Colombia Adoption: Older Kids Want You To See They Aren’t Scary!

Many of the kids waiting for an adoptive family through Holt’s new Colombia adoption program are over the age of 5. But, partially spurred by fear, most adoptive families express openness only to a child who is 0-5 years old, passing up some precious, special, smart and wonderful kids whose greatest dream in life is to feel the unconditional love of a family. Learn about two kids — Cata and Santi — who are waiting for families. And, learn more about why Colombia adoption is an amazing option for families!

Colombia Adoption Program for Older Child Adoption
Kim Dowd-Uribe with two of the children she met in Medellin, Colombia. Holt’s Colombia adoption program is our newest country for families, but with Kim’s expertise, passion for kids and work ethic, it feels more like one of Holt’s long-standing partners.

On paper, kids’ backstories are scary. Especially older children.

When children are reduced to medical forms, psychiatric evaluations, intake documents and quick assessments — lacking the context of their vibrant personalities, beautiful smiles and contagious laughter — their needs seem overwhelming.

Paperwork can be dehumanizing.

At least, that was the case for many of the 33 children we met waiting for families through our Colombia adoption program.

When I read Cata’s file, it didn’t say that she loves sports and dancing. It didn’t talk about how funny and confident and abundantly sweet she is. It didn’t talk about her bright, sparkling eyes or gap-toothed smile from the loss of baby teeth.

Colombia Older Child Adoption
Cata is waiting for a family to adopt her through Holt International’s Colombia adoption program.

I spent the day at the zoo in Cali with Cata and 12 other kids. When I hadn’t seen her in a while, I’d run around and try to find her because I wanted to watch how much fun she was having. I missed the way she’d rest her 9-year-old little hand in mine and convince me to take off skipping with her. She’d take my phone — which I am barely tech-savvy enough to use — and start taking photos and videos like a pro. She’d climb in my lap, gently grab my face with both hands and say, “Vamos jugar!”

Okay, Cata. Let’s go play.

Adopt a child in Colombia
Creative Director Billie Loewen (and author of this story) with 9-year-old Cata in Colombia.

I’m not a mom, but I felt mom-love for Cata fast.

I could picture a whole life with her: Christmas mornings and summer days lounging at the swimming pool and dropping her off for the first day of school in an outfit she chose and bringing snacks to soccer games. I could see her little smiling face posing for pictures and insisting on a selfie together. I could picture giggling and tickle matches and building blanket forts and her overwhelming happiness and enthusiasm for even simple experiences.

In that immediate sense of love, the “scary” parts of her background seemed like the parts of parenthood that a mom and dad and siblings would cherish: the hard days and nights when she would need to talk about the trauma and loss she experienced; the hugs and kisses and big conversations she’d grow trusting enough to share; and yes, probably, some boundary pushing and testing.

Adopt an older child Colombia
Cata and another child waiting for an adoptive family at the Cali zoo in Colombia.

Cata is just like all kids — just like “normal” kids. She’s learning how to be strong and brave and compassionate in a world that isn’t always those things.

The kids I met had complicated family histories.

Many had experienced a combination of poverty, violence, neglect and abuse. Some had been exposed to drugs or alcohol. There are some kids, we learned, who can’t be featured on our photolisting because of their birth family’s connections to the drug cartels. Posting their photos could endanger them.

But not a single child was scary.

They were abundantly adorable, sweet, loving, lovable, playful and fun. Even the 12 and 13-year-old boys were sensitive and very emotional about their desire to have a safe, stable and permanent home.

They wanted exactly what every kid wants: Love.

Adoption from Colombia
Cata says one of her biggest dreams is a family who will love her unconditionally, help her study math, take her to dance and soccer lessons, and never leave her.

Nearly every boy and girl that we met said that their biggest dream in life is to have a family that loves them unconditionally.

They want moms or dads  who support them, take care of them and do the normal things that parents do — show up to sports practices, cheer at recitals, help with homework, teach cooking, ride bikes, play catch, go on adventures.

After experiencing loss and disappointment, sometimes years of neglect and uncertainty, every child we spent time with was willing to take the risk of hoping for a second chance. Despite all they’d been through, they wanted to love again and be loved in return. Knowing all their options, they’d consented to adoption. And by choosing adoption, they were all in for a family.

Now, they are waiting for you to choose them back.

Orphaned children want families
Nine-year-old Cata being interviewed about what she wants in a family. Mostly, she said, she wants her family to love her and support her.

Most children in our Colombia adoption program have living family. They end up in protective custody — and later, cleared for international adoption — for many reasons, but abuse, neglect and exploitation are major reasons. Many children are found wandering the streets. Others are relinquished voluntarily or involuntarily due to poverty or their parent’s addiction, incarceration or crime-based lifestyle. For this reason, many of the children waiting for families are 4 or older when they become adoptable. Paperwork takes time.

