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Mormon family nearly doubles in size: 5 adopted sisters from Ukraine

HERRIMAN — Dave and Lee-Ann Luke had made it — at least in the eyes of the world.

They were financially sound, had five children out of diapers and were on their home stretch to becoming empty nesters. With Krista, 21; Davie, 19; Spencer, 17; Ruthie, 13; and Zane, 9, many would say the Lukes had done their part.

But one night in 2005, while the couple was walking up the stairs of their Arizona home, they realized something might be missing.

"Dave and I were going to bed when he made the comment as he was turning the lights off," Lee-Ann Luke recalled. "He said, 'You know, when we go to bed at night, we leave half of this house empty. I think one day we're going to be accountable for that."

Now, more than seven years later, the Luke family has become even closer after battling more than they could have imagined in order to complete their family. The family of seven nearly doubled in size after the adoption of five sisters and one young boy from Ukraine.

Making the choice to adopt

When Dave Luke first made the comment to his wife about empty rooms, she wasn't sure what he meant, but quickly became interested in the idea of adoption. The decision seemed right, so the Luke family began to look into adoptions both in the United States and internationally.

After completing a "home study," they found a young girl in Kazakhstan who they were prepared to adopt. The Lukes bought clothes and got a room ready for their daughter-to-be as they waited for Christmas to come, which was when they were told they could bring her home.

But one night an email came and the Lukes found out their little girl had been adopted by another family.

"It was pretty heartbreaking when we lost her," Lee-Ann Luke said. "I just kind of shut the door to her room, like that was it for me. But then the rest of my kids said, 'No, Mom. If you felt like you were supposed to adopt, then you still need to do it.'"

So they began the process over again, this time learning about a young boy in Ukraine. But after talking with the adoption agency, the Lukes found out it would be several months before the boy was eligible for adoption.

"My husband said, 'Well, couldn't we go sooner?' and they said, 'Well, if you want to adopt five girls you could go tomorrow.' We just kind of all laughed about it, so we hung up the phone," Luke said. "My husband said, 'Well, who's going to adopt five girls?' And I said, 'Probably nobody,' and he said, 'We should.' I said OK and that was it — we phoned the adoption agency back and said we'd take the five girls."

The journey to keep them together

Once they made the decision, the Lukes acted quickly to adopt the five Ukrainian sisters: Ana, 10; Ellen, 9; Katherine, 8; Nadia, 5; and Julie, 4. Because their paperwork had been completed for only up to two adoptions, Dave Luke spent the next day waiting for a chance to change their paperwork to allow five adoptions.

With no appointment having been made, Dave Luke was forced to wait the entire day for an opening.

"He felt like we had to go right away, that we should hurry to go get these girls," Lee-Ann Luke said. "That's why he was trying to push everything as fast as he could."

The paperwork was completed on a Thursday, and the Lukes bought their plane ticket to Ukraine on a Friday. Saturday, they were on a plane.

"Monday morning we went to the agency for adoption in Ukraine, and they said, 'Do you have an appointment?' We said, 'No.' We didn't know we were supposed to have an appointment, we were just showing up to get these girls, and we didn't know how."

Eventually they were taken to the orphanage where the sisters lived.

"You just saw all these little faces, pushing on the glass," Luke said. "They were so excited to see you coming. They knew that somebody was going to get a mommy and daddy, and they all wanted it to be them. If we hadn't already been adopting five, it would have been super difficult — we knew that five was the max that we could do."

After arriving, the Lukes soon found out that was the last day the orphanage was going to allow the sisters to stay together. Because they had been in the orphanage for two years, with no adoption offers, they had made the decision to allow the girls to be split up. Several people had already shown interest in adopting the girls separately.

"If we hadn't shown up on that day, we couldn't have had the girls," Luke said. "The fact that Dave wanted to hurry was really good."

The Lukes were grateful they made it to Ukraine in time to adopt all five sisters. But having planned on only one or two adoptions, finances quickly became a problem. The cost was more than $100,000 to adobt the five sisters.

