Reece’s Rainbow Report #49: Graves Family

Since the dawn of time, parents have grasped the hands of their newly-arrived children and resolved to die for them if necessary. “I would go through a warzone for you,” they promise. 

Marylanders Phil and Kristie Graves not only said it to one of their daughters — they did it. 

“As hard as it is, when God calls you to do something and paves the way for you to do it, there’s no greater joy than knowing you’re in the center of God’s will,” says Phil. And the center of God’s will, it turns out, was smack dab in the middle of a Ukrainian warzone in 2022, when the couple adopted Brizzy, an internationally famous six-year-old orphan. 

But before Brizzy and the bombs and the blitz of media coverage came a newly married couple discussing their future in 2003. Kristie, a respiratory therapist, and Phil, and media company owner and pastor, decided they would adopt some day. But then life came quickly, dropping three biological children and busy careers in their laps. They stopped talking about it. 

Until 2015, that is, when Kristie approached Phil with a declaration. “If we’re going to adopt, we should do it soon, before we get too old,” she said. They found a girl on Reece’s Rainbow from Armenia. The Graveses started the process to adopt her, occasionally noticing another little girl code-named “Olivia” in photos. 

To their surprise, an Italian couple adopted the hoped-for girl before they could. “Maybe God showed us the first girl so we would see the second girl,” Phil told Kristie. 

That second girl, however, was a wheelchair user — a fact that gave Kristie, the parent who would take on the vast majority of the medical care, pause. Could she handle all of Olivia’s needs, including her spina bifida

The couple called an experienced spina bifida mother from their church. What was it like, they asked, to raise a child with the condition? 

“Sure, I’ll tell you everything, but you should know that I’m on my way to Qatar for my son’s wheelchair race,” she answered. As they talked, a theme emerged: spina bifida quickly becomes your new normal, morphing into not such a big deal. 

That, in turn, sealed the deal. Phil and Kristie adopted three-year-old Olivia, now named Eliana, in 2017. The other Graves children were thrilled to meet her, as were the Graveses’ surrounding church and community. 

“Eliana just fit right in,” Phil says. “Everybody just loved her.” 

Once Eliana came home, Phil and Kristie agreed that they were done adopting. That is, until Kristie walked in on Phil one morning while he showered and made another announcement: “I think God wants us to adopt another child.” 

Phil thought he heard his wife incorrectly. Eliana’s personality and needs were a lot. Their family schedule was very full. They hadn’t even finished paying off their adoption loan! But then Phil remembered a deal he had struck with God years earlier: if God opened a door, Phil would walk through it.

Keshia Melton, a Reece’s Rainbow advocate, posted online about Brizzy, code-named “Bridget,” from Ukraine. She had cerebral palsy, a diagnosis that didn’t seem so scary after Eliana. As soon as the Graveses saw Brizzy’s photo, they knew she was meant to be theirs. 

They had no idea, however, that Brizzy was already known around the globe. “Oh, you’ve come to adopt the famous one,” an orphanage worker said when they first got to her orphanage. 

In short, Brizzy was genetically American but grew in a Ukrainian woman’s womb via surrogacy. She and her twin were born prematurely, however, leading to her twin’s death and Brizzy’s cerebral palsy. A disabled child was not what her American parents had ordered and paid for — so they abandoned Brizzy in a Ukrainian orphanage, never actually meeting their biological daughter. 

An Australian news crew eventually covered Brizzy’s predicament, and her story went viral. Plenty of people inquired about adopting her, but the Graves family were the only ones to actually follow through. 

They were supposed to go to Ukrainian adoption court in early February of 2022, but their judge contracted Covid and postponed the hearing. “Come back on February 25,” they were told. 

Russia, of course, invaded the day before. 

Adoptions halted. Borders closed down. A well-known Ukrainian adoption advocate was murdered. Chaos reigned. 

And still Phil and Kristie pressed on. In late April 2022, the couple flew to Poland, where they hitched a ride with a Red Cross van to cross the border into Ukraine. 

A reporter from Germany covered their movements

Bombed buildings, bridges and barriers abounded. Phil took his photo in front of a heavily-damaged tank. A missile struck an apartment complex less than a third of a mile from where they were freshening up. Smoke curled around whatever was left.

“It was just weird being in a country at war and leaving our other kids at home,” Phil says. “But it wasn’t even a question of whether we were going or not. That’s our kid, and we’ve got to go get her. We just never stopped.” 

Miraculously, they were able to get the emergency paperwork to finalize the adoption and get Brizzy out of the country. Once home, the media attention kept rolling; Phil and Kristie appeared on podcasts, radio and television as well as in magazines and newspapers. 

“It was crazy, all the attention,” Phil says. “There had been so much info out there about her abandonment that I wanted to tell the story of her redemption as well — that she got a family who was going to love and take care of her.” 

And that is exactly what has happened. Brizzy, now seven, has learned how to both speak English and walk. Nine-year-old Eliana, meanwhile, gets the rock star treatment everywhere she goes thanks to her outgoing, funny, social personality. 

Phil, now 51, and Kristie, 45, observe the coordinated chaos of raising five children ages 19 down to 7 and simply marvel. 

“Being Eliana’s and Brizzy’s dad has taught me that life matters, even if it’s not the life that we would want,” Phil says. “There is redemption in everyone, even though it may not be visible.” 

“We’ve seen God do so many amazing things these past few years, like there’s no way we should have been able to Ukraine in the middle of the war to get Brizzy.” 

And yet they did. If many waters cannot quench love, as it says in Song of Solomon, then neither can bombs or tanks.

Crystal Kupper
Crystal Kupper is a freelance writer specializing in magazines and special projects. Since earning her journalism degree, she has written for clients such as Zondervan, Focus on the Family and the Salvation Army, among many others.
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