THE PARENTS: Shanell Fuller, 38, and Paul Fuller, 40, of Mount Airy
THE KIDS: Evangeline (Evie) Louise and Joelle (Jo) Isabella, 10 months; adopted Dec. 3, 2020
THEIR NAMES: Evangeline means “bringer of good news” and Joelle means “God is willing.” Their middle names honor family members.
The way Shanell and Paul tell the story, God answered their prayer.
At least, in part.
It was October 2019, about 18 months since they’d begun pursuing adoption, and they were huddled in a bus shelter outside a New Jersey prison, seeking refuge from a biting wind and praying that they would be able to sit at a table with an incarcerated woman, eight months pregnant, who planned to place her baby for adoption.
“They were going to have us meet behind the glass — it seemed so dehumanizing — so what we prayed about was that God would find a way for us to meet face to face,” Paul remembers.
But the guards were resolute: The couple could talk with the birth mother only by phone, from opposite sides of the plexiglass divide. They tried, but the phones had been disabled. “They ended up moving us into a room where we were able to sit at the table. She was happy about including us in her adoption plan. We were officially matched.”
Two weeks later, after the baby was born, the birth mother had second thoughts. Eventually, she definitively changed her mind. Paul and Shanell came home one night to a confetti of consoling sticky notes, written by friends from their Bible study group and pasted to their porch.
“We both grieved in our own ways,” Paul says. “But it didn’t leave us hopeless or broken. We both still had hope that our child was out there.”
Faith may have bound them together, but it was happenstance that launched their relationship; at Nyack College, where Paul transferred as a junior, he sat down in a classroom in front of Shanell, in the chair on which she’d been accustomed to propping her feet.
“I don’t know how many times I kicked him during the course of that class,” she says. Later, the two volunteered with a local youth ministry, and when Shanell needed a ride to Staten Island to see her mother, Paul jumped at the chance to escort her.
Friendship segued to dating. Paul proposed during Shanell’s senior year; the plan was to drive to Massachusetts for Christmas with Paul’s family, but somewhere in Connecticut, he realized he’d left the ring in his dresser drawer.
At a rest area, he proffered a lame excuse: “I left my medication at home. We have to go back.” They did. And the ring was in hand on the day Paul woke Shanell at 5 a.m., coaxed her on a hike to see the sunrise over Cape Cod, and dropped to one knee.
They were married in April 2005, a ceremony memorable for the moment when their youngest ring bearer, age 2, bolted down the aisle, tripped, took a face-plant, then scrambled up and resumed running toward the altar.
They’d talked about children; the plan was to have one or two kids biologically and then adopt. “Being Christians, there’s a pretty key piece of imagery about God’s relationship to us, that we are his adopted children,” Paul says. “That was powerful to us.”
Shanell got the “baby itch” first; Paul wanted to wait a bit. But when they agreed to start trying, the rest of life took a grim turn: Paul’s paternal grandparents died within a few weeks of each other, and Paul’s father was diagnosed with a brain tumor. When he died in August 2007, “that was crushing for me — the reality that my dad would never meet our kids,” Paul says.
After two years without a pregnancy, their doctors began talking about IVF. The couple thought about it, and about the many children, already born, who needed homes. The choice was clear. Still, it took several years of grieving before they were ready to pursue adoption in earnest.
Quietly, Shanell had begun praying for twins. And four months after the failed adoption, their attorney called: What did they think about two babies? They drove to South Jersey to meet the birth mother.
“We talked a lot about food, about our favorite restaurants, about how I used to be a youth pastor and how she wanted her kids to be raised in a Christian home,” Paul says.
“She kept saying, ‘You know there are two, right?’ ” Shanell remembers.
That was February, and the due date was in early May. But a few days after their meeting, the couple got a call: The birth mother was in labor. She was admitted to the hospital, where medication worked to stop her contractions. The goal was to sustain her pregnancy until 34 weeks.
Paul and Shanell visited, bearing puzzles, a Bible, word games, and adult coloring books. By the time the birth mother was induced on March 27, COVID-19 had quashed their visits. Instead, she texted them with updates even while she was in active labor.
They rushed to the hospital that night; just one parent was permitted inside. At first, Shanell could only see her daughters through the NICU window. “It felt like an eternity before they said, ‘Here’s your badge; you can go in.’ I had to scrub up to my elbows. I got to hold Evie first. It was literally the best thing and the most frustrating thing all at the same time because Paul couldn’t be there with me.”
After 72 hours, the birth mother surrendered her parental rights, and a nurse agreed to bend the rules and allow both Paul and Shanell — just this one time — to enter the NICU. Each infant had her own room, but the nurses brought them together. Paul reached into the incubators to stroke his daughters’ cheeks.
And then someone snapped a picture: two chairs pushed together; two tearful, relieved, stunned parents, each cradling one tiny infant.