by Debbie Coleman-Topi
When Brady and Trish Testorff accompanied a group of teenagers to Peru for a mission trip more than a decade ago, they literally prayed to make a difference. Upon returning to their Platte City home, they soon realized the most substantial outcome would be not in the impoverished nation they went to serve, but in their own young family.
The couple returned home only to plan an immediate return trip to the tiny village of Salaverry, this time with plans to adopt two children from the orphanage where they had served. During that first trip, the couple didn't realize how much the tiny village and its more than 50 parent-less children would impact their lives—and how many times they would return. They first traveled to the Latin American country in 2005 in Brady's capacity as youth minister for First Baptist Church in Platte City. But more visits followed.
The couple fell in love with the tiny village near Trujillo, where they volunteered at Hogar de Esperanza (House of Hope). The orphanage served children aged infants through young teens. The Testorffs felt the orphans' sadness as each yearned for adoption.
“They just break your heart with their big brown eyes,” Brady said. “You can't help but want to take them home.” The time in Peru held many life lessons for the 16 teenagers and four adults. The circumstances caused an examination of priorities.
“You can only go on so many mission trips and see all the poverty and realize we don't need all this stuff,” Brady said of the prevalence of consumerism and materialism in America. (The Baptist church again sent Brady and another group of teens to Peru in 2008 and Trish remained home with their children.)
“Little kids are the same all over the world,” he said, referring to their “child-like faith” and desire to belong.
While serving in Peru during both trips, the groups performed manual labor at the orphanage, cleaning and painting, but also spread the word through Biblical dramas performed in the nearby city of Trujillo. The performances drew large crowds and had a big impact.
“They were very powerful,” Brady remembered. “People would hand me their children and ask me to bless them,” he said of the crowd's reaction following each performance.
Brady's time as a youth pastor trained him for his eventual role leading his own church. In 2014, he and Trish launched The Calling Community Church in Platte City. The congregation first met at the Platte City YMCA but soon outgrew the space and moved to the Performing Arts Center at Platte County High School, where today's attendance averages about 150.
Throughout that first trip to Peru, Brady said one Bible verse continued to swirl in his mind, nudging him to adoption. James 1:27 describes true religion as looking after orphans and widows while keeping children from corruption. The verse literally spoke to him.
“We had the space,” Brady remembers thinking and “the room in our lives,” he said.
The plight of the orphans he met was even more real because Brady never knew his biological father. The man had abandoned an older sister, himself and his mother. But Brady's stepfather legally adopted his mother's two children. He remembers wondering, as a child, if his stepfather ever regretted his decision to adopt and why his biological father left.
“He sacrificed a lot to give us a home,” he said. But not knowing why his father had left created “an emptiness in your heart, a nagging question: why didn't he want to be in my life?”
Today as an adoptive parent, his stepfather's actions have taken on new meaning.
“I know now what it's like to take kids in who are not your own and give them a home,” he said. “To love us like we belonged to him.” Brady eventually located a half-sister, who had spent time in and out of foster care due to their father's dysfunction. ”
She told me the truth about him,” he said. “When he was sober he was a great person, but when drunk, not very nice at all.”
Brady still remembers the first time he saw Pau'l, who would later become he and Trish's son. Because all the orphanage's occupants were assigned chores, the nine-year-old was carrying a bag of trash to an outdoor bin when it broke, spilling contents on the floor. He remembers watching the boy meticulously replacing the items in a new bag, carrying out his responsibility without hesitation. The church group later got to know Pau'l while they worked at the orphanage.
When the couple inquired of the orphanage's social worker about adopting Pau'l, they learned he had a then- 11-year-old sister, Yessenia. They decided to add both to their family. The two new children would join their new sisters, Emma, who was then eight and Eliza, six. The couple's life and home was full as the new children also joined Bailee, who was 15 and the result of a previous relationship between Brady and her mother (with whom Brady and Trish shared custody).
Yessenia has her own heartache about being parentless. She remembers watching other children leave the orphanage with their new adoptive parents.
“I kept always thinking 'when is my turn?'” she said. Yessenia was mostly raised by her grandmother while Pau'l stayed with his mother until they were turned over to the orphanage when he was five and she was seven.
Their prayers finally were answered when the Testorffs took them home. Although they were happy to finally find a permanent place, leaving Peru was bittersweet.
