Around the 400 LIFE offices, families are getting bigger. In the span of three months, four employees will have welcomed new kids into their respective families, a remarkable coincidence. In reality, families can work in a variety of forms. We found four families in Forsyth County to prove it. The stories of how they came together are different, but the answer to their success is the same: unconditional love.
This article appears in the December issue of 400 Life.
THE MILLER FAMILY
Coming together: When Louisiana-native Amber Miller got divorced in 2012, she had no job with a house to pay for and a 6-month-old baby to support.
Luckily, Miller had a helpful neighbor: her mom, Carol.
Carol was living just a few doors down the street from Amber and her daughter, Ava, at the time, but seeing their predicament, she bought the home, finished off the basement and moved in.
“When you have a 6-month-old baby, you need help,” Carol said. “So, I just said I’m packing my bags, and here I come.”
New routine: Over time, the new family unit found their roles in the home.
Amber cooks and cleans. Carol gets groceries and tends the backyard.
“I’m the messer-upper of the house,” Ava said.
Carol is the early-riser, and so every morning she makes coffee for Amber and a glass of milk for Ava. Amber helps Ava get ready for school, and then Carol takes her to the bus stop. She meets Ava there in the afternoon when she gets home from school.
The new arrangement had its growing pains, too.
“I had to figure out who she was as a full-time adult,” Carol said.
“I want [my mom’s] advice, but if I don’t take it that doesn’t mean I don’t love her and don’t respect her,” Amber said. “We had to come to some type of agreement.”
They figured it out. Amber now has a thriving mobile tanning bed business. Ava is thriving at Whitlow Elementary School. Carol enjoys pitching in any way that she can.
There’s a lot of dancing in the house, and they take beach vacations together.
“We call ourselves the ‘three Gs’ — three generations,” Amber said.
Most wonderful time of the year: Amber, Ava and Carol love Christmas, especially the night before the big day.
On Christmas Eve, Amber puts together a box of sentimental things: a key for Santa Claus to use to get into the house, food for Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer.
They’ve already had pictures taken with Santa.
“[Santa] said he wants chocolate chip cookies and milk,” Ava said, “and he wants carrots for the reindeer.”
And they always read a special Christmas book that uses recordings of Carol’s voice to tell parts of the story.
“That’s my favorite part,” Ava said.
Values: In the aftermath of her divorce, Amber found a newfound intensity to her Christian beliefs.
The three attend Browns Bridge Church, where Ava participates in UpStreet, the children’s ministry at the church. Carol and Ava say a prayer together on the way to the bus stop in the morning and another at night before bed.
Out of their faith has come the family’s core value.
“I think the main thing and what I always try to instill in Ava, especially growing up in the South, from Louisiana, is just always respecting everyone — your elders, your friends — and just treat other people the way you want to be treated,” Amber said.
“Kindness,” Carol added.
— Story by Brian Paglia, photos by Micayla Wise
THE KIEFER FAMILY
Coming together: Chris and Ranjani met at a Halloween party in college in Illinois, and for Chris it was love at first sight.
“I knew I loved her when I met her,” he said. “I just knew.”
The connection was immediate, even though they came from vastly different backgrounds.
Ranjani is of Indian descent and was born in Fiji. She lived there until her family moved to St. Louis when she was 8. She learned English by watching television shows with her siblings and cousins.
Chris is white and grew up in a military family, but that upbringing — his family lived for periods of time in Guam, Turkey and North Korea — gave him a well-rounded perspective of the world.
“That was probably the biggest thing I gravitated to with him, was just his open mind,” Ranjani said.
Finding Forsyth: The two got married after college in 2001 and moved to Chicago a year later. While there they had Devin and Derik.
The couple was expecting Darin in 2010 when Ranjani received a promotion that meant moving to Georgia. Chris quit his job as an athletic director at a high school, and the family moved to Marietta temporarily.
In search of good schools and a safe community to raise their kids, Chris and Ranjani decided to build a new home in Forsyth County. They moved in 2011 and have been here ever since.
Ranjani works for the federal government in downtown Atlanta, while Chris is now a teacher and girls lacrosse coach at West Forsyth High School where Devin is a freshman. Derik (fourth-grade) and Darin (third-grade) both attend Sawnee Elementary School.
“All the things that we always wanted we got when we moved here,” Chris said. “Forsyth County has been amazing.”
Family values: Every night, Ranjani tucks the three boys into bed and says the same thing: “Make smart leadership decisions.”
It’s the foundation of their family, Ranjani says, and a quality that Chris finds lacking among today’s youth.
“Me being a teacher, I see a lot of kids that are helpless,” Chris said. “They can’t take care of themselves. They can’t problem-solve. They can’t make decisions. … We want them to be leaders. We want them to help the teacher, help the kid next to you [in class]. Don’t be selfish and only worry about yourself.”
The couple have also instilled the importance of family in their three boys. All are involved in myriad activities. Devin plays piano and is on West Forsyth’s marching band and robotics and swim teams. Derik and Darin both wrestle, while Derik also plays lacrosse and Darin participates in theater.
Everyone attends each other’s activities to support them.
“They’re just all there for me,” Devin said. “I love them all.”
Special connection: The Keifer family is really into special occasions. They regularly host parties for New Year’s Eve and the Super Bowl. Every Wednesday they go to Dave & Buster’s.
The family loves the holidays, too. They always decorate the house with lights for Christmas. They have an egg hunt during Easter featuring a silver and gold egg that can have up to $50 inside.
But the Keifers really shine during Halloween. Almost every year they turn their garage into a haunted house and dream up ways to scare kids. One year, Chris wore a mask and sat with a bowl of candy. When kids grabbed candy, a neighbor ran out with a mask on and a chainsaw (without the chain, of course).
