Duluthian has passion for adoption abroadTen-year-old Beamlak Keppers and her mom, Bettina Keppers, are returning to Ethiopia in a couple of weeks for the first time since Beamlak was adopted three years ago and came to live in West Duluth.
By: John Lundy, Duluth News Tribune
In a small notebook, 10-year-old Beamlak Keppers has a list she calls “My eating plan.”
The list includes mangoes, papaya, tibs (sautéed or grilled meat), bunna (coffee), sugar cane and injera (flat bread) — taste treats she remembers fondly from her native Ethiopia.
Beamlak — her name means “in God” — has an eating plan because she and her mom, Bettina Keppers, are returning to Ethiopia in a couple of weeks for the first time since Beamlak was adopted three years ago and came to live in West Duluth.
Adopting Beamlak, whom she met in Ethiopia in 2007, was a challenging process, Keppers said.
“It took 18 months of separation and anxiety, and then we were able to be reunited in April of 2009,” she said, during an interview on Saturday.
But the experience helps Keppers empathize with the people she encounters in her job.
“I think it helps me identify with families when I’m working with them, and when they wait maybe longer than expected, to say that I understand,” she said. “I’ve been there. I’ve done that. I’ve known that child and had to wait 18 months to see them again.”
Keppers works for Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota as the agency’s intercountry program representative. As part of her work, Keppers estimates she has placed about 60 children from foreign countries with 50 families in American homes since returning from Ethiopia in late 2007.
Keppers, 29, started developing a passion for serving children in other countries as a seventh-grader in Esko when she was inspired by a teacher in a world-cultures class. “It just piqued my interest, and I wanted to learn more about how other people lived,” she said.
She graduated from the University of Minnesota Duluth with a double major in anthropology and criminology. She arrived in Ethiopia on Jan. 1, 2007, representing a Dutch-based nonprofit as an advocate for children who were not with their birth families.
On weekends and most days after work she volunteered at a government-run children’s home, bringing food, taking kids on field trips to the zoo, and giving them their first taste of swimming.
That’s where she found Beamlak — or maybe it was the other way around.
“We met at the children’s home the first day I volunteered there,” Keppers said. “She was only 5 at the time, but she was more along the lines of a 3-year-old or so. She was attached to my hip from day one.”
Near the end of that year, Lutheran Social Service hired Keppers to create new programs for intercountry adoptions, particularly from Africa. Although everyone else in her department works out of the Twin Cities, Keppers was allowed to work out of Duluth. She had to be in the United States to begin the adoption process for Beamlak.
That process was delayed at the start because Keppers was not yet 25, the minimum age requirement under U.S. immigration law. It was slowed at the end because of court delays in Ethiopia. “It definitely can drive you a little crazy,” Keppers said.
Keppers’ program helps people through the expensive and complex process of intercountry adoption. The cost ranges from $25,000 to as high as $50,000, depending on the country of origin.
It also provides help in dealing with post-adoption issues. Children arriving from other countries can face culture shock that their parents might not expect, Keppers said.
“Their worlds are very, very small,” she said. “Riding in a car can be very scary.”
When Beamlak came to West Duluth, it took her a while to adapt to the idea of dogs as pets and protectors. Dogs in Ethiopia are wild, Keppers said.
“Very wild,” added Beamlak, a quiet girl with a smile that won’t quit.
The intercountry adoption program is licensed to help Minnesotans adopt children from any country. It also can help Americans anywhere adopt children from the countries in which it operates: Burundi, Colombia and the Marshall Islands.
After they pay a personal visit to Ethiopia in June, Bettina and Beamlak Keppers will go on to Burundi. Among other things, Bettina Keppers will deliver donations of items such as infant feeding tubes and bottles to the agency’s partners.
Visiting the countries her program serves helps to keep her work real, Keppers said.
“For me, travel brings to life what I’m doing every day,” she said. “The reason why I’m doing it every day … is to serve the best interests of children whose needs unfortunately cannot be met in their countries of birth.”