Changing the World for Two

A Sacramento family shares their story of adoption 

By Allison Hopkins

“A mother’s love for her child is like no other love. To be able to put that feeling aside because you want the best for your child is the most unselfish thing I know.”
—Mary, American Adoptions Birthmother

The story of Tristan and Brooklyn is filled with challenges, triumphs, laughter and tears. It’s real, it’s touching…it’s completely inspiring for any family considering the adoption journey. The best part is, this is just the beginning.

Jessie Ryan, 38, and her husband Arsenio Mataka, 39, both had adoption in their hearts. Ryan, executive vice president for the Campaign for College Opportunity and a trustee for Sacramento City Unified School District, is currently working to pass Measure G, an initiative to bring arts and music programming as well as vital student supports to Sacramento area students. She was raised locally by a single mom and has spent most of her career in education policy and as a community organizer in the Central Valley. Mataka, assistant secretary for environmental justice at the Cal-EPA, grew up near Modesto in a home where struggling neighborhood kids would come for shelter.

Three weeks into dating, it was agreed upon, they shared a common view on the subject of adoption. What the future would hold was unknown, but the passion for loving children who needed a family was mutual.

In 2010, four years after getting married, they started the process for an international adoption in Ethiopia, primarily because there were millions of orphans there at the time, and Ryan had read that it was harder to place black children in adoptive homes. They purchased a bungalow in Oak Park, preparing for the opportunity to raise a child.

“We wanted the child we adopted to grow up in a community that looked like them,” says Ryan. “We thought it was really important that our children be exposed to diversity, their culture, and community members that they related to.”

About a year into the process, Ethiopia’s Hague Adoption Certification and ethical practices were being questioned (which Ryan states has since been corrected) and they immediately stopped their search. They considered foster-to-adopt, but after taking classes at Sierra Forever Families, both realized they wanted to experience raising a baby first, and ultimately agreed on a domestic adoption.

Ryan and Mataka started working with The Family Network adoption agency and writing letters to birthmothers. The couple was immediately faced with tough questions; what levels of exposure were they open to? Would they be okay with adopting a child who had possibly been born to a drug-addicted parent? The answer was yes, as a family, they were prepared for the possibility.

“We ended up very quickly matching with an incarcerated birthmother in San Diego,” says Ryan. “We really felt concerned that if we weren’t willing to adopt her child, she might struggle to find someone…given her circumstance. Being incarcerated, the brutal reality of it is, pregnant women often don’t have access to adequate prenatal healthcare…”

Ryan and Mataka saw it as an opportunity to be that “life line” this mother needed; that they could be the ones to ensure she had a healthy pregnancy. They visited with her monthly (for five months) and wrote letters back and forth every week, sharing books and thoughts. Mataka fought to ensure that the birthmother was transferred to UC San Diego when pregnancy complications emerged. The couple ended up being strong advocates for fair medical practices for incarcerated inmates during this time.

It was finally happening. In September of 2012, they were preparing for the birth of the baby they would bring home. They had named the little girl. The nursery was decorated. They had celebrated the approaching date with family and friends at baby showers throughout the state.

Ryan and Mataka got the call that everybody dreads. They got the call that Ryan says steers so many families away from adoption. One week short of the baby’s due date, the mother (who would be incarcerated for another 3-5 years) had changed her mind. She would place the baby with a relative, until she could care for her daughter.

“We were convinced that this adoption was going to be successful because we had formed a relationship with the birthmom; because we felt she was really certain this was the best thing for the little girl; and because we had done everything in our powers to support her,” says Ryan.

It was devastating. They were back to square one.

As quickly as they had received the crushing news, the couple was back on the rollercoaster.  The very next week, on the expected birthday of the baby girl, Ryan received a call from the adoption agency. A seven-month-old boy needed a family. His adoption had fallen through because the potential parents changed their minds.

With the support from close friends and family, Ryan and Mataka made a decision to change tracks yet again, and rushed from Sacramento to San Diego to meet Tristan.

“From the moment they put Tristan in my arms, he just took to me and I fell in love,” says Ryan. “The moment you hold your child, you realize it was all worth the journey and that you have the child you were always meant to have. The pain of the process and the failed adoption just melted away.”

Tristan’s birthmom lost her biological mother at a young age and grew up in the New York foster care system. Now, as a single mother living with various relatives, she wanted a life for Tristan that she felt she could not give him.

Ryan describes the first months with Tristan Mateo (they added Mateo, meaning “gift from God”) as both magical and difficult. They held their breath for the first 30 days until the courts officially terminated his birthmother’s rights, worrying that she too might change her mind.

Tristan was a bright-eyed happy baby. They proudly carried him everywhere in their Ergo carrier. Even with the exhaustion, the joy they remember feeling, after longing to be parents for so long, was immense.

“Arsenio and I didn’t realize we could love a tiny being so much,” says Ryan. “He began saying mama and dadda almost immediately. They were the sweetest words we had ever heard.”

