From An Ethiopian Orphanage Into Jennifer Lopez' Arms

A life that began in destitution and illness in Ethiopia leads to a new home and family in the US -- and a role playing Jennifer Lopez' son in her latest film.
05/16/2012 11:13 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

On a June evening in 2010, a social worker arrived at the door of an orphanage in southern Ethiopia, carrying two frail infants. Hours before, the man had made his way to a rural village, summoned by the children's grandmother. The boys, Abenet and Afework, had been born several weeks premature. Their mother had died in childbirth. Their father, a poor farmer already struggling to keep two older children alive, lacked the resources to care for them.

The boys' health had worsened drastically since their birth. They were malnourished and barely responsive to stimulation. After many tears, the boys' grandmother convinced her son to give them up to an orphanage. "They will die here," she told him, "It is what God would have you do." Agonizing over the decision, their father realized that his mother was right and relinquished custody. "Take them to someone who will care well for them," he told her.

"Do not worry," she responded. "I know someone."

When the social worker arrived at the orphanage, he was met by the institution's director and women who would serve as the boys' caregivers. They were shocked to see that the boys were small enough to fit in the palm of their hand and that their umbilical cords were still attached. Racing against time, they rushed the boys to the nearest hospital. All the way they blew on the babies' faces to keep them alert for fear that if they fell asleep they would never awake.

Weeks later and thousands of miles away, my wife, Meredith, and I waited with our three children to hear news from our adoption agency. In February, we had completed paperwork intending to adopt a little girl from Ethiopia. Then, in September, our plans changed. We received word of four-month-old twin baby boys who desperately needed a family. One of the boys had recently survived a bout with meningitis. The other was severely malnourished and had contracted sepsis.

Drawn to the children, my wife and I contacted the adoption agency for more information. We learned that two families had already declined their referral and that no other couples had inquired about the boys. "I feel like these are our sons," Meredith told me.

We had the boys' medical files forwarded to Dr. Aronson, one of the world's foremost pediatricians specializing in international adoptions. She confirmed that the boys could definitely have special needs, possibly even need life-long care, but that there was no way to know for sure. After counting all the costs, and acquiring a generous grant from Gift of Adoption, we told our agency that we wanted to become the twins' parents. Within a month we were on a plane to Ethiopia.

In November, we visited the orphanage and met the twins. Although tiny, they were alert, responsive, and their health had improved. In December, I stayed home with our two older sons while Meredith returned with our daughter and my father to bring Afework and Abenet (whom we named Samuel and Asher) home. By January 1, 2011, we were all together as a family.


Over the next several months, Samuel and Asher saw numerous doctors and began physical therapy. To our delight and the expert's surprise, they thrived beyond everyone's expectations. By the summer they had made their way onto US growth charts and showed no signs of any serious health issues.

Then, in July, we received word that a movie was being filmed in Atlanta and that the casting department was looking for Ethiopian babies as extras. On a whim, Meredith sent in the twins' picture. To our surprise, the casting director called us personally and asked to meet. After seeing the twins, he said, "I think I've found my hero babies (main babies) for this storyline."

The next day, we met the director, Kirk Jones, who was enthralled by the twins' story. A few hours later, we received a call telling us that Samuel and Asher had been chosen for the movie, and could we meet the next day with Jennifer Lopez?"

When we entered the room, Kirk called Ms. Lopez and the actor who would portray the boys' father, Rodrigo Santoro, over to meet us. "This is Kindred and Meredith Howard," he said. "These guys are Alex and Holly (their characters in the movie). They've done what you are going to do in the film."

Kirk's tone and demeanor suggested that he was trying to honor us for having adopted Samuel and Asher. In truth, we felt that we were the ones blessed to have Samuel and Asher as sons. All we did was give two incredible little boys a home. The ones who truly deserved honor were the mother who had given her own life for them and the father who, out of love, made the difficult decision to give them up for adoption.

We spent eight of the next fourteen days on the set of What to Expect When You're Expecting, a movie based on Heidi Murkoff's best-selling book. Watching Sammy and Asher take turns cuddling with Jennifer Lopez on camera and playing peek-a-boo with her in between takes, all Meredith and I could do was marvel. Fourteen months earlier, our sons had lain dying in a rural Ethiopian village. Now they were playing pat-a-cake with J-Lo and winning the hearts of the cast and crew of a major motion picture.

This week, Samuel and Asher will make their movie debut as Lopez's adopted son, Kaleb. But Samuel and Asher are much more than little movie stars. They are truly "hero babies," not because of a movie role, but because of their journey. They are living testimonies to the heroism of their Ethiopian parents and caregivers. They are real examples of the amazing and unforeseen blessings that await those who choose to adopt. Samuel and Asher are inspirational because of what their survival and journey has, and will, teach others as they continue to grow, thrive, and impact lives.