While there are kids with special medical needs, many of the kids waiting for a family through our Colombia adoption program are developmentally on target, and have a team of people caring for them. Most live in either foster or group homes. All of them are assigned to a psychologist who meets with them regularly and comes to know them really well.

These psychologists are people like Alexander Fapias, a social worker for ICBF, Colombia’s child welfare system, with a captivating, warm smile and a gentle, loving demeanor toward the kids he cares for.

Adopt a kid from Colombia
Alex Fapias, a social worker for Colombia’s child welfare system, encourages families to give older kids a chance.

Alex became a social worker because the community where he grew up — in Medellin, home of Pablo Escobar — was heavily impacted by violence and war.

That legacy of violence still persists today, even though Colombia is safe for tourism. Now, violence is more often perpetuated inside the home than in the streets. The war is over, but the violence people witnessed will stick with them forever — and it became a normalized way of solving problems with a spouse, neighbors … anyone. As kids are often the victims of domestic violence, it’s an issue that Alex sees as detrimental to children and families.

His advice to adoptive families, though? Don’t be afraid.

“Don’t judge these kids for their stories,” Alex says. “Get to know them as kids.”

Holt International Colombia Adoption
In Bogota, kids are waiting for adoptive families through Holt’s Colombia adoption program.

Holt’s Colombia adoption program is our newest, but it doesn’t feel like it. Colombia Adoption Director Kim Dowd-Uribe, who grew up in Colombia, speaks English with just a hint of a Spanish accent.

Kim’s passion for Colombia adoption is infectious.

She can switch immediately from a fun-loving social worker — hugging kids and hunching down to face level to ask them questions in Spanish with a big smile across her face — to the type-A boss who never really stops working.

Seconds after a child jumped off her lap to run and play, she turned and said, “I’ve been emailing with one of my families every day. I need to send them an update real quick, and then I have a phone call with headquarters to talk about budgeting.” She wanders to a shady food court and jumps on her phone. In a few minutes, she’s back — ready to play again.

Kim has two on-the-ground partners in Colombia — Ana Maria and Diana. Though they all just began working together in the last year, the three of them have tremendous experience in both Colombia adoption and child advocacy. They’re the kind of hands-on advocates and experts that Colombia adoptive families can rest easy with. They are going to move mountains for you, for your family and for your child. Their experience with adoption makes Holt’s Colombia adoption program feel less like a new pilot program and more like one of the programs where we have 20 or 30 or 60 years of experience.

Kim, with tears in her eyes, listened as one of the 15-year-old girls we met in Colombia waiting for a family finished sharing her story about growing up in Colombia’s child welfare system.
Adopt from Colombia
Diana with kids waiting for adoptive families in Medellin, Colombia.

Kim, Diana and Ana Maria’s expertise, paired with Colombia’s progressive and exceptionally open eligibility requirements, makes Colombia an amazing program for adoptive families — especially those who are a good match for an older child.

The timeframe to adopt a waiting child from Colombia — a child with special needs, siblings, or an older, healthy child like Cata — takes about 12-24 months, which is fast for international adoption.

One bonus of the Colombia adoption program is that parents — or, at least one parent — will spend about 4-6 weeks in Colombia while their adoption finalizes. This is an incredible opportunity to begin bonding with your child before coming home and to learn about their culture and home.

Sponsor a child in Colombia
Ana Maria with one of the families in Holt’s family strengthening programs in Colombia.

It’s hard to not fall in love with Colombia. It’s one of the few countries with tropical coastlines on both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean. It’s also smack in the middle of the Andes Mountains, and the jutting peaks and ranges contrast with the densely built brick cities. The cities are a sensory overload, with brightly painted street art on every corner, the rumble of cars, busses and motorcycles, and architecture that changes from neighborhood to neighborhood.

Colombia tourism has sky-rocketed in the past decade, attracting global travelers in search of mountain, jungle and beach adventures, some of the best food and coffee in the world, and a wide offering of cultural landmarks, hand-crafted shopping and affectionate, warm locals. There’s also an obsession with Colombia’s darker history. Pablo Escobar tours in Medellin remain popular with travelers, perhaps much to the horror of the not-so-old adults who lived through the repulsions of a war that spared no one. But enough time has passed that their history is glamorized and presented as mainstream by shows like Narcos.

Street art in Medellin.
Medellin, Colombia, home of Pablo Escobar.

“Colombians are incredibly resilient.”

Kim repeated this simple phrase over and over throughout our four-day, three-city, adrenaline-driven and sleep-deprived trek to meet as many waiting kids as possible.

It’s true. You can see that resilient spirit in children, too.

If you didn’t know the history of the city, you would never guess how brutal life was not so long ago. If you didn’t know how much a child had already lived through, you’d never see any hints of pain and sadness beneath the smile on their face.

