The group sat around a long series of tables, or stood shoulder to shoulder in the cramped main room of the two-story farmhouse, to participate in an annual family tradition.
Each person wrote something they were thankful for on a slip of paper and put it in a brown, glazed jug. As the jug was passed around, each person picked a slip of a paper and read its contents out loud.
When the jug came to Kadisha Montanez, she reached inside, picked out a slip and unfolded the paper.
“I am thankful that I am home with my family,” Kadisha read to the group.
Everyone looked at Kadisha’s daughter, Cinthya.
“We are too,” someone said.
“We love you, Cinthya,” said another.
Surrounded by strangers – some distant family members, some close, some she knew, some she didn’t – Cinthya was finally home.
‘I’m at home’
For over 10 years, the girl was kept away from her family and made to believe that her mother and family never loved her. Then she was abandoned at a girl’s home in Nicaragua with no one familiar to help her and no idea or reason to try and find her family.
All that changed when Kadisha recently received a message on Facebook from a nun in Nicaragua, saying that by the grace of god, Cinthya had been located.
"At first I hoped, but there was disbelief," Kadisha said of the moment she read the messages confirming that Cinthya had been found. "I could not believe that this was what happened to her. Stuff like this only happens in movies."
But it wasn’t a dumb movie trope. On Saturday, Nov. 16, Cinthya, Kadisha and the rest of the family were finally reunited, as if the teen had never been gone at all.
"We just yell, ‘Cinthya’ sometimes because we can," Kadisha said giddily. "I wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning to peek in at her."
“We had never met before,” said John Stephens, Cinthya’s stepdad. “It's all just kind of meshed; she came in, and it's been like she's been here forever. She just sort of fits in."
But as seamlessly as Cinthya has come back into her family’s life, the past week has turned their world upside down.
There are traumas in Cinthya’s past 10 years that will likely take her years to fully recover from, but for now the teen says she feels alright.
“I’m still getting used to things, but this was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she said.
Sitting on the couch with her mom and her stepdad, as the family’s small pack of happy dogs plays in the living room of their west Forsyth home, Cinthya says isn’t just happy, she’s home.
As she speaks, she repeats the word home, as if it were some fantastic dream.
“I’m at home,” she said. “It feels like home.”
“A pain I carry now”
Cinthya and Kadisha know that what happened to them over the last 10 years was both terrible and incredible.
On the one hand, they have the horror and loss that accompanies 10 years of separation, and on the other hand they have the joy and improbability of how they were reunited. To eventually move forward with their lives, some day they will have to forgive or forget those 10 years of pain, they said.
Kadisha said that part might be hardest for her, because of the intense guilt she feels for not contacting authorities when Cinthya was first kidnapped.
If she could go back and do things again, she said that she would have gone to the police immediately.
"I would not stop turning any stones. The first thing that I should have done is go the police," she said. "He was right under my nose, I could have probably found her, and that is a pain I carry now."
Both say that they would want to use their story as a way to help people in terrible, impossible positions, like the one they were each forced into.
"I didn't know the truth, and that made me give up. So if there was another case like mine, I would like to say, 'Never give up,'" Cinthya said. “I passed a rough, rough life, so I know how it feels, and I wouldn't like for other people to feel the same thing."
“That’s going to be good’
Since the Forsyth County News’ first article on Wednesday, Nov. 20, detailing Cinthya’s kidnapping and Kadisha’s 10-year journey to find her daughter, the family has been bombarded by attention from across the country and beyond.
On Monday, Kadisha and Cinthya were flown down to Miami to appear on the Telemundo program, “Un Nuevo Dia” to tell their story before a live studio audience.
Cinthya said that she has been overwhelmed by the media attention that her story has received. She never expected that her story would interest so many people from around the world.
"It's really different, because I never expected it to be this big,” she said. “I thought I was going to meet my mom, but nothing like this, being on TV."
And even though she’s had to relive her story, and her family’s pain for hundreds of people over the past week, Cinthya says she’s been able to handle it because she has her mom and her home, and that’s all she needs.
"That's all I wanted when I was little," she said.
Soon enough the attention will die down and Cinthya’s parents say they are looking forward to that, because for Cinthya’s sake their family needs to move on, away from the constant attention.
“There is a lot going on right now, but once it dies down, getting into school, making friends and getting in a normal life, that's going to be good." John said.
And Cinthya seems to agree with her new stepdad. Scrolling through her phone, headphones in, she’s already like any other American 15-year-old girl.
Unsurprisingly, after all the drama the teen says she’s OK that the biggest things on her priority list for the next few weeks are decorating the Christmas tree, making video calls to her friends still in Nicaragua and pestering John to teach her how to drive.
"First thing she said when walking to my truck from the airport today was, 'You've gotta teach me how to drive!" John said with a smile.
“You do!” Cinthya said back.