Becoming One Family
Edmond residents Ashley and Wiley Cunningham were a long way from home. Standing in an Ethiopian courtroom on a hot summer day in 2007, Ashley’s attention was divided between the judges whose ruling would alter the Cunningham’s lives forever and the broken, sobbing woman across the room from her. Ashley crossed the room and stopped the woman’s tears. With a promise.
In 2006 the Cunninghams, a family’s family if ever there was one, received devastating news. Having future children was a biological impossibility. Wanting desperately to add siblings to their already impressive brood of six, the Cunninghams turned to adoption to grow their family. More specifically, they turned to adopting foreign children – those with the greatest need and the least opportunities.
Their first foray into the tangled, bureaucratic world of foreign adoption was taxing, but the payoff was tremendous. The next member of the Cunningham family was a beautiful baby girl, Gabrielle. “The moment we saw her, we knew this was our baby girl,” says Ashley.
The Cunningham family has a lot of love to go around, and they had no intention of stopping there. They geared up to do battle with the mountains of adoption paperwork they knew so well and started searching for new family members.
To their surprise, their next children came to them.
“In June of 2007 I received an e-mail about five siblings in Ethiopia,” says Ashley, “There was a nationwide call out to adoption agencies to find a way to keep them together. There was a picture attached, and when I opened it, I just knew these were our children.”
Wiley was wary. “I wasn’t sure,” he says, “I thought we’d have possibly one or two more, but this was unexpected. As a family, everyone came together and discussed the changes we’d have to make. We decided this was the best thing to do and we made the leap of faith.”
Within weeks Ashley and Wiley found themselves on a flight to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The long flight gave them time to contemplate their latest surprise. “On the Friday before we left,” says Ashley, “we got a call telling us
there were six siblings, not five.”
The Cunninghams found themselves in an Ethiopian court to face the first legal challenge to the adoption. “The courts stated they didn’t want us to adopt,” says Wiley, “There’s a law stating that you can’t adopt more than three children, but you also can’t break up a sibling group. Something had to give.”
The second, unexpected legal challenge was more complex. In Ethiopia birth records are, at best, spotty. And Ethiopian law grants adulthood at fifteen years of age. The age of the sixth sibling, in the care of his aunt, was undetermined and the law gave the aunt the power to deny his adoption.
After lengthy legal wrangling, the court conceded on the first issue. The Cunninghams were free to adopt the first five siblings. But it took more than any court could offer to make the adoption of the sixth a reality. It took a promise from the heart.
“The courts gave us their blessing,” says Ashley, “and the poor aunt was there, knowing it was best for the kids but still feeling the pain. I looked her in the eyes and, through the interpreter, assured her that these children would learn in a university. They would become something great. She broke down. Somebody literally had to hold her up. But I promised this would happen.”
The solemn promise won over the aunt, and the Cunninghams made the return flight to Oklahoma with six new family members.
The Cunninghams are now one very big, happy family, but half of them are still overcoming culture shock. The family’s six Ethiopian members are adjusting quickly to America, but still find wonder in things most Americans take for granted.
“When they first got here, they had never seen a washing machine, used an electric toothbrush or tasted ketchup,” says Wiley, “Everything was a first. Sometimes in the middle of the night I’d hear one of them upstairs flushing the toilet just because it amazed them.”
Feeding a family this size is a challenge. An average dinner might be four chickens, dozens of rolls, 15 twice-baked potatoes and a large salad. “Each day we go through a gallon milk, at least one loaf of bread and countless bananas and grapes. Fortunately, there’s Sam’s. We’re there quite often,” laughs Ashley.
Recalling a recent trip to McDonald’s, Wiley says, “We ordered nine Happy Meals and 15 hamburgers from the dollar menu. It was $56 for lunch and all that was left were the wrappers. Not only do the kids now live like Americans, they eat like them, too.”
All six children love American schools and all are learning English at rocket-like speeds. They’re not so crazy about homework, but every page of it is a small step toward keeping the promise that Ashley made to their aunt. It’s a promise the Cunninghams will never stop striving to fulfill. It’s a promise that kept one family together and made a larger one a reality.