GILLETTE – If you ask Allison Carsrud when, back in 2013, she knew her family would adopt a 7-year-old boy from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she’ll tell you it was instantaneous.
“The minute I laid my eyes on him I knew I was adopting him,” Carsrud said of her son, Danny.
“He was the first little guy off the plane, wearing a little Chicago Bears shirt and a backpack full of clothes from the orphanage,” Carsrud said.
Danny was one of six children from the Congo and another five from the Philippines who were the very first to visit Gillette as a part of the Summer of Hope.
Summer of Hope began in Bozeman, Montana, in the early 2000s, through The Sacred Portion Children’s Outreach. It coordinates with the central adoption authority of the sending countries to obtain permission for the children to come, secures necessary background and medical information, and arranges for passports, visas and travel for the children and their escorts.
Summer of Hope, for the kids in various international orphanages, was like an extended vacation. For the families welcoming the kids in Gillette, Summer of Hope was an opportunity to see if they were up to the challenges that come with any adoption.
The Summer of Hope program boasts a 75-percent success rate.
Over 15 summers, a total of 210 children from Russia, Kazakhstan, Colombia, Ethiopia, the Congo and the Philippines have participated in the programs. Of those children, 155 have been or are in the process of being adopted, according to the organization.
Back in 2013, the Carsruds began bonding with Danny as soon as he arrived.
“He came to us only knowing how to play soccer, so we played soccer in our living room until about two in the morning,” Carsrud said. “Hardly any words were spoken.”
She remembers those early days, watching this little boy adjust to a modern world with wonderment in his eyes.
“They didn’t have running water or electricity in the orphanage,” Carsrud said. “He would stand on the stairs and flip the light switch and stare up in amazement. He just couldn’t believe there were lights.”
Something as seemingly mundane as a trip to the grocery store was anything but for him.
“He loved chicken,” Carsrud said. “He would eat it for breakfast, lunch, dinner. And bread. He would tap on them, like bags of rolls. That was his way to ask if we could buy them. Rolls and chicken.”
The wonderful aspect of Summer of Hope, namely that it gave the children an extended vacation, was also extremely difficult for parents like Carsrud who knew so quickly that they would adopt the child.
“How do you keep these kids for a month and send them back?” she asked rhetorically.
For her family specifically, it became increasingly difficult to think about the day he returned to the Congo.
“He stayed for a month, we sent him back, and then about a month later, we got word from the Congolese government that adoptions were being suspended,” Carsrud said. “There began a battle that was nearly three years — two years, seven or eight months — before we got him back home. It was incredibly brutal.”
Now Danny has been home for years, and he’s thriving in Gillette. Carsrud gushed over his accomplishments as only a mother can.
“He’s a freshman at CCHS,” she said. “He is an amazing, talented athlete, the starting quarterback for the JV and freshman teams. He plays basketball. He’s incredibly intelligent. He was reading at grade level within a year of being home.”
She said he wins these awards in basketball. One was still in her purse, she said. She rummaged to find it.
“People don’t know him and would watch him on the court … and he got this award like the “Warrior Award” for, like, persevering, and the “Sportsman of the Game with a Never Quit Attitude.”
She paused. Just briefly, but in that moment, she thought about all the difficulties and traumas he’d endured in his young life and the long wait to get him home again.
“I’m like, ‘You don’t even know,’” Carsrud said.
Summer of Hope wouldn’t have come to Gillette but for the efforts of Haley Gray. Her family had recently adopted a little boy from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2013, and she couldn’t stop thinking about the continued need for adoption there.
“We were open to adoption, and he was so easy to say yes to,” she said of her son, Jenovic. He was 2 years old at the time.
“But I kept thinking about the older ones, the ones that don’t get the easy yes,” she said.
The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, which tracks international adoptions, has data that goes back to 1999 on its website, and in those two decades, more than 278,000 children have been adopted into the United States from foreign countries. More than 192,900, or almost 70%, of those adoptions were for children 2 years old and younger.
She reached out to The Sacred Portion in Bozeman and asked them all about the Summer of Hope program.
“They were looking to branch off into another community as long as someone would coordinate it,” Gray said.
Within months, Gray had organized Gillette’s first Summer of Hope.
That first summer in 2013, Gillette saw 11 children — six from the Congo and five from the Philippines — and Gray said that 10 were adopted. Of those, six still live in Gillette.
The one child who didn’t get adopted was from the Philippines, Gray said, and she’s still in touch. She said she recently bought him a bike, and for her 40th birthday, her family took a trip to the Philippines, where they met up with him.
In the summer of 2014, there were five children who came to Gillette for the month-long visit. All were from the Philippines, and three of them ended up getting adopted. Gray said one of the three still lives here.
That winter, two more children came, Gray said, and both were adopted.
In 2015, Summer of Hope brought five children to Gillette, and four of them were adopted. Two of them still live in Gillette.
The program took a break in 2016, but it was back in 2017 when four children came through Summer of Hope and three were adopted.
Around 2018, the program began to wane in Gillette, Gray said. Folks in Sheridan wanted to do the same thing, and Gray helped them establish a Summer of Hope of their own and “a bunch more kids found homes.”
