Happy family: Merryl Brownlow, principal of Willard School in River Forest, with daughter Sara.Photos courtesy MERRYL BROWNLOW

Merryl Brownlow was planning a quiet Christmas at home with her husband, Alec, and their 6-year-old daughter Lucy.

That was until she got a call from her international adoption agency about a week before Christmas. The adoption of their 2-year-old daughter from Ethiopia had been finalized and they could bring her home to the United States.

The principal of Willard School in River Forest, was told she needed to be on a plane to Ethiopia to pick up her daughter, Sara. Brownlow had traveled to the country in November to expedite the adoption but some additional paperwork needed to be finalized. She was told that might take some time and Sara would likely be coming to her new American home after the New Year.

But the paperwork went through quicker that expected, and Sara would soon be spending her first Christmas in the U.S.

“I was on holiday break and preparing to spend Christmas with my family, and the next thing we know we’ve got to get on a plane in 72 hours to travel to Ethiopia,” Brownlow said.

The couple was able to get a flight to Ethiopia via Washington D.C. Lucy, whom the couple adopted from China in 2005, stayed with her grandparents. The Brownlows would travel with Sara back to D.C. before returning to Chicago on Christmas Eve. Miraculously, the couple was able to book flights despite the proximity of Christmas.

“We really see this as a special gift,” Brownlow said. “It’s hard not to think that there was a heavier hand than ours involved.”

They arrived home at 2 in the afternoon Christmas Eve. Sara has transitioned smoothly in the ensuing six weeks, according to mom. She’s in day care, and in her first trip to Willard, her mom said she was “running the halls like she belonged here.” While Brownlow was away, she was able to set up a blog so the students at Willard could follow the adoption adventure.

Some students are themselves adopted, so they were able to relate, their principal said.

Before coming to Willard two years ago, Brownlow was principal at Glen Grove School in Glenview for four years. She had just adopted Lucy shortly after taking that job. Lucy likes being a big sister now, Brownlow said, but that took some preparation before Sara’s arrival. The parents wanted to make sure their oldest was OK with no longer being their sole focus at home.

“I guess you can say there was some practicing involved,” Brownlow said. “I told her, ‘OK, when you have a little sister, let’s pretend she’s in the house and see if you can play for 20 minutes by yourself while I’m with her, and then we can do our routine.'”

Lucy caught on to other big sister things too, like keeping her favorite toys in her room so Sara wouldn’t accidentally break them. The 2-year-old is already able to speak two languages, including her native Amharic, and has quickly picked up some English words. She’s also developed her own English word for mom — Ma-Mo, with a long “o” sound.

“When she wants me, she says, ‘Ma-Mo näy näy — näy näy means ‘come here’ in Amharic,” Brownlow said.

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