Laura J McDonald photography | We are Whanau

We are Whanau

June 30, 2016  •  5 Comments

Whānau (Māori pronunciation: [ˈfaːnaʉ]) is a Māori-language word for extended family, now increasingly entering New Zealand English, particularly in official publications. In Māori society, the word itself has other meanings: as a verb meaning to be born or give birth.

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Thirty four years ago this summer, a young woman stepped into my impending senior year of high school and influenced my future in ways I never could have dreamed possible at the time. She traveled 8,000 miles - from Tauranga, New Zealand, to Vestavia Hills, Alabama - to immerse herself into American culture through the AFS study abroad/gap year program. I still find remarkable how brave her parents were to let her go. Keep in mind, there was no internet - no FaceTime, no instant message, not even email. Phone calls were costly, therefore few and far between. Airpost letters (on tissue-thin sheets of foldover-and-mail paper) took weeks to arrive. Her parents' courageous and sacrificial "yes," not to mention complete trust in some random yahoos across the globe, birthed invaluable insight and a recurring theme in my life: LOVE makes a family.

I distinctly remember sitting in my parents living room eons ago and expressing my expectations to the AFS representative: "Well . . . I hope she becomes just like a sister to me." And that she did. Despite the years and distance that have separated us, we maintain a closeness that defies explanation. Our entire families are intertwined, courtesy of shared holidays, wedding celebrations, visits and adventures through the years. It is delightfully uncommon (I assume) and, in my humble opinion, most definitely ordained. Meet my kiwi sister Helga, one of the loveliest souls on earth. She radiates generosity and expresses genuinely keen interest in every person she meets. She is equal parts serious and silly. She is disciplined, determined, and a bit "energizer bunny" when her brilliant mind and compassionate heart are set to task (get in her way at your own risk). Her amazing family - husband Justin and two gorgeous daughters, Genevieve and Juliet - have mastered the art of hospitality. Seriously, aficionados these ones. We have been the beneficiaries of their expertise on numerous occasions, and it ranks high on my bucket list to somehow repay the favor (in some grandiose manner)!

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Nearly twenty years ago, an equally lovely young woman entered my life and transformed it, transformed ME, in a way that no one else could. She made the most heart-wrenchingly selfless decision a woman can make. She chose life and adoption for her child, fulfilling my heart's desire, my lifelong dream to be a mom. I would not be who I am today without her courageous and sacrificial "yes." Words barely do this story (any adoption story, really) justice. It is most authentically expressed in snorts and sniffles, ugly cries and never-want-to-let-go embraces. It is sorrow and splendor, resignation and providence, fear and fulfillment, all intricately enveloped into one miraculous experience. It is surrender to God's plan, and wide-eyed mystery at the way He pieces all things together for His good. Meet my daughter Olivia's extraordinary birthmom, Susan - my hero and a walking-on-earth angel. She is 100% Irish and chatty in the most endearing way. She begins many conversations with, "I must tell ye a store-y," and I could listen to her beautiful voice all day long. She is witty and adventurous, night owl and morning person (proof that "energizer bunny" must run in my extended family). She is wicked-smart and overwhelmingly selfless, a wonderful wife and mother, and although our relationship has been sustained through the years and across thousands of miles via snail-mail, e-mail, and shared photos, our hearts are entwined as if we were sisters. We share an unbreakable bond of love that defies the norm, if a "norm" even exists. She and her charming family (amazing husband Colin, and adorable kids, Ciara, Bronagh, and Ronin) have made a beautiful home for themselves in Sydney, Australia.

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Now, pause for just a moment and imagine my delight (and oh how my wheels started spinning) when Olivia decided to apply for UGA's Maymester Abroad program, taking her to, of all places, New Zealand and Australia. Yes, that's right. Worlds collided for us this summer, in the most spectacular kind of way (sans fireworks). In a word, it was

Olivia met her birth family in person for the first time, and two of the most influential women in my life became fast friends (and whanau). Try to convince me God doesn't write the very best, perfectly poignant stories. You will fail. 

