North Oaks residents Pat and Randy Benham didn’t plan on adopting a child when they went to hear a presentation on China at the University of Minnesota in 1995.
At that time, news on abandoned babies in China due to the country’s one-child policy (replaced in 2016 with a policy allowing two children per couple) was just starting to emerge. Since traditional Chinese culture at that time preferred sons, many baby girls were being abandoned, even though it was also against the law to abandon children. So many children were being abandoned that they were dying in orphanages without enough care. The speaker said American couples could save the children’s lives through adoption.
After Pat and Randy heard about the conditions of the baby girls in orphanages, they drove, speechless, to go out to eat.
“I sat down, and my husband was sitting across from me and he said, ‘Well, you know we are going to do it,’” Pat remembered. “It was just clear at that point that we had a daughter in China,” she added.
But the Benhams had an obstacle — they already had four children and China was looking for adoptive couples that did not already have any children. They pressed through and found an adoption agency that would work with them, Crossroads, if they would consider adopting a child with special needs. The Benhams learned that “special needs” in China didn’t mean what it meant in the U.S.
“The kinds of special needs they are usually talking about are cleft palates or clubfeet,” Pat said. “We just said, ‘Well, we can deal with that.’” The Benhams prepared their paperwork and in 1996 received a photo of a 4-month-old girl who would be their daughter. She had been left outside a children’s hospital with a note that included the day she was born — Pat’s birthday, according to the lunar calendar.
It took four more months to pull everything together and pick up Alexandria SuShi in January 1997.
“It’s just this incredible experience of somebody putting this baby in your arms and just all of a sudden you know this is your child,” Pat remembered. Bringing home a baby while in their late 40s was unexpected, but a call they felt was from God, she said.
They brought Alex home to her four older siblings, ages 10 through 16, who all wanted to help take care of her. The three oldest children visited China later that year to better understand where their sister was born. The family’s worldview expanded. Chiara, 13, took a particular interest in China and began studying Chinese. She studied abroad in China during her junior year of high school, received a master’s degree in Asian studies and worked in China for four years.
‘We could be her family’
Pat didn’t plan on adopting another child when she traveled to China with her friend Mary, who was adopting a second child, a daughter.
They also planned to bring greetings from Crossroads Adoption Services to the China Center for Adoption Affairs (CCAA) in Beijing, bring a commemorative plaque to a remote orphanage where money had been donated to build a playground, and visit a child they had sponsored for surgery to repair a clubfoot so he could walk and potentially be a candidate for adoption.
When Pat met one of the adoption officials at CCAA, she asked him what the hardest part of the adoption process is for him. He said it was when prospective parents request to adopt a pre-identified child — a specific child they saw or met at a Chinese orphanage. This was rare occurrence, since visitors were not usually allowed into orphanages.
Pat and Mary continued their journey. “While we are at the orphanage, I see this little girl — believe me, I am not thinking about adoption — I am thinking that with five kids at home, it would be nice to go to the bathroom alone someday,” Pat remembered. They snapped a photo of the 2-year-old girl, who had large nevus birthmark on her arm and her back. Such a birthmark carries a risk for cancer. Pat thought that maybe she could raise funds to sponsor the removal of the nevus so that someone else would be more likely to adopt her.
Pat came home and framed the picture of the little girl to remind her to pray for her and to help raise funds for sponsorship. Pat met with a dermatologist to discuss what it would take to treat the nevus; it sounded difficult, because it was on a joint and would require plastic surgery. Medical care near the orphanage in China might not be adequate to treat it, she was told.
One day, Alex, now 4 years old, looked at her picture and said, “You know, she needs a family. … I know, we could be her family.” Pat told Randy what Alex had said.
“I was thinking help is on the way, but it is not me,” Pat recalled. But Randy thought perhaps they were the ones.
“I don’t want to be an old man someday talking about our kids and wondering about the little girl we didn’t bring home,” Pat remembered him say. He prayed for a sign while at their parish, St. Odilia Catholic Church in Shoreview. Suddenly, he felt something like an electric current travel from his head to his toes after the priest had just said, “we are all adopted children of God” in his homily.
Pat proceeded to write a letter to the official at CCAA who had told her how hard it is to match adoptive parents with a pre-identified child. She told him she had had no intention of this happening. He said yes, and even expedited the process.
Alia Xiafeng came home several months later. It took eight surgeries to remove the nevus completely.
Adoptive parent to adoption advocate
Today, Alia is 20 and Alex is 22. Alex graduated from St. Benedict’s with a degree in communications and Chinese. She studied abroad in China. She has been living and working in China for four years. Alia is a mechanical engineering student at St. Thomas University.
Alia recently found a biological sister, Nina, in the Netherlands, when she did 23andMe DNA testing. They met last fall. Nina is 15 months younger and lived in an orphanage 15 miles from Alia’s. Through memory and research, Pat learned she had met Nina’s adoptive parents while on the trip with her friend Mary. “We were in the civil affairs office with four couples also there adopting,” Pat remembered. “I probably saw Nina being adopted.”
With her children all grown, Pat spends her extra time advocating for adoption. She recently spoke on adoption during Masses at St. Odilia Catholic Church and helped organize an informational event on adoption at the church.
She is a volunteer with Bellis Adoption Education and Support. She organizes panels of birth mothers, adoptive mothers and adoptees to speak to high school health classes across the Twin Cities. The panels teach on the option of adoption from a nonreligious, nonpolitical viewpoint.