Life Change

By Lincoln Brunner

'It's hard, but it's good'


Bolting around his living room, 3-year-old Daniel Collett grabs a ball, drops its, climbs up on the couch, wolfs down a granola bar, jumps down, runs to another room, runs back in, grabs a toy, downs another granola bar, dumps the toy, then starts the circuit over.


All boy, all the time.

Daniel’s up-and-down, in-and-out path around the house more or less mirrors the path his parents, Zach and Stefanie, took en route to getting him in China earlier this year. Along with their three biological children—Ryan, Paige and Titus—Zach and Stefanie endured a 10-day odyssey through several Chinese cities, punctuated by a return flight that was, well …

“It was the most horrible plane ride ever,” Zach says.

More on that later.

Today, back home in Arlington, Texas, Zach and Stefanie say they would do it all over again, no question. They just want people who are thinking about adopting to know that the adoption journey isn’t the 1-2-3 picture of perfection that some make it out to be—and to be prepared to take the bad with the good.

‘This is definitely our child’

The good part started early in the process, in the fall of 2017. Daniel was about 1-1/2 years old at the time. Stefanie, who had dreamed of adopting a child since she was in high school, was perusing photos of eligible children on an adoption agency’s website when she ran across Daniel’s picture.

Then, one day, Zach had a surprise for Stefanie.

“One day, I just felt it,” says Zach, an Arlington firefighter. “I came home and I said, ‘Well, if we’re going to do it, let’s do it.’ And she’s like, ‘Do what?’ I said, ‘Adopt.’ She was a little floored.”

Stefanie immediately started their formal application. In the meantime, she saw Daniel’s picture pop up several more times, among countless others. In February 2018, the Colletts’ agency sent them files for two children they thought would match with their family.

One of them was Daniel.

“To me, out of the thousands of kids that I had looked at—I mean, thousands—I was like, “It’s totally got to be God.’ I mean, how else are there these two children out of all of them, and they’re just laid right at us? And so I told them, ‘This is definitely our child.’”

Then came the first hitch of many.

For anyone familiar with it, “adoption process” is code for “lots of paperwork and waiting.” That put an extra burden on Stefanie, who finished all the paperwork in short order while also preparing for her new nursing job and the specter of the Chinese New Year on Feb. 5, which likely would have delayed things in China for weeks.

So, the Colletts did what any anxious person might do. They went to see the people in charge—in this case, the Texas secretary of state’s office in Austin, a seven-hour round trip away. There, they had the last two documents of their adoption packet signed, stamped and overnighted to China. That took all of five minutes. They may have driven a long way for that five minutes, but it was worth it.

“It saved us three to four weeks,” Stefanie says. “We were up against the Chinese New Year, and if we waited for the mail currier, we would not have made the deadline to have them processed in time.”

In January, the call came. A few days later, all the waiting and praying and packing culminated in five tired Americans waking up at 4 in the morning and dashing to the airport, just to sit on a 14-hour flight to Beijing.

That was another easy part. Then came during the first night in China.

Paige got sick and spent the night shuffling between the bathroom and the windowsill—the only cool spot in their Beijing hotel room. The next day was no better. Of course, the one suitcase that didn’t make their flight contained all their medications.

“Paige was just miserable,” Zach says. “We had nothing to give her.”

‘Instant love’—then crying

That all began to change when they flew south to Changsha to get Daniel. Instead of going to Daniel’s orphanage, officials arranged for the Colletts to have “Gotcha Day” at a nice but sparse office building in the middle of town. When the orphanage workers finally arrived and the elevator doors opened, “I can’t even describe what I was feeling,” Stefanie says.

“The second that I saw him, it was just instant love from that very moment,” she says. “I could see it in our kids, too. We were all emotional, and it as just a really beautiful moment.”

That euphoria quickly turned to stark reality: They’d just added a toddler to their family. Daniel came with no diapers, bottles or pacifiers—just the clothes he had on. So, the family went to a nearby grocery store, found some milk (which Daniel devoured) and started settling into a routine with their fourth child.

Things went pretty well until their fourth day together, when Daniel started crying. A lot.

“He would wake up screaming … and screaming and screaming and screaming,” Stefanie says. “It wasn’t really until after his afternoon nap that he actually would be happy. And we did that basically the entire trip.”

Then another challenge: Daniel refused to walk. He just wanted to be held. But he wouldn’t latch onto the person holding him, so carrying him while wearing a puffy winter coat was like “trying to hold a watermelon,” Zach says.

But then they discovered that Daniel really liked the bathtub. The first time, “he played in the tub for an hour,” Zach recalls.

“His bath time was an hour to an hour and a half every night,” Stefanie says. “That was our happiest time.”

A day at Disney Hong Kong provided a day of happy respite for everyone, including Daniel. “It’s the happiest place on earth—how can he not be happy at Disney?” Stefanie says. But the memory of that quickly faded with the plane ride home. Zach and Stefanie got everyone on the plane, Daniel slept for about 30 minutes, and when he woke up …

“That’s when the thrashing, the kicking … For about eight hours, it was miserable,” Stefanie says.

But when their community group from Fielder met them at the airport, it kicked off the Collett family’s new reality—life with Daniel, their 3-year-old Chinese whirlwind. The ups, the downs, all worth it.

“A million times again, I would do it,” Stefanie says. “I would do it, even if it was harder than what we experienced. If he screamed 24-7 for 14 days, I would do it again, just because … I mean, you just have to look at him.”

Zach agrees, and quickly adds that while he wouldn’t want to deter anyone from adopting, he also wants people to know the reality: It can be difficult and very different from your former life.

“Adoption is … it’s just different,” he says. “It’s hard, but it’s good. I don’t know how else to say it.”

“Baba?” Daniel says to Zach.

“Yes, baby.”