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It would take an entire series of blogposts to explain the hows and whys of our trip itinerary, so just trust me when I say it was meant to be (the way it all went down), and that God's hand was evident in every single detail. I documented much of our time (with thousands of photos), but also held sacred many moments with eyes and heart alone. I'm all about photo creds, so whenever you see my face, trust that a family member, passerby, or haunted hotel staffer (*wink*) was kind enough to include me. Enjoy the "slideshow."

Welcome to Omahu (beach town outside Auckland) - homemade scones and espresso upon awakening. #heaven  The hunky "prowler" in the middle is Helga's husband Justin - baker of scones, and chef extraordinaire. #alsoasurgeon She's feigning fear. She really wanted to jump out of this tower (which you can pay to do), but I couldn't watch. #partypooper Back to the beach. Rain didn't dampen our spirits! #justasmalltsunami Evidence of God's unending promise, and impending beauty . . .  They are here!!! Blessed NZ welcome to Colin and Susan. #lovebeyondmeasure Even public toilets in New Zealand are beautiful.  Be still my heart. #makesmeteary A night at the "haunted" Waitomo Hotel. It really was delightful.  Helga's whole phenomenal fam - minus G. #wemissedyouso!!!  SO much love for these three beauties. . . #xoxoxoxo . . . and this wonderful man. #Godresthissoul So long for now beautiful Auckland . . . #we'llbeback! And hello Sydney siblings!!! Olivia sharing her photos and video from her Maymester.  First full day included Bronagh's birthday - ice cream for breakfast, ferry to the city, evening Skytower walk, and VIVID lightshow! #whew! Day 2 - Bondi Beach!!! #surfersparadise Day 3 - Sydney sibs "enjoyed" a day at school, while we took in a lighthouse hike and surfing at Palm Beach! #hookedonhanging10 Day 4 - Kangas and Koalas! And a rugby game in the Olympic Stadium that night. #girlsnightin Some of us enjoyed the up close and personal a wee bit more than others.  Day 5 - You guessed it! More surfing, followed by a relaxing movie night in. #peaceandcalm Day 6 - 8:00 a.m. Mass, delicious breakfast nearby, Hillsong service at 11:30, and Finding Dory after dinner! #wheninSydney Proud of their Kindy contraband. #rebels No coincidence that our visit begins and ends with "amazeballs." #Godisfunny Many people have eagerly asked/remarked since our return home from what has been proclaimed the trip of a lifetime, "SO, how was it?!?! Were you nervous? Was it awkward? Uncomfortable? A week is a LONG time to stay in someone's house!" It is a long time, but it was not the least bit uncomfortable. I think the adjective I've used most is amazing - although ordained, incredible, and delightful have been bandied about as well. The only challenge, if you could even call it that, was keeping everyone well fed and rested for the next day's activity. I'm sure it's hard to imagine from the outside looking in. I vow not to process or explain it away. Instead, I fervently thank every single person who offered up a prayer of blessing over our time there, and I give every single ounce of glory and gratitude to the God who set this thing in motion 34 years ago this summer. It truly was amazeballs.  


Nicole Hartman(non-registered) beautiful! I really don't have words. Thank you for sharing! Love you my friend.
Sobbing like a baby...Beautiful....Inspired....Unconditional Love.....Perseverance...Divinely Orchestrated....Intentional Love....We serve the most awesome God ever....He loves us so much it's overwhelming...So So So happy for ALL involved
Julie Shappard(non-registered)
WOW! You and your photos are amazing. Your story, this awesome story, is so profoundly beautiful! You are correct...God writes the very best stories. Thank you, Laura!!
Grace Wolnski(non-registered)
Thank you, Laura. My heart rejoices with you and Olivia and Kevin and Nathan. Such richness. I appreciate so much you letting us be a part of this with all of you.
Well said. Thank you for sharing this Laura. It's totes amazeballs.
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