“You may want to sit down for this.” This was the caveat my friend, Julia Tipton, used before revealing to others the adventure on which she and her husband Tracy were about to embark. The news was certainly unexpected and astonishing, but for those of us who know Julia, it was amazingly true to her nature, and as it turns out, to Tracy’s.
I’ve known Julia for over 30 years, meeting her fairly soon after Mr. Smith and I moved to northeast Indiana in 1988. We belonged to the same philanthropic organization, I took an exercise class she taught at the local Y, and we trained together for my one, and only, 5K race. She has devoted her life to public education starting out as an elementary teacher, progressing to instructional facilitator for curriculum, to principal of an elementary school. In 2019, Julia left public education when she was hired as the executive director of the new Community Learning Center in the town where she lives, helping to build a non-profit from the ground up.
Julia and her husband Tracy met when they were in the eighth grade. They dated off and on through high school and college, eventually marrying in 1985. They filled their home with three active offspring, providing them with a safe space to grow and flourish. With the daunting task of parenting three children and successfully launching them into the world behind them, they were just beginning to truly relax into their “empty nest”, enjoying their adult children and their newfound freedom.
The Sunday before Christmas 2018, they were walking into church when they ran into a friend who works for Hand in Hand International Adoptions. She shared she had just made a trip to Wisconsin to retrieve two children from an adoption situation which had turned dreadful. Knowing how connected the Tiptons are in the area, she asked if they knew anyone who might be looking to adopt. To say Julia was surprised when Tracy responded “Yes, us”, is an understatement.
The two children who were brought back from Wisconsin, Jethro and Dorothy, are from the Philippines. They share the same mother but have different fathers. Neither knew their father and they primarily lived with their maternal grandmother.
The children’s odyssey began one morning when Jethro was 9 and Dorothy was 5. In what must have been a painful decision, their grandmother had them pack a bag and took them on a boat to Manila. Once they arrived in Manila, Grandma walked them into Social Services and left them there. Social Services took them to an orphanage and the two had no subsequent contact with their mother or grandmother.
During their years at the orphanage, they hung onto the dream of finding their “forever family.” They thought that had happened when a couple from South Carolina chose them as the children they wanted to adopt. Along with apprehension, there was excitement and hope as they boarded the plane to South Carolina. After a month there, the parents decided it wasn’t going to work out. I cannot imagine what Jethro and Dorothy were thinking and feeling when they boarded their flight back to Manila.
They returned to the private, non-profit child caring home they were at before the trip to South Carolina, somehow hanging onto the faith that life was going to work out ok. Eventually they were chosen for adoption by a second couple, this time from Wisconsin. Once again, they boarded a plane and flew off to meet their forever family. They lived with their prospective parents for over six months which ended shockingly with the mother’s suicide. It was at this point, Julia and Tracy’s friend went to rescue the children from this tragic situation.
Tracy had often brought up the idea of fostering children during their marriage, but Julia so totally immersed in the public education system, felt she was “fostering” all day and was not drawn to the idea. But faced with the plight of these two children, now teenagers, who had endured so much in their short lives, Julia and Tracy talked. What followed were hours upon hours of soul searching and a couple of sleepless nights. The situation was critical and they didn’t have months to make a decision. They brought their adult children in for a family discussion to get their insights and perspectives. Then they came to a decision. They would open their home and their hearts to these two orphans who had known so much disappointment in their lives and try to provide them with an environment in which to heal.
With the decision made, the adoption agency began the process of their investigation. Before they knew it, Tracy and Julia received a phone call telling them they had been approved and the kids could move in to their home. The first order of business was to decide where Jethro and Dorothy would go to school. They were looking at three possibilities: the district Julia worked in, the district where their son teaches which is smaller and more rural, or the local district where they would be living, increasing the possibility of nearby friends and activities. The choice soon became crystal clear.
While meeting with the guidance counselor at the local district, a small miracle occurred. Many tears were shed that day when they met a student currently attending the school who had been with Jethro and Dorothy at the very same orphanage in Manila. Later Dorothy shared her journal with Julia, showing her photos from the orphanage of Jethro, Dorothy and the student. The serendipity of this still makes me misty eyed.
Happily, the children’s adoption was finalized on March 21, 2019.
Julia is the first to admit there have been challenges.
“It is hard and I think it should be hard. Nothing this big should be easy.”
They have spent the past two years learning each other and building trust, as well as adjusting to cultural differences. Through the bumps and hiccups along the way, Tracy and Julia have marveled at the resiliency of these two children who have endured so much disappointment over the years. Dorothy and Jethro are very close, but very different, each having their own particular needs. Jethro will graduate from high school this year. He goes to school half days and is employed through the Interdisciplinary Cooperative Education Program the other half. He opened his first bank account and is learning to handle money. He plays guitar and is happy to entertain, singing and dancing. At age 20, Jethro is looking forward to graduation and hoping to get his own apartment and try life on his own.
Currently 16, Dorothy is more reserved than her brother, but has found a niche in soccer and tennis. She’s never experienced the support of close friendships with other girls her age, and Tracy and Julia are thrilled to watch her grow more independent and form relationships. Having grown up in a family of all girls, Julia has often said her sisters are her rocks and she hopes Dorothy will develop a similar support system of her own.
In addition to bringing her and Tracy even closer, this experience has made abundantly clear something they knew all along. Humans have the innate ability to grow to love, nurture and protect another human being, whether you gave birth to that person or not. Yet after speaking with Julia about their experience, I was still left wondering exactly what made them say yes. What was the deciding factor? I believe the seed was always there in Tracy. His nature is such that he feels most content with kids in the house and people to care for. And as for my beautiful friend Julia, much like young Owen in John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, I believe all her life experiences were preparing her for this moment.
In flipping through Julia’s Facebook feed looking for information to help me tell her story, I came across something she posted as encouragement to others. “You are capable of amazing things.” Julia and Tracy were 57 when they stepped out of their comfort zone to save two children and nearly 60 when the adoption was finalized. At an age when many people are regularly checking their retirement clocks, they are attending high school sporting events, making sure homework is done and providing a safe environment for two young people to heal. At any age, that’s a pretty amazing thing.
C’est la vie.