July 25, 2005 12:00 PM

Earlier this month Angelina Jolie, with the adoption of her new baby girl Zahara, joined thousands of American parents who have adopted from the African nation—including Kathleen Gallagher, 47, a single mother who brought home daughter Madeleine last year. Gallagher, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Decatur, Ga., spoke with Gail Wescott of PEOPLE about finding her daughter.

I started contemplating adopting when I went on a vacation in February 2002 with some single women friends. I never really felt this overwhelming need to have my own biological child. Then, three summers ago, I went to Ethiopia to work on a polio eradication project. What was most remarkable is that the people there are so warm and inviting. There’s a tremendous value placed on children, so despite the fact that they don’t have toys or clothes, they get an exceptional amount of love.

You fall in love with the children, and you realize that you don’t have enough money in your bank account to help all of them. When I left, I was certain I was going to adopt. I decided to go with Wide Horizons [adoption agency]. The home study was standard. You have two office visits with a social worker and a third at your home. With international adoptions, you have to get fingerprinted and get INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] approval. For me, it took a couple of months.

Last August I received the referral picture of Madeleine-who was then named Yodit. I kept Yodit as her middle name but gave her a western name because I wanted her to fit in. She’d been found in the street so there was no family history. When I got the picture, the first thing I did was call my friends to say, “It’s a girl!” Her weight was roughly 4 to 5 lbs. They estimated her age at 6 weeks. You have a week to let the agency know whether you will accept the child. I felt a connection to her from the minute I saw the picture. I said yes the very next day.

I left for Ethiopia October 30. The orphanage was a very loving place. Probably 20 to 25 children were there. The nannies who care for the kids were all waiting, and little kids surrounded the car, thinking we might have chocolate. We went inside and I saw Madeleine right away. By now she was 11 lbs., almost 6 months old. I got teary. It was quite a moment. There’s been all this anticipation—it’s hard to describe what I was feeling.

The heart-wrenching part came when it was time for the babies to leave the orphanage. They have a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. A woman roasts the coffee over charcoal. While this is going on, the kids are doing traditional Ethiopian dances. There’s a lot of singing and clapping. You can’t bear to leave the others behind. We were all bawling. I was nervous about the plane ride home, but it turned out to be quite easy.

Madeleine and I bonded right away. She had a wonderful smile. I had some anxiety about my skills, but then I just said to myself, “Well, nobody ever died from having a diaper changed the wrong way.” Madeleine is now 14 months and weighs 21 lbs. She eats everything in sight. She babbles away and is about to walk on her own. She loves to flirt with strangers. I get a mixed reaction from people in public. Many assume that Madeleine is the product of an interracial marriage. Some even come up and tell me she looks like me. We get some stares but nothing hostile.

I’m eager for Madeleine to know her own culture. Ethiopian friends have taught her a few words in Amharic, the main language. And I take her to Ethiopian restaurants. She already loves injera, the traditional bread. I plan to take Madeleine back to Ethiopia—and even hope that we can live there one day. There’s no question that this is the best thing I ever did. There’s a whole new dimension to my life. For one naive moment you think that you’re rescuing a kid. But it’s really the other way around.

Additional reporting by Fernanda Santos in New York City

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