Once their finances were in order, the Lukes met their new children.

"We were down on the floor, and they all came running in," Luke said. "Dave scooped these girls up into his arms and he said, 'Aren't they beautiful?'”

His statement was heartfelt, Luke expressed. The girls had not been living in the best conditions, yet her husband immediately expressed his love for them.

"They didn't get clean clothes. They stunk. Their hair was short. Nadia and Julie had scabies and they'd had lice," Luke said. "They'd never had a tooth brush or toothpaste. Shampoo, combs, anything like that they'd never had. ... But they were just beautiful to him."

During the adoption process, the Lukes had to remain in Ukraine until everything was finalized.

"Luckily, Dave was in a job where he could just take off," Luke said. "It was a long process. There were no hotels or stores, or anything like that — which actually turned out to be a good thing because we ended up just living at the orphanage with the girls. We ate what they ate, so we knew how terrible it was."

Fighting for the adoption

But in trying to adopt the five siblings, the Lukes say they were under constant scrutiny from those at the orphanage and the adoption agency.

"They were very anti-American, so through the whole process they were very suspicious about what was going on," Luke said. "Nobody in Ukraine even has five kids, and we already had five kids, so they wondered, 'Why would you have 10?'"

According to the Lukes, others tried to stop the adoption process for their own reasons. A group from Italy had sponsored Ana to visit them every summer and did not want the Lukes to adopt her.

After forcing the orphanage director to give them the paperwork, the adoption process finally began. Eventually, the Lukes ended up in a court hearing where the judge made the final decision on whether the adoption could take place, and how long the waiting process would be.

"It was a really serious, hard battle," Luke said. "I got bacterial pneumonia and was really sick. I just wanted to go home, but we had to keep on going."

With Christmas approaching, the eager mother hoped and prayed for the minimal two-week waiting period.

"My husband wasn't at his job, and he's 100 percent commission, so he's not making any money," Luke said. "Plus I was concerned for my kids who were being babysat by friends and relatives back home."

Before the hearing, each of the sisters were required to write letters stating they wanted to be adopted. If each of them didn't agree, the adoption would not be permitted. When they entered the courtroom, they sat across the room from the Lukes. Each girl was asked to stand and asked if she wanted to leave everything she knew and all of her friends at the orphanage to go with these strangers.

"The girls got up and said, 'We don't have any friends there, and yes, we want to go with these people,'" Luke said. "They had to be these brave little soldiers in front of all these people."

The judge then turned to the Lukes to make their statement about why they wanted to adopt the girls.

"They asked me questions, but they didn't want to hear from me, they wanted to hear from Dave," Luke said. "They said to him, 'We heard you're Mormons; what does that mean? The girls have been baptized in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, so are you going to make them go to your church?'"

Luke expressed that she didn't expect such a question and was concerned that their answer would be viewed as disrespectful.

"People don't know about Americans very well over there, let alone Mormons. So I was thinking, 'OK, Dave. If you've ever lied in your life, tell the judge whatever she wants to hear.'"

Knowing how strong the Ukrainian people were in their beliefs, Luke simply wanted to take her new daughters home. But just then, Dave Luke began to explain what it means to be a Mormon — the importance of the family and many of the church's beliefs. It was then that he said, "Of course we're going to expect the girls to go to church with us. They're part of our family, and we go to church."

"I was just dying," Lee-Ann Luke said. "I was thinking, 'Oh we are in such big trouble because they are not going to want to hear about these arrogant Americans.' ... But all of a sudden, it was like the floodgates opened and you could feel every prayer and blessing coming across from America. The room literally glowed — you could just feel a light come into the room, the faces on the people softened. I just knew what he was saying was the right thing."

A couple of hours later, the judge came back and read the adoption declaration. The Lukes waited for their interpreter to turn to them and translate the decision: "They're yours! The girls are yours!"

