Five-year-old Joseph was near death when his mother Agnes brought him to an orphanage near their home in western Uganda. Both were HIV-positive and severely malnourished.
Dying of AIDS caused by HIV, his mother had sought out the home, Manna Rescue Home, to care for the two of her seven children that were HIV-positive: Joseph and his older sister, Joselyn, now 13.
Joselyn had been able to sustain reasonable health, while Joseph suffered a distended belly, a terrible cough and after a while, no longer responded to medication. Treatment was stopped; he was given last rites and a call was put out: “Someone, adopt him quick.”
That call reached Jess and Ben Wiederholt in Arvada, who had been considering adopting a second child with HIV, after adopting a young Ethiopian boy, Abiti, about a year and a half earlier in October 2011. An estimated 3.2 million children worldwide were living with HIV in 2013, most in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Health Organization. The majority acquired the disease from their infected mothers during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding.
“Joseph could die tomorrow, or a year or two from now,” Jess Wiederholt was told.
“I’m a person that leads with my heart,” she said. “No, we weren’t ready, but God was ready.”
They needed to raise $30,000, and quickly. In addition to Joseph’s urgent medical needs, the adoption courts in Uganda were closing for the year in July.
“OK God, if we’re supposed to do this, we’ll get there,” became their motto.
The family—Jess, Ben, their three biological children: Samuel, Luke and Abe, now 10, 8 and 5; and their new brother Abiti, now 8—had garage sales, sold T-shirts, made Lenten sacrifices and reached out to their parish community at Spirit of Christ in Arvada. The stewardship committee supported them with $5,000.
“Spirit of Christ is a very giving parish,” Jess said. “We were blown away. We felt so surrounded by our community. It was something so much bigger than us—it was so beautiful.”
The seemingly impossible was becoming a reality: they raised the funds needed, then jumped on a plane with high hopes but no actual court date. Five weeks later, the adoption process for Joseph and Joselyn was complete.
One day, while still in Uganda, Jess was praying for Agnes with the children when Joselyn asked: “Mom, why don’t you pray for Lillian?”
“Who’s Lillian?” Jess asked.
Lillian, now 11, is Joselyn’s younger sister. She had been left with the girls’ father about two years earlier, though he was unable to care for her.
“I really want to say goodbye,” Joselyn pleaded.
They spent five hours driving and hiking through remote mountain areas looking for Lillian. They finally found her, in dire conditions, living with another family member—her head was shaved, she was malnourished and unknowingly suffering with malaria.
“All Jos did was cry,” Jess said. “They were only together for 10 minutes. There were no words. There was only grief. I didn’t expect it.”
They uttered their goodbyes and Jess and Joselyn started their journey back, hearts broken over Lillian.
Jess called Ben, back in Arvada, taking care of the other children.
“Can we adopt her?” Ben asked.
“I don’t know. I’ll find out,” she said, thrilled that he had asked.
Following a complex process of permissions, approvals and legalities, in September 2013, they received confirmation they could adopt Lillian. Spirit of Christ Parish provided additional support of $10,000.
“I’ve never seen Joselyn so happy,” Jess said. “God needed them to be together.”
The entire family traveled to Africa to bring Lillian home last June. The Wiederholts grew from a family of five to a family of nine in just three years. Their new additions are learning the culture and language—plus subjects such as math, history, reading and religion—along with their siblings, through home-schooling.
At this point, under the care of their parents and Denver doctors, HIV is “undetectable” in Abiti, Joseph and Joselyn.
“They’re on the right meds and the right nutrition,” their mother said, “and the right love and prayer.”
HIV treatments have significantly changed the course of the infection since the early days of the epidemic, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. With daily medication, regular monitoring and lifestyle changes it can be manageable as a chronic disease.
“So many people still have a 1980s idea regarding what HIV is, what it means,” Jess said. “We want to help end that fear and stigma for our children.”
In the U.S., HIV is spread mainly by sex with someone with HIV, sharing drug equipment such as needles, or at birth from an infected mother, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Wiederholts share their experience regularly and encourage people to respond when called to adoption, no matter the circumstances.
“If called, you have to listen,” Jess advised. “Our kids were already waiting for us. It was just a matter of us finding them.”
November is National Adoption Awareness Month.