.

How Love Steps In

One thing Levi took to immediately was the family’s morning and evening worship times. When David plays guitar, the boys love to sing along to songs from Sabbath School. “He loves music. From the very first worship time, we saw him just get up and immediately start dancing,” says David of Levi. The family also eats a plant-based diet, and though Levi was not vegetarian in Korea, he transitioned seamlessly to the way the Kims do meals—with plenty of fruits and vegetables and typical Korean dishes.

The decision to adopt is a special calling. “So you have to understand the negatives and the behavioral issues that come along with adoption and be willing to patiently work through those with God,” says David.

“That’s one of the reasons we started our YouTube channel, because people don’t hear about that,” adds Esther. “It is very important for us to be transparent about our challenges so that people have real expectations that this is not a fairy tale like, ‘Oh, you’re a good Christian couple bringing a kid and living happily ever after.’ It’s not like that, you know. There’s so much that goes into it.”

Like any mother who spends 14-hour days chasing small children around unassisted, Esther sometimes reaches her limit. Her reliance on the Lord provides her strength. “The verse about being adopted by God—I pray about that verse a lot,” says Esther. “I say, ‘God, You adopted us as sinners. We were not very pleasing to your sight. So give me Your eyes. Give me Your hands. You know what I’m going through.’ Some days it feels like it’s getting better; then the next day we’re going downhill again. It’s very challenging.”

“But overall we have seen improvements in Levi’s behavior,” adds David.

Seth is a kindergartner doing school online, like so many kids right now. Ezra and Levi, who honestly could be mistaken for twins since they are so close in age, have a typical brotherly relationship—they can’t live with each other sometimes, but they need each other most of the time. When one is not in view, the other is always asking for him. Levi has also quickly learned the faith of his family. Esther sets three alarms on her phone daily, and when they go off, she and the boys stop what they are doing to pray for each other and for Daddy David at work. It’s something Levi readily participates in.

The journey of adoption—with all its highs and lows—resonates with many people around the world. But many videos only show the carefully curated moments of joy. The Kims wanted to document all of it to give an honest view of the process. And it has struck a chord with adoptive families, as well as those nowhere near that life situation.

“We had absolutely no idea our YouTube video would get so many viewers,” says Esther. “We thought several hundred at most, but 250,000 views? We were also very surprised at how people reached out to us asking about our Friday [welcoming the Sabbath] ritual and people asking about Sabbath and our faith. We would like to continue using this platform as long as God allows us to share about our faith. Our YouTube analytics show us a surprising age range and countries [from where people] watch us such as Saudi Arabia and a lot of European countries. We want to share the importance of our faith in our family values to show how God needs to be the center, especially for our young viewers as they think about their own futures.”*

* If you are a Korean-American Adventist or just an Adventist family interested in Korean adoption, please reach out to the Kims via private message on Instagram @Korean_Family_Adventures. To watch their stories, go to YouTube and search the same name.

Wilona Karimabadi is an assistant editor of Adventist Review.