by Anna Ferraro
Some families take being together at Christmas for granted. For the Yeakel family, it’s a special gift they’re relishing this year, and one that they will never take for granted. This isn’t surprising considering Raini and Jonathan Yeakel met each other in South Korea. While serving overseas in the U.S. Air Force, they connected at a Christmas party in 1998.
After their initial meeting, they reconnected several months later despite the distances that separated them through being stationed on different continents. They were married in 2000 in Texas, saying, “We had to wait for the Air Force to get us together.”
The Air Force had taken the two of them all over the U.S., and all over the world, as well, giving Raini Yeakel the bragging rights of having traveled to 49 states and 36 countries during her 14 years of service. But even with her impressive count, her husband’s not far behind with where he was taken during his 21 years of service.
After Raini Yeakel had completed six tours, and returned from her last tour in Afghanistan, she was moved to Alaska. In 2010, Jonathan Yeakel was able to join her there. Together, they decided it was time to start building a family. Upon discovering that they were unable to have children of their own, they “felt God leading them” to enter and serve in the foster care system. They shared, “We took in our first foster child in early 2011.”
When asked what motivated them to take this step, they shared, “It was a mix of family values, and knowing where kids would be if they don’t have family that were willing to take them.” Although not an easy road to begin going down, they expressed, “God was leading us in this direction the whole time.”
The first child they were given had a few medical issues, mainly, failure to thrive. For 11 months, they poured themselves into caring for him and getting him caught up on his therapy. They shared, “He became an amazing part of our family.” Within a few months, they started the adoption process on the little guy that they hoped would remain in their family forever. During that time, they were assigned another little girl.
Sadly, as is often the case in foster care situations, when openings with the children’s parents or relatives opened, they had to leave the Yeakel’s loving home. After months of caring for those two precious children, they were both gone within a week of each other. Jonathan Yeakel shared brokenly, “We miss them daily …” Plus, their house was quiet. Much too quiet. Raini Yeakel stated matter-of-factly, “We called up Alaska DCS and asked ‘em for another child.”
And so, more children came. Together, Jonathan and Raini Yeakel worked with the Alaskan DCS services in their region of Alaska. One by one, through the year of 2012, their home began filling with children. Ironically, they shared, “Reagan, the youngest of our kids was actually the first adoption.” He had an older sister, as well, which the Yeakels fought diligently to get in their home with her brother. They shared, “it took about six months to get her placement.” In the end, it was worth the effort – by early 2013, Reagan and his older sister, Rebekah, were officially Yeakel children.
Raini and Jonathan Yeakel quickly learned that little Reagan needed other people around to thrive – the house was too quiet with just him and two parents. Through observation, they saw that he was “so happy in lively social settings.” So, when the Alaskan DCS called wanting to place more children with them, they went and got the licensing to temporarily take in three little girls who were all half-sisters.
With five children under their roof, the Yeakel family was really settling together – just in time for the Air Force to transfer them out of Alaska in February of 2013. They worked quickly to get an extension to finalize Reagan and Rebekah’s adoption. But what was to be done about the three little sisters?
Sadly, the Yeakel’s left Alaska with just two children. It took six weeks of drawn-out cases and legal stuff to finalize what to do with the three little sisters. Then, the happy day came – with court cases settled, the three little sisters rejoined them in the U.S. Raini Yeakel shared, “it was like they had been on a trip without us for a few weeks, and had never really left.”
For three years, the Yeakels, now with five children, settled in South Dakota while Jonathan Yeakel continued serving the Air Force. Between his tours in the service, and completing the remaining adoption processes, they learned and grew together in beautiful ways. Raini Yeakel stated, “[The children] don’t think of each other as adopted siblings. The two youngest are like twins. They have all the ‘twin-ny’ languages – they think and talk for each other. They’re all best friends … The oldest two were five when they came together, now they’re almost ten. [We’re a family] and they don’t remember anything otherwise.”
When asked if they faced many “blending challenges” with their children, they responded with, “They’re aware that they’re not biological siblings, and we try not to hide that from them.” But they did not express any of the “blending challenges” one might expect. For example, when Rebekah came to the house, the other sisters responded with, “Yay, another girl to play with!” Raini Yeakel says, “There are hard moments, but when you love and understand your kids, it’s not hard … People judge each other by the surface, but you can’t do things without a calling to do things. If you have … Jesus, even through the hard times, you can do it.”
During their three years in South Dakota, water sports became “the thing” in the Yeakel household. Playing in the waterfalls of the Black Hills, frequenting water parks, joining a YMCA swim team and more. If it was a family day, it usually involved water.
But bringing up five children involves more than fun and games. There’s the education factor, for one. Jonathan Yeakel shared that there are “some residual effects from [the children’s] rough start in early childhood.” Through varied sequences of events, they received permission from the state of Alaska to school their children at home, after the state had seen that the children were truly advancing well under their parent’s watchful care and instruction.
While not possible for everyone, what better way for children to learn than in a healthy home environment, under the instruction of their parents? Raini Yeakel shared, “We knew all the children’s intricacies and how to work with them. Between our beliefs and their special needs, it was what worked and what was best for us.”
Is socialization an issue? Not a bit. Every one of the Yeakel children is happy, intelligent, well developed and well adjusted to society. And, oh, by the way, the siblings are best friends. Beautiful, right? That’s what comes from parents who love God, love each other and love their children.
This Christmas, that’s what they’re celebrating – worshipping Christ together in a place where they can plant deep roots and grow. Last year, Jonathan Yeakel was deployed over Christmas. In other years, they haven’t even been in the continental 48. But in August 2016, the Yeakels moved from South Dakota to Central Illinois. Since Jonathan Yeakel’s retirement from the Air Force in October (after 21 years of service), they’ll be together on Christmas Day!
As they settle into their Midwest home, their life is full – school, swim team, piano lessons, friends, church and more. And their Christmas will be even fuller – of all things wholesome and good – not commercialism. What will it look like? Laughter – around games of checkers and dominoes. Music – as the children play Christmas carols on the piano, and Jonathan Yeakel breaks out his guitar. Food – “of course there will be monkey bread for breakfast on Christmas Day.” And fun – they’re hoping for a white Christmas! Raini Yeakel stated excitedly, “This is the first year we’ve had our ‘forever house.’”
As Charles Dickens said, “Christmas Day … left nothing out for us to miss or seek; bound together all our home enjoyments, affections, and hopes; grouped everything and everyone round the Christmas fire, and make the little picture shining in our bright young eyes, complete.” But to the Yeakels, it’s more than fireplaces and coziness – it’s about Jesus. “This is Christmas … the humble heart that receives anew the wondrous gift — the Christ” (Frank McKibben). This December, as the Yeakels celebrate the coming of their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, they’re grateful to be celebrating it all together in one special place. Happily – home for Christmas.