From Loss to Love - Zambian sons a blessing from Edwardsville mom

May 9, 2014 

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 Mother’s Day approaches, she said she’s 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 hadn’t died, we wouldn’t have had that void to fill.”

During his long illness before Joshua’s 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, we’re 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, Richard’s biological brothers Peter and Charles.

Even today, Renken shakes her head in amazement at how her expanded family came about.

“Things like this don’t 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 Richard’s 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.

“We’ve always co-parented -- even if it was a half a world away.”

Richard’s 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 Richard’s 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

Renken’s Zambian sons have all been with her now more than a decade.

“But it seems like they have always been here, and they’ve 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. He’s 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, “They’re just my children. It was meant to be.” And she said she knows their Zambian mom feels the same way about her son Steven.

“We’re just one big blended family.”

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