Reece’s Rainbow Report #51: Neri Family

“Baby sick, daddy help.” 

New Yorker Joe Neri stared down at his daughter in shock. Had Stella, adopted from China in 2018, truly just signed those four words? 

She had, leading Joe to a major decision: he and his wife Jenna were going to adopt again. 

“It was a burning bush moment for me,” says Joe, a 40-year-old operations manager for a landscape company, as well as a youth pastor. “It was like God was talking to us through Stella.” 

The Neris had just gathered their four daughters together to discuss the case of a five-year-old girl in Bulgaria who had Down Syndrome, like Stella. “Pearl” was waiting in an orphanage in a very precarious physical state, weighing a paltry 12 pounds at the same age most Americans enter kindergarten. She was, quite literally, starving to death, a fact made very obvious by her listing photos. 

What would you think of our family adopting her, Joe and Jenna asked? The biological girls — Brianna, Chiara and Savanna — started crying in affirmation. 

But Stella, mostly nonverbal, simply signed with her hands: “Baby sick, daddy help.” 

That’s exactly what Joe and Jenna, a 43-year-old fiscal intermediary working with children and adults with disabilities, eventually did. The couple brought “Pearl” home to New York in May 2023 as Amelia, their fifth daughter. 

“Trying to get to her personality through that medical stuff has taken a little bit, but it’s definitely starting to come out now,” says Jenna. “And she’s funny.” 

The road to a healthy Amelia has been very busy. The first two months were spent trying to gain her trust. There have been surgeries, with more coming up. Her new parents had to learn how to deal with an NG tube, then a G tube. Some weeks held as many as a dozen appointments, including feeding therapy. The smallest cold sent her into the hospital, where she typically shrank into herself emotionally. 

But Joe and Jenna — plus their other daughters — patiently kept trying to get through, and it worked. Today, Amelia has learned how to crawl, pull herself up on furniture, babble, eat three meals a day by mouth and is close to standing on her own. She has gained 12 pounds and several inches in five months, going from size nine months clothing to a 5T. 

Most importantly, Amelia has learned how to laugh out loud. 

“Everything is so exciting to her,” says Joe. “The giggling, the laughing, as few and far between as that is, it’s amazing.” 

It’s a whole new world that may not have happened if it weren’t for the couple’s heartbreaking miscarriage in 2010. The Neris had two daughters already, but hearing that they would not be able to birth more changed something in them. The doctors were wrong — Savanna came along in 2013 — but the seeds for adoption had been planted. 

A family they knew adopted a son with the help of Reece’s Rainbow, leading the Neris to the website and Stella. Jenna was immediately on board, given her occupation. It took Joe a little longer to come around, but once he saw Stella’s sweet two-year-old face, he was all in. 

They traveled to China, struck by the conditions of the children living in orphanages. The images burned into Joe’s mind especially, and they knew they would one day return. The Neris flew home with a very quiet Stella, bringing her into a house with three very excited sisters.

“Stella was so bright-eyed, just watching and taking everything in,” Joe says. “Her sisters fell in love with her immediately.” 

So did the rest of their family and community. Simply her mere presence at church or in public would bring others joy. 

“Everybody smiles when Stella’s around,” Jenna says. “She demands it.” 

Indeed, it didn’t take long before quiet Stella disappeared and left a larger-than-life personality in her place. That strong will has propelled her forward as she has learned how to ride a bike, play t-ball, use a communication device, ride a horse, solve problems on her own and physically flee the scene of any “crime” she commits in record time. 

“She’s amazingly smart and quick and learns a mile a minute,” says Jenna. “It’s been amazing to watch her develop into this little person.” 

That little person, now seven years old, has also become a devoted caregiver to Amelia, age six. 

“Stella just loves so hard,” says Joe. “She wants people to feel good.” Jenna, meanwhile, says that her fourth daughter will change the world someday.

The Neris are hoping that world change comes sooner rather than later. Since 2020, their third adoption has been on hold, hampered by China’s slow lockdown-loosening. They had been in process to adopt eight-year-old “Nan,” another daughter with Down syndrome, whom they plan to name Rebecca. No one has updated them on her condition in a year and a half. 

“The girls pray for Rebecca every single night,” Jenna says. 

In the meantime, the wait is sweetly anxious. Or joyously expectant, depending on the day. 

Joe came home after work recently to a house in aural anarchy. Stella was chasing their dog around the house in circles. Savanna soon joined in. Their nieces and nephews — whose backyard is connected to the Neris’ — casually dropped in. Amelia cackled every time one of them, human or canine, whipped around the corner. The door alarms meant for Stella chirped noisily. 

Brianna, home from college, cooly observed the cacophony from the comfort of the couch: “Mom, Dad, this is chaos.” Her parents could only laugh in agreement. 

“There’s so much going on all the time here, but we love it,” Jenna says, “Our girls are so worthy of everything in life, and it’s so amazing to watch each of them grow and accomplish their goals.” 

Baby was sick, and daddy helped. Goal accomplished, indeed.

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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