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A family trip to Ethiopia allows three adopted children from Gaston to explore their roots

By Taylor Smith, The Oregonian

on June 10, 2013 at 2:30 PM, updated June 10, 2013 at 2:40 PM

The Gottschalk family, (left to right) Addison, 7; Fana, 14; Getnet, 11; Benjamin, 11; Laurie, 37; Holly, 8; and Don, 46, during their three-week trip to Ethiopia in March 2013. The family spent time exploring ancient churches, colorful markets and got to visit places where three of their adopted children, Addison, Fana and Getnet, were born.
Courtesy of the Gottschalk family


Benjamin Gottschalk, 11, steadied the coffee urn as he poured the dark-roasted liquid into porcelain cups. In Ethiopia it’s good luck to drink three cups of coffee, so all seven Gottschalks, ages 7 to 46, drink it, some straight up, others with four teaspoons of sugar.

On the table, a laptop with a PowerPoint of their recent trip to Ethiopia casts a dim glow, pictures documenting their four-week adventure to visit the country from which three of the Gottschalk children were adopted.

“I knew I wanted to have a big family ever since I was a little girl,” Laurie Gottschalk said. Her husband, Don, thought they would have two kids, at the most. He never expected they would have six — one biological son and five adopted children from the U.S., South Korea and Ethiopia.

Don and Laurie were living in California in the late 1990s when they decided to become foster parents. They didn’t intend to adopt, but when one of the foster boys stayed at their house for a while, the route toward adoption became clear.

After moving to Oregon in 2000, they had their son Benjamin a year later. The Gottschalks knew they wanted a girl, too, but complications with their first pregnancy brought them back to adoption.

Researching adoption agencies around the world, they decided to adopt a girl from South Korea. The process took more than two years, but in 2005, Holly arrived.

Addison, a newborn from an orphanage in Ethiopia, wasn’t far behind. She was 8 weeks old when Laurie and Don went to Ethiopia to adopt her in 2006.

Then there were four, but the age gap between the oldest and youngest now seemed too big, so their eyes turned back to Ethiopia where they applied to adopt two more children. They were matched with Fana, 8, and Getnet, 4, biological siblings whose parents had passed away.

Within six months, Don and Laurie’s father were on a plane to Addis Ababa, eager to welcome the newest members of their growing family.

When Don arrived, Fana and Getnet only spoke Tigrinya, their native Ethiopian dialect, and French.

“The first day, all we could do was smile and hug,” Don said. “We had an interpreter with us and we took the kids out into town to do some things they liked to do. We slowly picked up a couple of words in each other’s languages. It wasn’t uncomfortable at all.”

Fana remembers the plane ride to the states, sitting next to Don as he tried to teach her to count in English.

“When he spoke to the flight attendant, I knew he was talking about me and my adoption, but I couldn’t understand the words,” Fana, now 14, said.

While the Gottschalk kids have lived in the states for a majority of their lives, Don and Laurie have made sure to practice traditions from South Korea and Ethiopia at home.

Once a week the Gottschalks cook an Ethiopian meal, usually doro wat, which is a chicken stew seasoned with berbere, a spice made from hot chili peppers, and injera, a spongy flatbread that takes the place of utensils.

But Don and Laurie wanted to take the kids to Ethiopia. For five years, they planned the details, scanning through plane ticket websites to find the best prices, searching for drivers and must-see sites they had to visit.

In March 2013, Don and Laurie, Holly, Addison, Benjamin, Fana and Getnet finally made the trip.

Accompanied by a driver and translator, the Gottschalks saw castles from the 1500s and watched women weave and spin cotton to make clothes for their village.

But sightseeing was only part of the plan; they were there to learn about their family roots.

When the Gottschalks arrived at the orphanage where Addison was born, a colorful one-story building, they met a woman who began crying as soon as she saw Addison. She had been the nurse on staff when Addison was born and was the first one to hold her. They also traveled to Fana and Getnet’s village, Mekelle, only to discover that the dirt road leading to their home was now paved and their house had been torn down.

As they walked around, a girl saw them and shouted to Fana. The two had been childhood friends, and it had been seven years since they last saw each other

The girl brought them to their neighbors, who greeted them with shouts, tears and offers of coffee and food. The translator kept himself busy, explaining to everyone that Fana and Getnet had been adopted and this was their new family.

“It was pretty emotional for Fana because she could remember people,” Don said. “But it was emotions of happiness for them. And it gave me a better feel for how they grew up.”

Don said he and Laurie knew little to nothing about what life had been like for Fana and Getnet as young children. When they visited Mekelle, he was surprised to see the paved roads, sidewalks and so many cars.

“We visited a cultural center dedicated to people who lost their lives in wars I had never heard about before,” Don said. “Fana and Getnet’s people suffered a lot of being put down by other races. They knew people whose fathers went off to war and didn’t come back. This part of their history was eye-opening to me.”

After their travels, the Gottschalks returned to their home in Gaston, a house at the base of the lush Tualatin Valley.

Armed with new treasures like traditional Ethiopian clothes, silver crosses and bags of coffee, they’ve settled back into their normal routine. Fana, Addison, Benjamin and Holly attend classes at Forest Hills Lutheran, and Getnet goes to Gaston Junior-Senior High School, where he plays basketball.

For Don, the best part of having so many children is watching them learn — whether it’s kicking a soccer ball or learning an entirely new language in less than a year.

“But you know what makes me smile the most?” Don said. “When I go wake the girls up in the morning and they smile. It’s their hugs and smiles that I care about the most.”

— Taylor Smith


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