‘Incredible journey’ leads Cambodian orphans to new local home
Jerri Israel Olson and Geoffrey Olson gained an instant family when they adopted two orphaned Cambodian babies last December.
“It’s been an incredible journey,” explained Jerri Olson, as she cuddled her daughter Sequoia and son Charles in the living room of their Glenwood Springs home.
Sequoia just turned 7 months old and “Chaz man,” as they affectionately call Charles, is about 21 months old.
For the children, the adoption gives them a family and a chance at a new life in the United States.
Chaz was abandoned as an infant, and Cambodian orphanage workers didn’t know his exact age. The Olsons have yet to pick a date to celebrate his birthday.
Sequoia’s birth father died of malaria before she was born, and her mother died in childbirth.
Jerri, a counselor at Glenwood Springs High School, and Geoffrey, a rafting guide for the Blue Sky Adventures, began inquiring about adoption in May 2001. They were referred to Littlest Angels International adoption agency, which works with two Cambodian orphanages.
By November, the couple had received approval from the state of Colorado, the Cambodian government and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Not long after that, they were sent two small photos of Sequoia and Chaz.
Once they saw the pictures, they knew it would be impossible to say no to the adorable babies.
But the Cambodian government would not let infants leave the country until they were 3 months old. Since then, Cambodian adoptions have been restricted and must go through agencies in Bangkok, Thailand.
The Olsons were among the last families to adopt babies directly from Cambodia.
The process went so fast, the Olsons scrambled to find baby materials.
“I went into Wal-Mart and I didn’t know what size diapers to get,” said Jerri, because she had very little information about the babies.
On Dec. 7, Jerri and Geoffrey, along with their parents Emmett and D.J. Zerr of Glenwood Springs and Robert and Janet Olson of Houston, flew from Denver to Cambodia to meet their new family members.
They arrived in Phnom Penh after an almost 30-hour trip and met with six other couples that were adopting children.
The next day, the nervous couple drove to the orphanage. Jerri described it as a nice building, but without electricity. “It was clean, but there were chickens running around,” she said.
Each child was nurtured by their own nanny at the orphanage, usually a teenage girl who was also an orphan. But the country is poor and healthy nourishment was hard to get, so the babies were underweight.
Their first glimpse of Sequoia was of a “little dark-skinned baby with these great big eyes.” said Jerri. Soon after that, Chaz was delivered into their arms. Their new family was complete.
The following day, the Olsons met with the U.S. embassy, and the children received medical clearance and got their visas.
Then the family went through a Giving and Receiving Ceremony, a special ceremony where the children were officially handed over from the Cambodian orphanage to the Olsons. It was a deeply moving ceremony that, for the Olsons, signified the birth of their children.
The rest of the week the extended family spent shopping and traveling.
“It was so much fun, controlled chaos,” said Jerri, of the streets filled with rickshaws, heavily loaded mopeds, cars and no traffic lights.
At first the Olsons were concerned about how Cambodians would react to Americans adopting their children. They discovered that people were happy to see the children adopted.
“They are such a beautiful people,” said Jerri.
Back at home now, pictures of their trip were spread out on their coffee table, a Cambodian flag hung on the wall, and souvenirs from their trip were all around the house and in the nursery.
“We want to incorporate as much of their culture as we can,” said Jerri.
“They’ll grow up as Americans” said Geoffrey, but the couple said that they hoped to visit Cambodia when the kids were older.
“It’s been overwhelming, but a beautiful experience,” said Jerri.
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