Claire Brosnihan ’11 remembers the moment when she met her son.
The Nebraska native had moved to Rwanda to work as a Peace Corps volunteer and was living at a convent when she first encountered three-year-old Francois D’Assise, an orphan with a contagious enthusiasm for life.
It was love at first sight. Brosnihan often ended her days by reading D’Assise bedtime stories, and he woke her up many mornings by dancing in her room.
“The first day I met him I called my parents and said, ‘Mom, Dad, I want to adopt this kid.’ At the time I was 22, and just a year out of college,” she says, chuckling. “But I knew from the day I met him that I wanted to be his mom.”
That conviction kept her going when friends and loved ones told her she was too young to make such a big decision, gave her strength when D’Assise suffered serious health problems that required medical attention, and moved her to navigate the Rwandan legal system, which at the time made it next to impossible for foreigners to adopt.
Brosnihan’s decision to pursue adoption has shaped her life. It came after discernment that followed questioning and soul-searching, and it ultimately occurred because she trusted her instinct.
“I knew from the first day that this was right,” she says. “People would say, ‘Why don’t you adopt an American kid?’ or ‘Why don’t you adopt from a country where it’s easier for foreigners to adopt?’ But I wanted this kid specifically. He’s just the coolest kid I’ve ever met, and it was really just about meeting him and having this connection with him.”
A Special Connection
When Brosnihan arrived in Rwanda, she began working on a variety of health and development initiatives with the Peace Corps. At the same time, she quickly hit it off with D’Assise.
“He’s such a special kid,” she says. “He’s so energetic and cheerful and I could see that from the first day that I met him. I had never felt that feeling before where I thought, ‘I want to be with you for the rest of my life.’
“When I talked to people about it—‘Hey, I’m looking at adopting this kid’—the answer I got from pretty much everyone was: You’re crazy. Don’t do this.” It made me question myself a little bit. Should I be listening to pretty much everyone who’s telling me this is a bad idea?”
So she gave it some time. And she looked to others for perspective, including the Franciscan nuns she lived with at the convent, who helped her discern thoughtfully.
“I was weighing grad school after the Peace Corps,” she says. “The message everyone gave me was that this will mess up your future and your plans, and you don’t want to be a single mom at the age of 27 or 28. But the closer I came to the end of my Peace Corps service, when I would have to leave him, I realized I just couldn’t do it.”
And ultimately, Brosnihan didn’t leave. Instead, she took a job working on the field operations team for One Acre Fund, a nonprofit that helps farmers increase their harvests and their incomes. The position allowed her to continue being a part of D’Assise’s life.
But while Brosnihan wasn’t leaving D’Assise, she had a difficult road ahead of her. In 2015, he became forgetful, and didn’t act like himself. She took him to get an MRI, which revealed brain lesions. None of the Rwandan neurologists she met with could tell her if it was cancer or something else, and they told her to return in a few months.
That wasn’t good enough for Brosnihan, who brought D’Assise to Kenya, where there were more resources. Doctors ran tests and determined that he was suffering from brain parasites, which they treated successfully.
Once she had dealt with these health issues, Brosnihan still faced legal obstacles to adoption. After the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the country had loosened its adoption laws to help the orphans who survived the atrocities. Child traffickers took advantage of this, and in response, the country tightened its laws.
Authorities would make an exception if they saw an international adoption was in a child’s clear benefit, and if no Rwandans would adopt the child. The nuns D’Assise lived with had not been able to arrange an adoption, and Brosnihan had just helped him find much-needed medical treatment, so her next step was to meet with a family lawyer who helped her demonstrate she would be a capable and caring parent. In July of 2016, she finalized the adoption.
These days, parenting still has its fair share of challenges, Brosnihan concedes. She juggles being a mom with working full-time at One Acre Fund. She’s had to figure out how she’ll handle things like discipline when it’s required. And she’s worked to get D’Assise additional medical care he’s needed, which included a surgery in December 2017 to help fix an underdeveloped Achilles tendon that caused him difficulty walking. Parenting, she says, has been a “baptism by fire.”
But at the end of the day, she’s thrilled to be D’Assise’s mom.
“I think it’s really about missing the everyday moments that make up a life,” she says. “I was still there, in the year after I left the Peace Corps and before I adopted him, for the big moments—a birthday party, Christmas, and that type of thing—but what I really missed was just waking up and eating breakfast in the morning, or singing songs in our house, the little moments that make up a life. I think that’s been what’s most joyful about this past year is getting to live all those little moments together that I had been missing so much.
“He’s the happiest kid that I’ve ever met and it’s just been such a huge blessing having him around,” she says. “The only way to describe it is pure joy.”