Since Tristan had an open adoption, Ryan and Mataka sent letters and pictures back and forth with his birthmom. They believe that the decision to do this type of adoption is what ultimately led to the next chapter in their story.

Ten months into their new life, Ryan was contacted by Tristan’s birthmom about the possibility of adopting his full biological, three and a half-year-old sister, Brooklyn, who in the past year had lived in seven different homes across five states.

“His birthmom saw, through the photos and the letters we shared, how beautifully he was doing and what a happy life he had,” says Ryan. “She said ‘I’m calling because I believe that you were always meant to be Tristan and Brooklyn’s mother.’”

Ryan and Mataka were flooded with different emotions. They had barely finalized Tristan’s adoption but were very excited about the prospect of reuniting the siblings and completing their family with the addition of a daughter. They were also very sad that Brooklyn would have to leave everything she had previously known and their hearts ached for her birthmother, who would be saying goodbye to another child. The couple wanted to make sure that it was not an economic decision.

“She assured me that this wasn’t about not having the money to care for Brooklyn,” says Ryan. “It was more than that. She wanted Brooklyn to be with her brother and to experience all the same opportunities in life. She also felt that she wouldn’t be able to pursue her dreams until she was on her own and truly believed that ‘God had meant for her to birth these precious babies, so that I could become their mother.’”

While Brooklyn and her birthmom started meeting weekly with a child psychologist to prepare for the transition, the social worker started preparing Ryan to be ready for a little girl who would be “bringing a life with her.” She told Ryan that her number one job would be to teach Brooklyn how to be a little girl again, and to “hold her through her tears and allow her to heal.”

The social worker also suggested having a daily phone call for one month prior to the adoption, so Brooklyn could hear Ryan’s voice. The calls ended up being a special time for both of them, singing songs together and rather quickly, developing a bond.

Finally, it was back to San Diego again. For Ryan, meeting Brooklyn was a much different experience than meeting Tristan, as a baby. Resembling Annie from the 2014 version of the musical, she came bounding down the street and leaped into Ryan’s arms. Brooklyn had seen pictures of the couple with her baby brother and after talking on the phone every day, she was excited to meet her new parents. She came with one little backpack, one stuffed animal and two sets of clothes that she had outgrown.

Brooklyn and Tristan, who are 20 months apart, held hands during the 14-hour trip “home.” While he was too young to remember her, she had never forgotten him.

When they arrived to Oak Park, there was something unusual about this new home for Brooklyn. It was already decorated with pictures of her. Bookshelves were filled with children’s stories, showing kids who looked just like her. While this place was brand new to her and she was certainly having feelings of sadness from leaving her birthmom, her brother was there and it was clearly a place that was welcoming.

“There was a strong message being told to Brooklyn that ‘your mommy loves you so much that she is giving you a better life,’” says Ryan, explaining that the emphasis has been on her birthmother choosing this life for her. “For Brooklyn, knowing that has made all the difference in the world. She has such a healthy sense of why she is with us.”

With all the excitement and joy of bringing the siblings together and forming a solid family unit, came challenges and many tears those first two months.

“I like to joke that part of her ‘life experience’ meant she swore like a sailor,” says Ryan.

Brooklyn may just fit the thriving, big city name she was given, and overtime, swearing turned into announcing “apples and cookies” and adjustments to “what we say in our home” were quickly being made. As far as the alpha figure between the siblings, it was a struggle. Here were two high-energy kids who both had claimed that status in a way, with Brooklyn being older but Tristan joining their new family first.

What formed over time, and now is life-as-we-know-it three years later, is a beautiful family of four who are growing from each other, in ways that are unexplainable. Ryan and Brooklyn share a love for dancing and musicals; Mataka and Tristan enjoy playing instruments and listening to reggae music in the backyard. The couple embraces their children’s Puerto Rican and Jamaican heritage, even meticulously researching how to properly care for their hair (shea butters and coconut oils are favorites).

The family often visits a neighborhood bookstore where Mama Rose gives advice on culturally relevant literature. Their favorite adoption stories are “Born from the Heart” by Berta Serrano and “I Wished for You: An Adoption Story” by Marianne Richmond.

“I want my children to grow up believing that they can make a difference in the world,” says Ryan. “We say in our home that you might not be able to change the world but you can change the world for one by adopting.”

This December, Brooklyn, who was recently voted “Little Miss Capital City” by The National Girls Self-Esteem Program, will be dancing in Sacramento Ballet’s Nutcracker performance. Tristan is busy dressing up like Harry Potter and learning how to swim.

“Our kids will tell you that ‘we are so lucky because we have two mothers who love us,’” says Ryan. “They say ‘I was born in our other mommy’s tummy but I was born in mommy Jessie’s heart.’”

For information about the adoption process, Ryan suggests the following website: www.davethomasfoundation.org.

Allison Hopkins has been a freelance writer and editor in the Sacramento area since 2002. She enjoys spending time with her husband and son. She is also an aunt to four special nephews and a spectacular niece! 

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