Overall, the program’s success rate is startlingly high: 27 children have come to Gillette and 21 of them have been adopted. As of late August, one adoption was still in process due to COVID-19.
The benefits of Summer of Hope extend far beyond the families who host a child and then adopt that same child. There are some families who offer to host who have no intention of adopting but just want the children to have a chance to meet interested families.
Jamillia Petway now lives in Virginia, but when her adopted son, Joseph, came to Gillette in 2014 with Summer of Hope, she lived in North Carolina. She’s never lived in Gillette. She’s never even lived in Wyoming.
Despite the distance, Summer of Hope connected her with her son.
The Petways were no strangers to adoption. They’d done it once before, but that first adoption was done without the benefit of Summer of Hope.
Her family’s experience not only speaks to the benefits offered by Summer of Hope compared to the traditional adoption process, but it also speaks to the broad nature of the program. It’s about more than simply getting a test run before adopting. It is that, sure, but it’s so much more.
“The family that was hosting our son was only interested in advocating for him, not adopting,” Petway said. “That’s when Haley (Gray) started looking outside of the Gillette area to try to find families for some of the children. Because we were in some groups together, that’s how I found out about some of the boys, and my son was one of them.”
Petway met her son through video calls set up by the host family, and though she couldn’t be there in person, she got a lot of the benefits that Summer of Hope provides to adoptive parents.
“It helped answer some of our questions,” Petway said. “Our son did have special needs, and I got to have greater insight. The host family encouraged us, would send us pictures, send us tidbits that they remembered and give us updates. It was kind of like your own personal cheerleaders.”
It was September 2015 when she got to meet her son for the first time. Summer of Hope made certain parts of that easier. Small things that were also massive things just ran a little bit smoother, and for that, she couldn’t be more thankful.
Haley Gray can still remember the very first summer when the children came to Gillette.
“Rico was the first kid to walk through the doors, ever,” Gray said.
Rico Imus, 20, is now a freshman at Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota, after graduating from Thunder Basin High School last year. He’s planning to major in art education and minor in graphic design. He was also recruited to be part of the track team.
He remembers that first summer, too.
“When I stayed with my foster family, for the first day, I could not sleep because I was not used to the big bed because I never had a big soft bed,” Imus said. “I wasn’t used to the AC, the cold temperature in the room, because we never had AC in the Philippines.”
He remembers going fishing, but more importantly, he remembers who he met while fishing.
“When I followed that kid up the bridge, he introduced me to this man and this woman,” Imus said. “I just went to them and said, ‘Oh, hey guys, I have a fish here; you guys can look at it.’ The next thing I knew, I grabbed this woman’s hand.”
It’s safe to say that grab of a stranger’s hand changed his life. With that hand came a future with Cevin and Stacy Imus.
“My mom told me that’s when she realized that it was meant to be to adopt both of us, that we needed a mom and dad who would be willing to support us throughout our life,” Imus said. “That was a great memory to remember. We’d been going to a lot of parks, cookouts, getting together with other people, not realizing that the couple who was planning on adopting us was like 6 feet away from us, not knowing because we were just having fun and going with the flow.”
He remembered the end of his month-long vacation in Gillette; it was hard to leave.
“On my last day staying in the United States, I controlled my emotions because I was trying to not cry before I left,” Imus said. “My foster family cried when we left. Throughout my plane ride back from the U.S. back to the Philippines, I just had my blanket on top of me because I was crying the whole time.”
His summer visit to the U.S. had made an impression on him.
“So when we got home, for some reason, me and my brother felt a bit homesick even though that one-month vacation wasn’t permanent,” Imus said. “As kids we were just embracing the pictures and the albums and the memories and the things my foster family and friends gave me and my brother.”
He remembers being sad once he got back to the Philippines. He and his brother both cried a lot.
But then, suddenly, all of that changed.
“The office in our orphanage only called me to have a meeting,” Imus said. “They talked to me, and said, “Hey Rico, do you remember the one-month vacation? We saw that you had fun, that you made a lot of great memories and a lot of new friends. Good news, there’s a family that wants to adopt you in the same location, and you’ll be leaving this Friday.’”
Reflecting on his years in Wyoming, he remembered small joys, like seeing his first snowfall, and he remembered consequential turning points, like when his parents took him to a junior high basketball game and he met his first track coach who got him into pole vaulting.
Now, he’s a college student, first and foremost, and he sounds like countless others experiencing life away from home for the first time.
“I’ve always thought that I would be so stressed, keeping up with academics plus having a job and doing sports at the same time,” Imus said. “But having my second week here in school, in college, you would think I would miss home and my room, but I do not miss home, for some reason. I actually like my freedom here. Not in a rude way, but I know that I do take care of my academics; I try to pay attention to classes and stuff.
“With my mom and dad not texting me about my grades, not always checking on my Powerschool, since in college, that’s not a thing, I feel better. Not because they don’t have to look at my grades, but I feel better that they trust me that I will be doing my academics and do well at sports at the same time and not cause any trouble.”
The biggest celebrations of the Summer of Hope program don’t come from the memories of Imus’s past, the things left behind. No, the biggest celebrations come from how breathtakingly normal his present sounds and how full of hope his future seems.