Eltopia couple adopts 5 children from Ethiopia (w/ gallery)

ELTOPTIA -- An old upright piano stands in a living room overlooking the small farm town of Eltopia. The entire top of the piano is filled with photos.

Every smiling face -- brown or white -- is one of Julie and Eric Keskitalo's 10 children.

The couple have brought five children from Ethiopia to Eltopia across the past two years. The family of 12 now needs a full-sized van for outings, as Eric and Julie already had five children of their own before they adopted five more from an African orphanage.

Eric and Julie, both raised in large Christian families, never had any doubts about adding to their family through adoption. They knew it was the right thing to do.

"We can give them a safe and healthy home," said Julie, a stay-at-home mom.

"We give them a chance at life," added Eric, who builds houses with Julie's father and brother.

Their five biological kids -- Alanta, 13, Victoria 12, Bryce 10, Annabel, 7, and Blayd, 5 -- never showed any resentment over sharing their home with five new siblings from another continent -- Alemu, 9, Samuel, 7, Rahel, 9, Ashenafi, 7, and Esayas, 6.

Race was never an issue either.

The young children saw their new siblings' different skin color and commented on it, "but never in a mean way," Julie said. "Annabel told her brother, 'You're like chocolate.' "

Ethnicity in the family has become blurred -- a picture Samuel drew of himself and his new parents shows Julie and Eric with brown skin.

Cultural boundaries have blurred, too. Alemu taught Bryce his former pastime -- catching grasshoppers. The food served in the Keskitalo household has changed. Julie learned how to make curries and all of the kids sprinkle Berbere, an Ethiopian spice mixture, on their hamburgers and hot dogs.

The transition wasn't seamless for everyone -- it took love and patience, which seem to be abundant in this family.

Adopting those in need

Julie's sister took in a girl from Guatemala a few years ago and "ever since, the passion for adopting an orphan grew in us," Julie said. "Once you realize the need, it's hard to ignore it."

About three years ago, the couple decided on an agency -- Adoption Advocates International, a Washington-based group -- and a country. "Ethiopia seemed to have the most need," Julie said.

They studied the agency's videos of orphans looking for a home. Three siblings captured their hearts.

But at about the same time, they decided to move from Vancouver to Eltopia, about 17 miles north of Pasco, for Eric to join in his in-laws' construction business. They couldn't find a buyer for their old house and had to put the adoption plans on hold for a while.

In 2008, a relative told them about two Ethiopian brothers already in Washington, whose adoption was being "disrupted," meaning the adoptive parents decided they could no longer fulfill their commitment to the children.

The Keskitalos took in Alemu and Samuel. The two boys fit right in with Eric and Julie's biological children age-wise. But being similar ages didn't ensure a smooth transition -- the boys had anger issues when they arrived.

The brothers had spent a lot of their lives on their own and had a hard time being told what to do.

The couple established rules and made sure the boys consistently followed them.

"We would just come up with consequences that affected them," Julie said. "They like going to the library, but I told them if they want their privileges, they've got to behave and be part of the family."

Bryce and Alemu, the two oldest boys, butted heads early on, Eric said. Both have tempers and are strong-willed. But because they are so similar they came to really understand each other and are best friends now, he said.

The adopted boys overcame their anger once they saw they weren't going to be discarded again.

"Alemu thought we weren't going to like him because he was angry," Julie said. "But we did our best to show both of them unconditional love."

"That's the key thing," Eric said.

Having mastered the process once, the couple decided to go through it again and adopted three more orphans -- the same three kids who initially caught their attention on the agency video three years before.

Rahel, Ashenafi and Esayas had been at the Layla House orphanage in Addis Ababa since before the couple first noticed them. Rahel, the oldest, vaguely remembers Alemu and Samuel, who had lived at the same orphanage before they came to Washington.

On Aug. 28, the five orphans were reunited in Eltopia.

Life in Franklin County

The arrival of five Ethiopian kids has not only changed the Keskitalo family, but it's made some impact in the communities where they live and go to school.

Rahel taught the girls a jump rope game she had picked up at the orphanage, which they have passed on to their friends. She also shared tales of growing up with livestock living inside their small hut.

The Africans haven't experienced any discrimination at their school, Julie said.

"If anything, they've been treated special by the kids," she said with a laugh. "Everyone wants to be their friend."

Eight of the Keskitalo kids -- all but Blayd and Alanta -- go to Mesa Elementary School. Although it's a small school in a small town, there is a lot of diversity within the student body of 171.

Large, elaborate wheelchairs line one of the school's hallways. First- through sixth-graders with severe disabilities from the North Franklin School District are bused to Mesa Elementary, said Marci Cox, the school's principal. They receive special instruction but also participate in regular classrooms.

About half of the school's students are Hispanic.

Two-thirds of all students receive free or reduced meals, a marker for poverty. More than half of Mesa's population lives below the federal poverty line, according to recent estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The school's small size allows it to pay close attention to every student, no matter his or her background, Cox said.

That's why Julie, who had home-schooled her two oldest daughters while they lived on the west side, felt comfortable about her children attending public school.

It has worked out for all of them, especially Alemu and Samuel, who appeared completely acclimated during a recent school day.

Samuel entertained his classmates with funny asides during an outing in the school yard. He also raised his hand for every question from the teacher.

The quieter Alemu earned praise for his first draft of an essay on tsunamis in class. The boys are doing well in school after some initial trouble with discipline.

"These boys are amazing now," Julie said. "They're at the top of their class. No child is ever hopeless."

The three children who recently arrived have a little work ahead of them to reach the top of the class, but they are well on their way.

When they came here in late August, they spoke almost no English. Just three months later, they speak with a heavy accent and far from perfect, but make themselves understood in complete sentences.

And they seem to be making friends.

Rahel sat in a third-grade class over a children's book while the other kids were involved in a class activity. At first glance, she seemed to be the outcast.

But she just was keeping up on her English reading exercises. After finishing a book, she stood up, broke out in a big smile and joined a group of kids -- just another pre-teen girl with rainbow hearts on her shirt.

She already has asserted herself before her classmates and teachers.

Rahel knows how to read and write in Amheric, the language of her tribe in Ethiopia, said Ardean Armitage, a teacher at Mesa who has taken a special interest in the Ethiopian children. Her daughter-in-law is half Ethiopian.

Already being literate in a language that uses a different alphabet makes learning English letters a little harder for Rahel, Armitage said. But it also means she has something to share with her class.

"Rahel decided if she's going to count in English, we're going to count in Amheric," Armitage said with a laugh.

The teacher found a book called, Our First Amheric Words, which Rahel has used to teach the other students how to count to 10.

And during the Christmas pageant, the whole school became exposed to a bit of Ethiopian culture.

The theme was "Christmas Around the World." That was chosen, "largely because they came," Cox said. "To help them feel accepted."

After a group of second-graders performed the Mexican Cancion de la Navidad, eight siblings lined up on stage, wearing traditional Ethiopian dresses and accessories.

They sang, Hoya, Hoye, a well-known children's song from Ethiopia.

Later on, in the hallway, a student shared what he had learned about one of his classmates.

"I know Ashenafi's brother now," David Martinez said. "He has a white brother and a black sister and a black brother."

The first-grader must have lost count after three siblings.

* Jacques Von Lunen: 509-582-1402; jvonlunen@tricityherald.com