After starting the process to adopt three brothers who had spent more than four years in foster care, Julie Washington received some surprising news from a Georgia caseworker last year: Children’s Protective Services had just learned about a fourth brother, a toddler named Elijah, who also needed a home. Could she and her husband, B.J., take him in as well?
The Washingtons, who already have two biological children, didn’t feel they could handle another family member, especially since one of their new sons, Jess, has cerebral palsy and needs extra attention and care.
“It broke my heart, but I just didn’t feel we could do it,” Julie, 32, a night-shift nurse from southern Georgia, tells PEOPLE. “We’d already gone from two kids to five — one with special needs. I felt we’d be overwhelmed and somebody wouldn’t get the attention they deserved.”
Seeking advice, Julie phoned her friend, Jay Houston, a photographer and mother of five, including three adopted kids, who lives minutes away. Three days later, she was stunned when Jay called back and said, “We’d like to adopt Elijah so that he can be close to his brothers and they can know each other growing up. We can all be one big family.”
Julie wept at the news, relieved and delighted to tell her three new sons about the little brother they didn’t know they had.
“It was such a gift from Jay and George (her husband),” she says. “The love and gratitude that I felt was overpowering.”
Jay, 31, had a special reason for wanting the brothers to grow up together. Adopted as an infant, she grew up in a loving family, the youngest of seven siblings. But she always wondered about her biological brothers and sisters she’d never met.
“I know what it feels like to look at your family and not see anybody who looks like you,” she tells PEOPLE. “It’s true that loves makes a family, but it’s undeniable that biology does, too. It shouldn’t be a privilege to grow up with your siblings, and I wanted to give Elijah that chance.”
So in March, the adoption of Elijah, 2, was finalized for the Houstons on the same day that the Washingtons adopted Michael, 6, Jess, 5, and Camden, 4.
The Washingtons’ three new sons join Reid, 8, and Ryan, 5, while Elijah is now getting to know Sarah Jane, 12, Caleb, 8, Timothy, 7, Raleigh, 6 and Joseph, 5.
“The adoption of all four boys has joined our two families for life,” says B.J. Washington, who works as a research assistant for the University of Georgia. “Our main goal is to make sure they have the bond that brothers would have in a traditional family.”
Both families now see each other several times a week to play soccer, watch movies and celebrate birthdays, holidays and other milestones.
On Thanksgiving Day, they plan to hold hands around the dinner table in the Houstons’ dining room and “give thanks for one another and the happiness we feel for having the boys join our families,” Jay tells PEOPLE. “Adoption is born from heartache and loss. But this journey, though difficult at times, has brought us all together.”
“Our lives are infinitely better because these boys are a part of it,” says George Houston, 34, a training director for the Zaxby’s restaurant chain. “I’m so glad that we decided to grow our family this way. People tell us often that our kids are lucky, but the truth is, we’re the lucky ones. We are the ones who have been blessed.”
Adds Jay, “When we decided to grow our families through adoption, there was no way we could have known the way that everything would work out.
“We just had faith that it would. We’re committed that our boys will grow up knowing and loving each other. Just like brothers should.”