Already parents to four children, Shelly and Hal White thought their family was finished. Little did they know that a little girl with cancer, in a Chinese orphanage 11,000km away, was destined to join their lives.
It all started with their 10-year-old daughter, Ryan Elizabeth, who had become interested in adoption after learning about the orphans of the 2010 Haitian earthquake.
She begged her parents to take in a needy child, but Shelly, 38, and Hal, 41, were put off by the cost of adopting. During the financial crisis the couple had depleted their savings and had been forced to sell their "forever home", a five-bedroom house in Louisville, Kentucky, moving to into a three-bedroom rental instead.
“She would cry at night and I’d say, ‘Honey, we can pray for them,’” Shelly told Today.com. “We said, ‘This is not something we can do right now because it costs a lot of money.’ And she’s like, ‘Here’s my piggy bank. Take it.’”
But Ryan didn’t give up, asking for an adopted sibling instead of gifts at Christmas and Easter. She sold handmade bracelets and eventually raised $450.
The family decided to see what they could do to donate to children in need, finding a Christian website called Show Hope. That’s where they came across a photo of Mya, an orphaned child who had stage 4 cancer in her pelvis.
“I thought she was really cute when I saw her,” Ryan told The Courier-Journal. “When I found out she had cancer, that was what kind of made me want to adopt her.”
The family prayed everyday for the baby girl, but Ryan and her siblings continued their campaign to have her adopted. Soon Shelly felt the same way too.
“I had a mother’s love for her right away,” she said. “I can’t really explain it. I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I couldn’t get her off my heart.”
While the financial issues were never far from her mind, Shelly said it was wise words from her six-year-old that eventually persuaded her.
“My six-year-old said, ‘We have room in our hearts, Mum’. I said, ‘We do. You’re right.’ We were responding with logic and they were responding with love.”
Within days, the family had decided to bring Mya into their home. Their church raised $15,000 of the $25,000 adoption fee, and helped pay for a one-year medical visa. A church elder arranged for a local hospital to provide free treatment.
And Mya would need it. Diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, cancer of the connective tissue, in her pelvis, it was thought Mya wouldn’t last another year without chemotherapy and surgery.
Treatment was delayed after her arrival – the toddler got chicken pox while still in the orphanage – but now 20 months old, she has started her treatment. She will get chemo every two weeks to shrink a tumour protruding from her vagina, and will eventually have surgery. It’s thought the treatment may take around nine months to a year.
Taking an ill child into their home meant that the Whites needed to discuss how they would cope if the worst was to happen. But, as Hal pointed out, “What does it do to our kids if we turn away? We can provide love and we can provide a home, for however long that is.”
For now, though, things are looking up for Mya. The hospital’s director has said he’s very pleased with how the tumour is responding to chemo, and has high hopes for the future.
And how is the toddler fitting in to her new life in America? Shelly says her kids adore Mya and are just so happy she’s with them. Mya’s development has started to pick up pace, and she’s started to walk while holding furniture.
She’s smiling more too. “Now, she always has this face on her,” Ryan said while grinning. “I feel like she’s more happy."
While money is still tight, and the family continues to use donations made by church members to help them raise Mya, they have no doubt they made the right choice in following Ryan’s call to give a hand to children in need.
“Adults can come up with reasons things shouldn’t happen. Ryan helped put our priorities in order,” Hal said.
"We may not be rich by American standards," Shelly said. "But in the grand scheme of things, we are so blessed. We have a family. We have a home. We have so much to share."