Five new sisters for the new year

Once the decision was made, the Lukes only had to wait an additional two weeks before they could bring the girls home. Christmas was coming, so Lee-Ann Luke traveled home to be with their other five children while Dave stayed with the five girls until they were allowed to leave the country. Once at home, Luke began to make preparations for the girls, with the support of her children.

"My birth kids were extremely accepting, which was just incredible," Luke said. "Ruthie had long blonde hair, and when she found out that the girls' hair was really short, she cut her hair off really short and donated it. She wanted the girls to feel like they fit in with her."

The youngest of her children, Zane, was willing to give up his cowboy-designed room for his five new sisters. The room was decorated as a blue princess room, and Zane's bed was moved into his dad's study. Members of the Lukes' local LDS congregation gathered clothes and other items in order to prepare for the girls' arrival.

It was Dec. 31, 2005, when Dave Luke returned home with his five new daughters.

"The faith that these girls had to have was incredible," Luke said. "They had to trust these complete strangers who don't even speak their language, who come from a different country — and they're supposed to get on a plane and go away from everything they knew, and trust us. They had a belief in God, even though they didn't go to church; they knew Heavenly Father was preparing them for this."

The change was very drastic for the sisters, who never had access to toilets that flush or showers.

Luke was quick to learn that her ideas were not always what the girls were most comfortable with. When the girls finally came to the Lukes' home, Lee-Ann Luke had made arrangements for only two girls to be in each bedroom.

"I thought they would be thrilled just to have two of them sharing a room, to have these new beds and new stuff," Luke said. "But the first night I went in and they were all in one bed together and wanted to sleep together. They were more comfortable being with each other."

As far as adapting to the English language, Luke said it was only about two months before they were speaking fluently. While American food was not their favorite, their eyes lit up after seeing the produce section of a grocery store.

But it was after tucking her new daughters into bed for the first few nights that Luke realized how amazed her daughters were at fresh food.

"I would go tuck them in at night, and kiss them good night, and their pillowcases would be packed with food," Luke said. "They brought food from downstairs and put it in their pillowcases because they just didn't believe that it would be there the next day."

Although the adoption — and continual financial demands — tightened the Lukes' budget, it has never been something they have regretted.

"The financial hardship was really rough — there's no question about it. We weren't millionaires. We ended up having to sell our house to pay for the adoption," Luke said. "But when Heavenly Father asks you to do something, it's easier to do it than to not do it, and have to explain to him why you didn't."

The love the Lukes have felt for their adopted children has never deviated from their feelings for the rest of their kids.

"Dave and I personally have never felt difference between, 'These are my adopted kids and these are our birth kids.' They are all our kids," Luke said.

"I always tell the ones that are adopted that they are just as much a part of our family as the ones that I gave birth to. They were all meant to be with us, just some of them were delivered in a different way. They were always meant to be my children. I don't know why somebody else had to give birth to them."

Sealed to five new daughters

Before returning to the United States, the Lukes introduced Ana, Ellen and Katherine to the LDS Church through the sister missionaries in Ukraine. The girls learned the basic principles of the church in their native language before leaving to America, where they finished their gospel-oriented lessons.

"We wanted them to know that the religion wasn't just an American religion, but international," Luke said.

Once arriving in America, the girls attended church with the Lukes and were welcomed by the ward.

Lee-Ann Luke's father flew down to visit with his new granddaughters. His parents were originally from Ukraine and he could speak with the sisters fluently.

Ana, Ellen and Katherine were preparing for baptism and the baptismal interview. Although Luke's father is not a member of the LDS Church, he attended each interview in order to help interpret for them.

"It was a huge help to have him be a part of it, and to be able to have him tell me what they were thinking," Luke said.

In February 2006, the three eldest sisters were baptized as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Just a few days later, the Lukes joined with their five birth children and five adopted children to be sealed in the Mesa Arizona Temple.

"They're part of our forever family," Luke said. "They know they are adopted. We talk about their adoption all the time, but how we feel that they're a part of our family — it's all the same. It's how our birth kids feel, too. They are their brothers and sisters."