Snuggles with Kim while we watched a World Cup soccer game over lunch during a day at a special park in Bogota, Colombia. This child is waiting for an adoptive family through Holt’s Colombia adoption program.

In general, our 33 kids were tough. Not tough as in naughty or shut off. Not that at all. Tough in that they’d run and fall and jump back up, wipe the dirt off a skinned knee and keep playing. Tough in the sense that they’d talk about their family history as if it were normal. Tough in the fact that they’d smile and laugh as though they’d never been hurt.

Colombian kids are adaptable and street smart and have an air of self-sufficiency.

But, they are also hungry for love, devotion and to be the center of a family’s attention.

That’s what makes them resilient.

Adopt a child from Holt's Colombia adoption program.
Beautiful, funny Santi. Santi is waiting for an adoptive family through Holt’s Colombia adoption program.

Santi is a thin 11-year-old boy with a breathtaking smile. He stands out for his impeccable sense of micro-fashion — he wore salmon-red slacks, a teal long-sleeved button down with shell snaps, and a pair of fake Ray-Ban shades the day we met him — and his gorgeous, dark skin. He’s super cute, and something about him draws people in like a magnet.

Santi likes Legos — he kept two little Lego men in his breast pocket at the zoo — and dreams of being a police officer so he can protect people. He likes board games and blue, and he loves to build things. He’s confident, polite and curious. He is doing well in the 5th grade, but he’s just a tad behind in school. Sound like a normal 11-year-old?

Santi is waiting for a family to adopt him. He says he wants a family who likes to build things — forts, Leggos — like him. He also wants a family who is gentle, loving and supportive.

What you’d never guess from looking at Santi is his past.

When Santi was 5, he was removed from his home for severe neglect. Santi lived in a rural jungle region about a 6-hour drive from Cali. He had never worn shoes, never been to school, and never seen a toilet when he was taken into protective custody. Santi has 20 biological siblings, but only knows about five of them. No one came to try to reunite with him.

Today, he’s made incredible progress.

He works really hard in school and likes to learn appropriate social cues by watching others. He loves clothes.

When I asked Santi what his favorite thing about himself is, he pulled his sunglasses down the bridge of his nose just far enough to give me a silly look over the top of the frames. “My skin,” he replied, with a faux-suave emphasis on the words. “I’m so handsome.”


I laughed loudly in response, amused, and he snapped his sunglasses back up and smiled at himself. But when I looked at his psychologist — she traveled to Cali to spend the day with him — she had tears in her eyes.

“When Santi first came into care,” she said to my puzzled response, “he got teased and bullied all the time for his dark skin. I’ve worked with him a lot on his confidence. I just love hearing him say those words.”

And like that, Santi was off again, bored by my questions and eager to look at more animals.

Santi says he loves clothes, the color blue and prefers board games over sports.

We came to the ostrich enclosure and he made me laugh again with his wide-eyed and excited declaration.

“Dinosaurio!” he yelled without a hint of sarcasm or humor, pointing at the ostriches and stretching up to his tip-toes for a better look. He grabbed our photographer Daniel’s hand and tucked his face into his ribs, partially out of fear and partially excitement.

Daniel laughed. “Those aren’t dinosaurs, Santi. They’re ostriches. They’re a kind of bird.”

“No,” Santi responded politely, if not slightly agitated by Daniel’s stupidity. “They’re dinosaurs.”

Adopt a boy from Colombia
Santi looking at a map of the zoo with another child waiting for an adoptive family. Santi said he liked the lions the most.

When so many families picture adopting a child, they picture a baby.

It makes sense. Families want as much time with their kids as possible. They want to be there for every “first.” They want their child to go through as little of the tough stuff as possible. But, it’s this prevailing desire that leaves amazing kids like Santi waiting.

Can you imagine how much fun Santi will be with his family? Can you picture all the “first” experiences they’ll have together? First camping trips, first time seeing snow, first treehouse. First “I love you” and first vacations together.

That’s just part of the joy he’ll bring to a family.

In between the firsts, I don’t doubt that Santi is going to blow a family away with the stories he has to share, the memories he’s acquired, and the fun ideas he’ll suggest.

But that’s not just true of Santi. Or Cata. It’s true of every single one of the 33 kids we met, and no doubt, the thousands of kids waiting in Colombia for adoption.

Waiting for you.

Billie Loewen | Creative Director

To request information about Colombia adoption, or learn more about Santi or Cata, email Kim Dowd-Uribe at kimberlyd@holtinternational.org

To learn more about our Colombia adoption program, click here. Learn about adoptive family eligibility here. Learn about fees here. 

Kim asking trivia questions to kids at the Cali zoo. All these kids are waiting for their adoptive family.

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