COLUMBIA CITY, Ind. – Imagine handing over your baby to a stranger to travel to a foreign country. To have surgery with a doctor you've never met. To live with a family you don't know.
It sounds unimaginable, but that's the decision the parents of five special children were forced to make in hopes of giving them a normal life. This is their incredible journey.
It's a cold morning in Columbia City, Indiana. A difficult morning too.
Jeff and Jamie Newkirk are putting on a brave face.
"You gonna go on an airplane?" Jeff Newkirk asked Abdoul.
"Yeah, yeah," said Abdoul in his sweet, quiet voice.
"And you get to go see your mommy," said Jamie Newkirk.
"Yeah?" said Abdoul.
"Yeah, mommy!" said Jamie.
Today is the day the Newkirks have been working toward and dreading, all at the same time.
It was 22 months ago that little Abdoul arrived in their lives, malnourished and in desperate need of medical care.
Abdoul was born to a 13-year-old mom and of the children nicknamed the "Beaumont Five," he had the most complex problems.
The children were brought to the United States for help by an Indiana-based organization called Ray of Hope Medical Missions. All of their medical care is being donated by Beaumont Hospital, Beaumont surgeon Dr. Kongkrit Chaiyasate and other members of the medical team.
On the morning of Abdoul's first surgery, Chaiyasate was upfront about the challenges.
"We're going to focus on pushing this structure in here inside and close the cleft lip and the cleft pallet," said Chaiyasate. "And you can see, it is very difficult. That's why he is the last kid. It's a difficult one."
But after surgery, the results were incredible.
"The biggest transformation for sure. I cried when I first saw him," said Jamie Newkirk. "He actually has a nose. He did not have a nose. He just had a giant gaping hole in his face basically. He can eat better. He can breathe better."
The host families are at the core of what makes Ray of Hope's mission possible. They are families willing to open their homes, and their hearts, to a child with major medical problems, knowing that someday, they'll have to give them back.
Over the nearly two years Abdoul has spent with the Newkirk family, there have been more surgeries and countless milestones.
"He went from a baby that would just lay there to a baby that crawled then walked, then talked and is happy," Jamie Newkirk said. "He is usually a happy, very happy kid."
His young mother has had a chance to grow too.
"I am happy to say that her and his father are back in school, so they are getting their education which I am thrilled about," said Jamie Newkirk.
Today is the day Abdoul leaves to begin the long journey home.
"There we go. Get those shoe, shoes on. Yeah, shoes on," said Jamie Newkirk.
"I love you. Forever and ever," said Jamie Newkirk. "Kiss. Kiss. Family hug. Family hug. We love you."
A volunteer from Ray of Hope arrives to pick up Abdoul. It's time to go.
"We knew he would be here a while, and you just think that is so far from now," said Jamie Newkirk. "You will have to say goodbye. You do have to pack that trunk. You will see him walk away and that will be the end, and you won't see him again. Love him as much as you can love him."
Abdoul is leaving with his blanket, his favorite stuffed animal "Cuddles," and a whole lot of love.
"Don't forget we love you," said Jamie Newkirk, hugging Abdoul tight. "Can I have a kiss? We're gonna miss you buddy. We're gonna miss you. When you get scared you can hold on to Cuddles and blankie. Have good life in Africa, give me a kiss," said Newkirk.
As the van door closes, Jeff and Jamie Newkirk hug each other tight.
"Bye Abdoul. Bye. I love you. Be a good boy. Be a good boy," said Jamie Newkirk.
As the van drives away with the little boy they love --
"I just gotta keep focusing on his mom and how happy she is going to be that this process is finally over, and that they can get to know their little boy," said Jamie Newkirk. "I didn't have any expectations going into it. I knew it was going to be hard, and it is still going to be hard, but I'm just glad we got to be part of his story, help make him well love on him. I knew there would be tears. How can you not have tears after that long?"
The next day they receive a photo of Adboul at the airport with two other children also heading home.
They're relieved to see he's still clutching Cuddles.
And then the photo they've waited for, Abdoul back in his mother's arms at last.
The host families say that reunion is why they do this, knowing how much the parents have sacrificed to give their children the chance for a better life.
"I hope that he stays healthy there, and he has a chance to make Burkina Faso better," said Jeff Newkirk.
"I can see him doing great things," said Jamie Newkirk.
They will never forget him.
"An Abdoul-sized hole in my heart will be there forever," said Jamie Newkirk.
Ray of Hope Medical Missions operates entirely on donations. Their staff is all volunteer. To donate or to learn more, click here.
So how will the children be received by their villages? How will they adjust to life in rural Africa after so long in the United States?
We'll have an update soon on how the children are doing and why one of them is now back in the United States.