Kate Russell’s Full-Circle Story of Adoption
Stories of paying it forward don’t get much bigger than this.
Kate Russell was adopted from an orphanage in Seoul, South Korea, in 1985. And this past summer, she adopted a son from that same orphanage.
Back when Kate was a student at Colby College, she had a chance to spend a summer in Seoul at an orphanage.
“I never felt like I needed to go there to find another family or to go there to find answers as to why I was put up for adoption—because I was happy,” Kate says. “But I wanted to connect with my roots and see the country.”
Once she was there, however, she was curious enough to do some digging. The first surprise was that she had been celebrating her birthday on the wrong day all her life, that she had been surrendered to the orphanage—not born—on January 9. The second surprise was that her birth mother had been 15.
“Domestic adoption isn’t popular in Korea,” Kate says. “There’s still this belief that their children need to be connected to their family by blood. Unwed mothers are often rejected by their families and give up their children anonymously. But those children can never be adopted internationally. I realized that my mother must have given her consent, which meant that she must have revealed who she was. She brought me to a hospital and specified that she wanted me to be adopted by an American family.”
Consumed with gratitude for her birth mother’s selfless act of love, Kate wanted to thank her. But she realized that her mother would then have been 35 and would likely be married and have had another child—or children. She might have a whole family who had no idea that she’d surrendered a 2-day-old infant named Soon-Hee two decades earlier.
Kate made two decisions that summer: To not look for her birth mother. And to come back one day and adopt a child.
In 2011, she married Justin Russell, whom she’d met playing Ultimate Frisbee at Colby. They have two daughters: Bella, who is now 6, and Ivy, who will be 4 next month.
“We always wanted to have biological children,” Kate says. “That was important to me, too, because I’d never had anyone connected to me biologically. But, over the years, South Korea has opened and closed doors to adoption. I was nervous that by the time we were ready to adopt that we wouldn’t be able to.”
In 2019, the Russells contacted an adoption agency based in New York that works with the South Korea orphanage. The Maine Children’s Home for Little Wanderers, based in Waterville, did a home study. Kate studied Korean. And she waited.
“The hardest part was waiting,” Kate says. “After we were matched, we had to wait 9 months to get Harry. It’s not like when you’re pregnant and you know that a baby is coming but you don’t see them. It was from afar. They would send us pictures. You feel like you’re missing a lot of milestones. He took his first step. He said his first word. In Korean.”
All over the world, plans were disrupted by the COVID pandemic, and this family’s story is no exception. Both parents were required to be present for the first court appearance in Seoul, which was originally scheduled for April 2020 and was postponed until June.
“By then Maine had closed the border to people coming in unless they quarantined,” Kate says. “All my family is from out of state. Also, Korea had a quarantine restriction, which meant that if we were going to go to Korea, we were going to have to go for at least a month. We can’t be away from our kids for a month, and our parents can’t come for a month. We thought about taking our girls with us and quarantining in a hotel room for two weeks. We tried applying for passports for them, but the passport office was closed due to COVID.”
Out of other options, the Russells emailed the judge reviewing their case and pleaded that they could send only one parent. Kate could stay home with the girls. Justin could fly to South Korea, quarantine while working remotely, make the court date, wait out the two-week grace period, finalize the adoption, get Harry a visa and a plane ticket, and fly home. In two months, they would be reunited as a family of five.
Luckily, the court granted the exception.
“Korea had an interesting quarantine procedure,” Kate says. “Justin got off the plane and they put him on a bus and brought him to a hotel room, a government facility, for two weeks.”
Three times a day, Justin—who doesn’t speak Korean—would get an announcement to open his door for food. Open the door for any other reason and he could have been deported.
“He was a really good sport about it,” Kate laughs.
Two months later when Kate and the girls met Justin and Harry at Portland International Jetport in July 2020, she was overwhelmed with joy.
“It was surreal and amazing, and we were all really excited,” Kate says. “I was just happy that we were together and that everyone was healthy. The first three weeks, he was really clingy with Justin. But it didn’t last too long.”
When Harry arrived in Maine, he was almost 2. Over the summer, Kate tried to understand what he was saying in Korean—and whether what he was saying was words at all. Sometimes, he called for the foster mother he’d known in South Korea. But before long, he was calling for Bella, his doting big sister. Soon, he was looking at Kate and saying, “Uppy Mommy.”
Because of the circumstances of the pandemic, Kate was Harry’s legal mother before she ever got to hold him. But they are no less bonded. She shares a lot with him—both Korean, both surrendered, both adopted, both American, both deeply loved.
“We’d been matched for almost a year,” she says, “and I’d always felt like his mother.”