Rebecca Kuntz: Saving Baby Ellie

She traveled to Africa to find adventure and came home with her purpose.

Born to serve

There’s an old adage that goes, "Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans."

Rebecca Kuntz hasn’t just heard that saying; she’s lived it. When Kuntz decided to visit Africa on the day after her high school graduation, she planned on volunteering for a few months before returning to the United States for college. "I thought the trip would be my shining glory," she says. "I’d have all these photos to post on Facebook, and all these cool stories to tell my kids someday"—the same reasons any of us seek adventure abroad.

She ended up staying in Africa for the better part of five years and leaving with an adopted daughter named Ellie. "She’s the biggest and best surprise of my life so far," says Kuntz, now 25. Kuntz didn’t plan on saving a sweet little girl’s life before she could legally rent a car, but now she can’t imagine the events unfolding any other way.

Service has always been in Kuntz’s blood. Her mom is a social worker, her dad is a teacher, and her brother is studying to be a physical therapist. So when the opportunity to visit Ghana with a nonprofit struck in the summer of 2011, Kuntz seized it—months before she’d begin studying at DePaul University as a peace, justice, and conflict studies major.

She hopped on a plane almost immediately after striding across a stage in her cap and gown and landed in a small West African village halfway around the world. Her mission was to work with Light for Children, a group that aims to educate, engage, and enable vulnerable Ghanaian kids. What Kuntz lacked in basic resources like running water, electricity, and Internet access, she made up for in culture. "I fully immersed myself in the whole experience," she says. "It was like jumping into a swimming pool."

She treasured her first summer in Ghana enough to return, again and again, during spring and summer breaks from DePaul. Each time she visited, she continued to spearhead efforts for Lights for Children’s Education Center, for which she raised more than $60,000 to build a computer lab, library, and art room in the town of Atonsu.

It was quickly becoming clear that her whole life was in Ghana. So in January 2014, Kuntz made the decision to permanently call it home. "I didn’t know what I was going to do exactly," she says, "but I just knew I needed to be there."

Her purpose arrives by email

Within weeks of arriving in Ghana permanently—she’d tackle her remaining semesters at DePaul online, spotty village Wi-Fi and all—Kuntz received an email that would change her life. She had been in the early stages of launching The Treasured Ones, her own organization that assists children with special needs when a troubling message appeared in her inbox. "My wife’s sister just died, leaving behind five children," the note read. "The youngest are 8-month-old twins, and they are underdeveloped."

Though she had received similar messages before, this one struck a particular chord—and inspired immediate action. There’s a cultural stigma around underdeveloped, disabled children in West Ghana. "The widespread belief is that they’re cursed and a burden to society," Kuntz says. "There’s this cultural tale of this god of water who comes and implants a special-needs child in the mother’s womb because she did something wrong. So if you give birth to a child with special needs, the only way for a family to rid themselves of this curse is to abandon or kill the child."

As soon as Kuntz met the twins—boy Prince and girl Ellie—she knew reuniting them with their family would be impossible. She also knew that she couldn’t keep them in the local foster home for long. "I couldn’t place them somewhere else because of the high level of care and cost required, and I also knew the likelihood of them being adopted domestically or internationally was extremely low," she says.

Kuntz realized there was only one option: She’d have to adopt the twins herself. "Because I had so many amazing connections, I knew I could really set up an awesome life for these kids," she says. "Besides, it didn’t take long for me to completely fall in love with them."

But later that spring, while Kuntz was deep into gathering the necessary signatures to put the adoptions into motion, tragedy struck. Just days after his first birthday, Prince stopped breathing in the foster home and died in the hospital shortly after. "That’s when everything really sped up," says Kuntz. "I wasn’t going to let the same thing happen to Ellie." In August, Kuntz was finally granted foster custody of Ellie. But her battle was just beginning.

Fighting to bring Ellie home

The new mom, only 21 at the time, spent the first few weeks with her daughter learning about her health. Ellie was born with a number of debilitating physical and neurological conditions, including spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy, microcephaly, clubfoot, polymicrogyria, and a rare form of epilepsy. Local doctors said she’d likely never walk, talk, or develop much beyond an infant level, but Kuntz wouldn’t let Ellie’s disabilities stunt her growth any more than they had to.

Physical therapy was complicated—mostly because in Ghana, it doesn’t really exist. Nor does occupational therapy. Or speech therapy. Or any specialized care, for that matter. Undeterred, Kuntz used every resource at her disposal to help her daughter succeed, including soliciting donations from America for equipment. "I worked with her every single day, FaceTiming with therapists back in the states," she says. "I didn’t have access to walkers or wheelchairs. We simply made do with everything we had."

Meanwhile, Kuntz was still hard at work trying to officially adopt her daughter, but as time went on, it became even trickier. In 2016, Ellie was denied a non-immigrant medical visa at the American Embassy in Accra. Kuntz also didn’t meet any of the three Ghanaian adoption requirements: She wasn’t yet 25, married, or 21 years older than her child. "But I knew there should be a way around those laws," she says, "because it was in Ellie’s best interest to get adopted and come to the United States to receive the best medical care."

Kuntz took her crusade all the way to the Ghanaian equivalent of the Supreme Court, where she campaigned in front of a ruling judge who at last understood why she needed to make an exception for Ellie. And so on March 23, 2017, after almost three years of fighting, the adoption was finalized. "That was the best day of my life," Kuntz says. Five months later, the family headed home to the suburbs of Chicago.

Ellie’s new life

Ellie has only been an American since last September, but she already has a knack for her new country’s patented determination. Her doctors are blown away by what the 5-year-old can do: "She’s walking with support, which, based on her diagnoses, she simply shouldn’t be able to do," says Kuntz. "She’s a miracle."

She’s also had some extra help. In January 2018, Ellie was only 24 pounds and labeled failure to thrive (FTT), so doctors fitted her with a gastrostomy tube (G-tube) to boost her calorie intake. But Kuntz wanted to make sure her daughter had the right nutrition. "When I first started researching the feeding formulas, they all contained ingredients that I couldn’t pronounce," she says. "Was I really going to put something in my child’s body if I would never consume it?"

Then she found Kate Farms. "I could understand every single one of the ingredients," she says, "so I immediately felt comfortable giving it to Ellie." The results have been astounding. Since January, Ellie has gained 10 pounds and is no longer classified as FTT. She also speaks 10 words, which only started after she began using Kate Farms. "It’s amazing that when your brain has the right nutrition, it can really grow and start to form in new ways," says Kuntz. "Every single piece of her development has skyrocketed."

So what’s next? That’s a question for another day. Instead of making too many plans, Kuntz is perfectly happy waiting for a lifetime of surprises with Ellie.

"She never gives up in any situation," Kuntz says of her daughter. "If she sees an obstacle, it isn’t a roadblock—it’s a hurdle she can just find her way under, or around, or through, no matter how difficult. She can overcome anything. And if that doesn’t show you the power of redemption and healing, I don’t know what does."

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