Pamela Renken has five sons: one long ago sent to heaven and another, married with children and residing in Granite City. The remaining three, born half a world away in Zambia, today share the Edwardsville residence of her and husband Seth Renken.
As yet another Mothers Day approaches, she said shes at peace with the passing of her firstborn, Joshua, and blessed beyond belief by the addition of her Zambian sons -- sons she is sure she would not now have, had it not been for her earlier loss.
If Joshua hadnt died, we wouldnt have had that void to fill.
During his long illness before Joshuas death at just 2-1/2, Renken said the couple had promised each other not to spend the rest of their lives wallowing in grief and self-pity.
We said, Out of this tragedy, were going to make something positive happen.
They strived to give to others in need to put their own situation in perspective as they raised their other biological son Steven.
It was not until Steven was in high school that their first Zambian son Richard entered the picture and, several years after that, Richards biological brothers Peter and Charles.
Even today, Renken shakes her head in amazement at how her expanded family came about.
Things like this dont happen out of the blue - adopting kids from Zambia. It was a God thing.
A boy in need
Strong in their Baptist faith, the Renkens are regulars at worship services. However, they missed one service that featured a performance by the Zambian A Cappella Boys Choir. It was later learned that boys in the group, sponsored by a Christian non-profit organization in Texas, had been lied to and mistreated. Fellow church members, family and friends alike talked at length about the youngsters plight.
They had been promised an education and money sent back to their families in Zambia, but none of that had happened. They were essentially modern-day slaves.
The INS had stepped in. Host families had been found for some of the boys, but the others faced deportation. They learned that one boy without a host family was going to be deported the very next day. So the Renkens made a split-second decision. A brief phone conversation later, they agreed, sight unseen, to give the teenage Richard a home.
Here we were with just one child in this big house, recalled Renken, gesturing to her large, two-story home. After talking to him, I immediately knew he was my son.
They soon also established regular contact with Richards impoverished Zambian family, including his parents and five siblings. (They continue to phone or Skype at least weekly.) Rather than replacing his biological family, the Renkens believed they just extended that family.
Weve always co-parented -- even if it was a half a world away.
Richards biological mother and father gave permission for them to adopt him, not so he would get his citizenship but because we love him.
Another tragedy and an escape
It was during those contacts with Richards family back in Zambia that they found out his younger sister had died of tuberculosis due to the living conditions and lack of medical care. It was then that the Renkens became very concerned for the health and safety of his other two younger siblings, Peter and Charles, and offered to adopt them as well. Getting through all the red tape to make this happen, however, took time - almost two years.
Peter and Charles, then 12 and 9, settled in well, with one of their biggest adjustments being to local food - both the abundance and the variety, including junk food.
A success story times three
Renkens Zambian sons have all been with her now more than a decade.
But it seems like they have always been here, and theyve all done well.
Peter, who is now in college, definitely acts the most American, probably because he went to an American public junior high and high school, she said, describing him also as very social and a jokester yet very tender-hearted.
Richard, who earned his GED online, is quiet and meticulous. Hes now a custodian at Washington University.
The youngest, Charles, already a budding soccer star when he arrived, has traveled extensively abroad with professional soccer teams but took the current season off to go to Zambia with the Renkens a few months ago.
Joined by love
This trip was the first time Renken had actually met the boys biological family in Zambia but far from the first time she had felt a special connection with them.
Reflecting on life now with adopted sons Richard, Peter and Charles, Renken stated simply, Theyre just my children. It was meant to be. And she said she knows their Zambian mom feels the same way about her son Steven.
Were just one big blended family.