"We knew we were leaving family behind,” Yessenia said. Trish and Brady also felt blessed by the experience. Brady said he'd always hoped and dreamed of having a son. “I always joke, 'I had all these girls and I had to get another girl just to get a boy,'” he said.
The adoption process was prolonged and full of legalities, some of which they accomplished during a month-long stay in Peru (Trish stayed three weeks, then returned to Platte City and their other children.) Brad remembered feeling overwhelmed by the tedious, often invasive requirements, which included visits to attorneys and doctors and government offices to obtain Visas and passports for the children. The couple also endured numerous evaluations from psychological analysis of each family member to an examination of their lifestyle and beliefs and a detailed look at finances.
“Things don't ever move near as fast you want them to,” he said, adding that the process was frustrating. But, at the same time, we were getting to know each other.” In addition, the family's newest members were “nervous and scared” about the adjustments ahead. Brady and the family's new children finally arrived in Platte City July 4, 2006.
But the red tape of adoption was only the beginning of the family's adjustment to life with four children (and sometimes five), living under one roof. Pau'l and Yessenia needed time to adjust to a new culture, language and a new lifestyle. The transition was filled with hiccups and hurdles. Brady compared the experience to life with a new baby—the adjustments are endless. “They x-ray your heart and your life,” he said, describing the process as having “unique challenges you can never really be prepared for. It was the hardest thing we've ever done, but it was worth it,” he said.
The extra responsibility was so great that Brady remembered “a time early on when I felt like just giving up.” He said the overwhelming feeling even extended to vanquish his desire to be a preacher. That's when God sent a messenger… Brady was working out at a local YMCA when a stranger, a youth pastor visiting from a neighboring state, approached and said he had a message. He quoted Galatians 6:9 which states not to give up and promised to reap a harvest if the advice was heeded.
“It lit a spark under me that probably saved our family,” Brady remembered. Brady had not shared his struggles with anyone, not even Trish and remembered feeling he felt he couldn't reveal his true feelings. “I was a pastor,” he explained. “I was supposed to have it all together.”
When 21-year-old Yessenia, who was unmarried, got pregnant, the family had to face yet another hurdle. The baby girl, Amelia, who soon will turn three, offered a new incentive. “She came into the world and put all the broken pieces back together” (in Yessinia's life and she and the rest of the family weren't as close as earlier.) “Everyone had to rally for this little girl,” he said, adding that the family had to band together to support Yessenia and her new daughter. “What was a difficult situation turned out beautiful.”
Life again took on a normalcy. As if to celebrate, the family returned recently to the small village on the Peruvian coast. This time, they painted and cleaned at Corazo'n de Esperanza, a home created to house orphans who age out of traditional orphanages but whose families still are unable to support them. During the visit, Pau'l, now 22, and Yessenia, who is 24, got re-acquainted with their birth family.
The reunion spanned generations and included their birth mother who turned over the children to the nearby orphanage when they were five and seven years old. The two are among her 11 children and she was too poor to support them all. They also got re-acquainted with their grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins and even saw childhood friends, some of whom had shared their time at the orphanage.
The country's extreme poverty became evident when the group witnessed a woman in a rural village washing out clothes by hand in a plastic tub. Pau'l said the scene was an example of why he and his sister took up life in America. “We left because of the poverty and health issues,” he said. But, Yessinia said her Peruvian relatives, even her grandmother, (who raised her before she was left at the orphanage), was happy for the two.
Pau'l said that he hoped coming to America also would open doors for his opportunity to further pursue his passion of soccer. “It's emotional because so many kids there have gifts (talents), but they're stuck, (with no means to pursue their abilities)” he said.
Pau'l said it was good for him to see his mother's life was better than when they last visited in 2008. “Ten years ago, my mom could have said, 'I'm happy to live in this mud house,'” he said, adding that his mother now has a fuller life with better health and more money, which he attributes to “better choices.”
Yessenia agreed. “I am more appreciative of my family now,” she said. “They (her birth relatives) are poor but rich in family,” she said.
Pau'l added that their visit to Peru was filled with love and devotion. “They might be poor, but, they love their culture and still like to smile,” he said. “They just gave us (as visitors) everything they have,” he said, adding that the extended family shared the little food that was available, singing to and praying with them. “I think it's really cool we all got to have a meal together,” he said of their time with Peruvian relatives. “Peru will always have a little piece of my heart.”