For PEOPLE staff writer Steve Helling, the moment of clarity came in a makeshift clinic outside of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Helling had arrived in Haiti just two days after the devastating January 2010 earthquake. As part of PEOPLE’s continuing coverage, he returned to the country three more times that year. During his assignments, he watched doctors amputate crushed limbs and struggle to save critically wounded Haitians.
By December 2010, he found himself in a clinic treating cholera-stricken infants. As he watched a premature baby struggle for his life, he learned that 13 other infants had been abandoned in previous weeks. Moved, he called his wife, Emma. “I told her, ‘If I could adopt all these kids, I’d do it,’ ” Helling writes in a moving first-person essay in this week’s PEOPLE. “Her response stunned me. ‘I’ve been looking into it,’ ” she said quietly. ” ‘It takes a long time, but it can be done.’ “
And so the adoption journey began.
At the time, Steve and Emma had two biological children: Mia, 3, and Ezra, 2. Although they initially planned to adopt two toddlers from a Haitian orphanage, some unexpected siblings turned up. By mid 2011, they decided to adopt four young children. At the time, the oldest, Etienne, was 5. Valine was 4. Bianov was 3. Nerlande was 8 months. The decision doubled the size of their family and made them the parents of six kids.
The difficult process took more than two years. Finally, in December 2013, the Helling children came home – and the challenges really began. By then, the oldest child was 7; the youngest two were still in diapers. “The first weeks were a blur of extreme highs and lows,” Helling writes. “We struggled to meet the emotional needs of all six kids. We sometimes had trouble communicating. I packed on 30 lbs. and occasionally had trouble getting out of bed.”
The Hellings slogged through the first few months, hardly noticing that things had imperceptibly began to improve. The children learned English; they began to go to school. Their unique personalities began to emerge. More important, everyone began to bond.
On a family trip to the beach last July, Helling was hit with another moment of clarity. “Emma and I looked at each other. We were happy again,” he writes. “Our days were exhausting, but they felt like accomplishments rather than battles. We had successfully taken apart our family of four – and emerged as a family of eight.”
As the Helling family begins their second year living together, Steve and Emma hope that they’ll be able to instill their values in all six of their children. “We took a leap of faith, and found the rewards far outweighed the sacrifices,” he writes. “Comfort is overrated; it’s sometimes necessary to take risks. We’re trying to teach that lesson to our kids.”
For Helling’s complete essay, accompanied by striking photographs by photojournalist Ron Haviv documenting the family’s journey, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now
My Family Is Amazing
Meet the Parents
Meet the Children