Though it took nearly three years, all nine members of the Dean family finally are living under the same roof.
"The next holiday will be phenomenal, because it'll be the first holiday we've had together," said Scott Dean, the former mayor of Harlem and the current District 4 Columbia County commissioner.
The five newest additions to the family -- Marlin, 15; Silda, 14; Sindy, 11; Mimi, 6; and Byron, 4 -- arrived in Georgia at 6 p.m. Sept. 19 but didn't see their new home in Harlem until midnight.
The path to the children's adoption started in 2004 when Dean took a mission trip to Guatemala and met the two older girls at an orphanage in the Zacapa region. When he returned the next year, the girls recognized him, and he discovered they had three siblings.
By the end of 2005, the Deans had filled out the necessary adoption paperwork, which was mailed to an international adoption agency in Dallas.
The adoption process took 17 months to pass in the United States and another 17 months before it could be finalized by the Guatemalan government.
Dean flew to Guatemala on Aug. 20 and didn't leave until the children could return with him.
"The last month I went down and pretty much just showed up everywhere the paperwork was to force it to get through," Dean said.
Nine weeks passed before they received the children's birth certificates.
Dean's wife, Renee, flew to Guatemala on Sept. 12 to stay for a week, along with the couple's two sons, Anthony, 12, and Meyer, 8.
The oldest girl, Marlin, turned 15 in May, and the Deans promised to throw her a quinceaera -- a traditional Latin American birthday celebration similar to "sweet 16" -- before leaving for the United Sates. The entire orphanage was invited, said Scott, who described the event as "beautiful."
The journey home
An eager crowd of friends and family waited for the Deans after their 31/2-hour flight to Atlanta.
Scott's parents, Renee's parents and sister and friends drove to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in three vehicles to meet the family. The Deans rode back to Harlem in a 15-passenger van rented for the occasion.
"We landed in Atlanta at 6 p.m., but it took us six hours to get through immigration and home," Scott said.
The children had seen an airplane for the first time earlier that week during a trip to the zoo, Scott said.
"It was the first time they'd ever seen the inside of a plane," he said.
The Deans were all able to sit in one section.
Scott said the ride went smoothly, though using the plane's bathroom and riding on the airport's escalator were new experiences for the children.
Life in Harlem
"Harlem is pretty much (like) New York City compared to where they were," Renee Dean said.
"We've been real careful not to overwhelm them or go too far, too fast," she said.
The children have taken trips to Wal-Mart and the county's government complex with Scott. The family also attended Harlem Baptist Church on the Sunday after their return home.
"The kids have been so resilient about the whole thing," Renee said. "They wanted to go to church. They want to go to school. It's so funny how badly they want to get started with their new life."
After the children's green cards and Social Security cards arrive, the Deans plan to proceed with a re-adoption process so the children will have Georgia birth certificates.
The older daughters are still learning to adapt to their new lives.
Silda feels like time has flown by, said Eleida Tyler, the girls' translator and friend of the Deans.
Speaking through Tyler, Marlin said she likes how nice and friendly the strangers here are.
The addition of five family members has brought an increase in sound.
"The noise level has gone up exponentially," Scott said, "but the enjoyment of family has gone up exponentially."
A new language
School started last week for Marlin, Silda and Sindy at Grovetown Middle School, which offers the English as a Second Language Program. Marlin is in eighth grade, Silda in seventh grade and Sindy is in sixth.
Mimi started kindergarten at North Harlem Elementary School, where Meyer is in second grade. Byron started preschool at Harlem United Methodist Church. Anthony is in seventh grade at Harlem Middle School.
"The culture in Guatemala is a little different because they're limited in what they can do because of the lack of educational opportunities," Scott said. A tutor will help the children with English.
Scott said he will continue to learn Spanish through online programs and by interacting with his children.
"I use a lot of verbs, and they laugh at me, but they understand what I'm trying to say," he said. "Renee is a lot more fluent."
Anthony and Meyer speak some Spanish and are excited about their new brothers and sisters.
"I'm really happy that they're here," Anthony said.
The 11-year-old said he has gained more responsibility with the addition of five siblings. Opportunities for fun have increased, too.
"While we're outside, we'll be riding skateboards and bikes and all that together," he said.
Scott said it's important, however, to maintain a bilingual family.
"Their history and their life has been in Guatemala, so we're going to try and keep that culture alive," he said.
He hopes the family can take vacations to Central America.
Since the beginning of the adoption, Scott said, everybody in the community has been a great help.
"So many folks have been so wonderful," he said. "Everybody's been part of the process."
The family has received an outpouring from people who have given not only a hand but also an ear, Scott said.
Before they arrived home from Guatemala, three members from Harlem Baptist Church cleaned and organized their home, he said.
Another member of the church donated sky miles for the children's plane tickets home.
As the Deans started their new life, they haven't forgotten about that long road they have traveled already.
The whole process, Scott said, often felt like an amusement-park ride.
"We rode the roller coaster," he said, " and now we're home."
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