“I’ve never seen kids run so fast,” Chris said.
It’s memories like those that the Keifer family treasures the most.
— Story and photos by Brian Paglia
THE AYERS/THOMAS FAMILY
Coming together: Pete and Anna Thomas say that Boys Scouts and God brought their families together.
Both have two teenage sons (Anna also has a daughter who goes to UGA), and three of them had been involved in local Boy Scouts troops for years. Pete and Anna had different spouses at the time, but their families had been in the same Scout circle for years and never met.
Pete and Anna eventually both got divorced, and two years ago their paths finally crossed at a Scout event. A year later, in October of 2018, they got married, and their families of three and four became a #partyofseven.
One overwhelming challenge consumed their thoughts early on.
“The first thing that came to mind is our food bill is going to be outrageous,” Anna said.
In reality, the couple knew they had a lot to work to bring the families together, and it required constant communication. As they constructed their new family’s ground rules, they based them on what each family had learned through Scouts and church.
Oh, yeah, Pete and Anna had been attending the same church before they met.
“We were just going to be respectful of our fellow Scouters, we were going to be respectful of the people around us, and also what they learned in church about ‘do unto others,’” Pete said.
The name issue: Anna was cautious about the negative connotation of ‘stepmom,’ as well as crossing any boundaries between Pete's sons and their biological mother.
“They have a wonderful mom, and I didn’t want them to think I was coming to take her place,” Anna said. “I just wanted them to know I was partnering with their mom and dad to love them.”
So Anna met with each of Pete's kids individually and told them they could call her whatever they wanted.
“As long as it wasn’t derogatory,” Anna said.
Now, Pete's oldest calls Anna by her first name. His youngest calls Anna ‘Mom 2.’
“Which makes my heart soar,” she said.
Anna's sons call Pete by his first name, though her 16-year-old introduces him to friends as “dad.”
New traditions: This past fall break, the family went on a cruise, and it unlocked a desire to travel more as a group.
“We want to take a family trip out West this summer because our boys will be seniors in high school next year, and after that they’re off to college,” Anna said.
Pete added, “We’ve made the decision that we want more memories than stuff. They’ve got enough stuff. Everybody’s got enough stuff. We want more memories.”
Roasted: With a house full of teenage boys, it’s easy for banter to get a little edgy.
And anyone present is fair game.
“They all do it to each other,” Pete said. “That’s really fun, when everybody’s roasting everybody else. Even girlfriends get in on this.”
Pete and Anna wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Days when everybody is helping out [around the house] and everyone is roasting, my heart is full,” Anna said.
She added, “There’s just so much love in this family that I never knew we could have until we got together.”
— Story by Brian Paglia
THE COFFEY FAMILY
Getting the family together: It took a lot of moving and circumstance for members of the Coffey family to find each other. Parents Mike, a New Yorker, and Sherrie, from South Carolina, decided after getting married they wanted to adopt children and adopted daughters Zoe, a 15-year-old student at Alliance Academy for Innovation, and Joelle, a 12-year-old attending Vickery Creek Middle School, from China.
Though neither family has a history of adoption, Sherrie said she had wanted to adopt long before meeting Mike, a route the couple decided to go down while living in California.
As they were planning to adopt a child on the west coast, the couple relocated to the Atlanta area for work, where they “started almost immediately” looking into adoptions and heard from a couple who adopted from China.
“Zoe was born slightly thereafter, so we’ve always loved the story. We didn’t know Zoe at the time, but there was never a time that she wasn’t wanted,” Mike said. “We were planning this, all this stuff was coming together, but it took about seven months for that to happen. For Joelle, just a series of events changed and it took about three years.”
Zoe, who is from the Jiangxi province, was adopted in December 2004, and Joelle, from the Hunan province, was adopted in April 2010.
Keeping the culture: Keeping ties to Chinese culture has always been important for the Coffey family, even down to the girls’ names.
Though both have western first names, their middle names are both Chinese. Mike said he and Sherrie wanted the names to have a meaning rather than just sound pretty and said Zoe Jia Li “means a good and beautiful life” and Joelle Mei Li meant “to reflect God’s beauty.”
Another way the family keeps those connections is through groups of other families with adopted Chinese children, including a group Zoe has known her whole life.
“The girls that we try to meet up with every year, they’re actually the same girls that I was in the same orphanage with, so it’s a way to keep connections from China,” Zoe said.
In adopted families, Gotcha Day, also known as Adoption Day, is the annual celebration of the day kids are adopted, and each year the Coffey parents have a gift to remind their kids of their heritage.
“Sherrie was smart enough that when we were in China, to get something from China for every adoption day that is something from the heritage standpoint or as a reminder,” Mike said.
Advice for others: The Coffey family said their path to becoming a family was unique and said anyone who is considering adoption needs to look at a variety of factors.
“I think what I would say to somebody … just prepare in advance, and I would say, more than just obviously the paperwork and travel and stuff, prepare and understand how you need to parent them. It was a learning curve for us,” Sherrie said. “We parented them in the way that we were parented, but I think they needed something different. They needed more grace from the beginning. You can’t use the punitive, ‘I’m going to take away this or put you in time out.’”
When they were considering adopting, Mike and Sherrie were told at their very first information session that one day their kids would ask why they decided to adopt, and they said others considering adopting should be honest about their motivations.
“I thought that was a really great question, and we answered that question a long time ago,” Mike said. “We did it because we wanted someone to share our lives with, and we wanted to share our lives with our kids.
“The wrong answer to that is, ‘Well we did it because we wanted to make the world a better place,’ because your family and your kids and your spouse are not ministries, they’re not projects.”
— Story and photo by Kelly Whitmire