Stella and Evvie Nelson Stella, 10, and Evvie, 13, spend their evenings making colorful handmade bracelets and key chains. (Photo: Neil and Genny Nelson)

When Neil and Genny Nelson first saw Evvie and Stella in January 2015, they knew they’d found their children. The Nelsons, both South Carolina schoolteachers, had been looking at the international adoption registry for months, and within days of finding Evvie and Stella, they’d committed to adopting them.

Ten months and thousands of dollars later, the Nelsons traveled to a remote Bulgarian village to meet their daughters for the first time.

“There is really no way to prepare for such a meeting,” Genny said. “I'd tried to envision what the moment would look like and imagine what it would feel like to touch them for the first time. I'd watched the girls’ referral videos hundreds of times. Believe me, YouTube keeps track and was sending me subtle ‘You’re a stalker’ messages as the number ticked higher. [I] had their pictures tacked everywhere. They were my daughters, and I treated them as such from the moment we signed the commitment papers.”

The Nelsons spent the day with their daughters and a translator in a nearby town, and when they returned to the orphanage, they had the opportunity to watch Evvie and Stella interact with other children.

“We noticed that two boys seemed especially consumed with us and also with our daughters,” Genny said. “The boys also were very interested in playing catch with Neil and me. Later, we found out that these two young boys were our girls’ biological brothers. I nearly had a stroke. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't fight back the tears and the panic from the thought of leaving them behind. That moment changed everything for our family. Our fantasy of adopting two little girls and making a better life with them was gone.”

Neil and Genny tried to add the boys — who are 12 and 15 — to their adoption, but they were told the only option was to start the adoption process all over again. It had taken the Nelsons years to save the money to adopt internationally, and by the time they brought the girls home in March 2016, they’d spent nearly $40,000. Repeating the financially and emotionally draining process seemed daunting, if not impossible.

“The day we picked up our girls from the orphanage, we were present for the final goodbye between brothers and sisters. It was singularly the most horrific moment of my life,” Genny said. “Our family is forever linked to this real-life tragedy.”

Genny and Neil Nelson with their daughters, Evvie and Stella. Although the Nelsons are a close family, Genny says they feel the absence of their sons and brothers. (Photo: Neil and Genny Nelson)

Becoming a family

While there are countless challenges involved in any adoption, separating Evvie and Stella from their brothers made the girls’ transition to their new life that much more difficult. While both girls consented to the adoption, they were angry they had to leave their brothers behind.

“Our first few weeks as a family were horrific,” Genny said. “We had a few glimpses of what family life could one day be, but the majority of our pick-up trip was a nightmare. Our oldest tried to bribe cab drivers to take her back. Together, they told the housekeepers of our apartment (in Bulgaria) that we were abusing them. They both tried to run away many times. Our girls will tell you now that they were trying to get us to send them back to the orphanage to be with their brothers.”

The situation improved when they arrived in the U.S. and the girls began to make a home in South Carolina. They received medical and dental care and occupational and physical therapy, and they quickly grew in both height and weight in just a matter of months. Today, both girls are active in school and extracurricular activities, and Genny says the changes they’ve undergone are “nothing short of miraculous.”

However, the knowledge that Evvie and Stella’s brothers remained in the orphanage thousands of miles away weighed heavily on the entire family. No amount of therapy could absolve their grief, and when Genny came across a photo of the two boys on an adoption group’s page, she knew she had to reunite her family.

“They looked worse than when we left them,” she said. “They are suffering, malnourished, trapped. Neil and I decided that we had a moral, ethical, and God-ordered obligation to pursue [their adoption] no matter the cost.”

Evvie and Stella show off their bracelets Evvie and Stella display their handiwork. (Photo: Neil and Genny Nelson)

Bracelets for our Brothers

The idea to sell handmade bracelets to raise money for the boys’ adoption came from Evvie and Stella. When the girls first met Neil and Genny, they worked tirelessly to make bracelets for their adoptive parents, and during the additional five months, Neil and Genny had to wait to take the girls home, they wore the bracelets every day as a source of strength. Now, they hope other people will purchase their own bracelets to help cover the cost of another adoption.

Neil, Genny, Evvie and Stella work together to make bracelets and key chains, which they sell for a minimum donation of $5 on braceletsforourbrothers.com. In addition to selling the Nelsons’ homemade merchandise, the website also features a blog where Genny writes honestly about the challenges of adoption and explains how the tax-deductible donations will be used.

In sharing their family’s story and asking the public for help, the Nelsons have encountered both compassion and criticism, but they say the support they’ve found has far outweighed the complaints of those who disapprove of their choice to adopt internationally.

Genny says they’ve been overwhelmed by the support of friends, family and generous strangers who want to help them bring their sons home. “I have always viewed them as my sons, and my heart has always felt a space of emptiness without them,” she said. “When we left the orphanage both times, the youngest brother clung to me, tears streaming down his face, begging me to take him with us. How could we not return? They are aware that we are coming for them and are so excited.”

To purchase a bracelet or key chain or make a donation, visit braceletsforourbrothers.com. All donations are tax deductible and go directly to the World Association for Children and Parents.