When Staci Maneage saw the smiling photo of the 3-year-old girl that her friends were headed to China to adopt in April 2013, her heart leapt.
To Staci, the young girl — whose image was posted on the Facebook page of her neighbor Paige Galbierz — looked like a duplicate of Staci’s own daughter, Ellianna, at the same age. Ellianna, then 7, had been adopted from China three years earlier.
Once Paige, 48, and her husband Steve, 49, brought their new daughter Kinley home, Staci thought the girls’ similarities loomed even larger: they shared mannerisms, facial expressions, even a feisty drive.
The two families live three minutes apart outside of St. Louis in Weldon Spring, Missouri, and had met and become fast friends through an adoption class at their church, where Staci’s mom began to teach Kinley in Sunday school. “She’d tell me all the time, ‘It’s just like Ellianna,’ ” says Staci, 50, who stressed the girls’ resemblance so much to her husband Jim, 53, that he told her to drop it.
A connection seemed impossible, says Jim. The girls had lived in Chinese provinces two hours apart, in a country of 1.3 billion people, and were adopted from different orphanages through two different agencies.
But for two years Staci couldn’t shake the divine weight on her heart urging her forward. She says she didn’t want to answer to God if she had failed to pursue a possible connection for the girls, who separately had come from so far away, only to wind up so near each other and develop an affectionate bond.
To learn more about the surprise siblings, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday.
When Staci finally urged a DNA test, Jim said that Paige and Steve would think she was crazy. “They’re my friends,” Staci answered. “They already know I’m crazy.”
So she prayed, believing that if God had a plan, it would happen — and three days later, Paige unexpectedly asked Staci to meet for coffee.
“She’d been talking about similarities,” says Paige. “Never did it cross my mind more than that.”
After Paige agreed in April 2015 to the DNA test (“This’ll finally shut her up,” Paige playfully thought), Staci submitted the girls’ cheek swabs to a testing lab — and in August 2015, the results came back 99.99 percent conclusive that the girls shared a biological parent.
Now, the two families talk of combined vacations, and maybe even side-by-side homes where Kinley and Ellianna — schoolmates at Independence Elementary, where Kinley, now 7, is in 1st grade and Ellianna in 5th, and who attend church and weekly Chinese cultural classes together along with regular playdates — can grow even closer.
“I think all of us were just looking at the odds,” says Jim, who put aside his early dismissal of his wife’s intuition and joined her in sharing the news with Ellianna. “She was literally out-of-her-mind excited,” he says of their daughter. “She had that grin on for a couple of hours.”
Since then, Ellianna has warmed to the responsibility of sibling role model. “I’m the boss, like the bigger sister,” she says.
“Is that a lot of pressure?,” asks Staci, who adds, “We understand this to be a complete miracle.”
Ellianna offers a mischievous grin. “To a 10-year-old,” she answers, “yes!”