In early June Kidsave Summer Miracles kid, Johana Costello realized a dream as she celebrated her graduation day with an intimate beach get together with her parents Katrina and James. After a tough start growing up in Colombia, Johana is living proof that no obstacle is too great when one has a family by their side.
At the age of seven, Johana ran away from her home in Colombia, leaving behind her seven siblings. She ended up living at Amparo, an all-girls institution and school, where she lived for two years, along with eighty other girls.
In 2007, Johana participated in Kidsave’s Summer Miracles program and made the life-changing trip from Colombia to New York to meet her host parents James and Katrina Costello. “Coming here, I didn’t think how crazy it was to get on a plane, with strangers, and go to a whole new country that spoke a different language. I think if I were asked [to do that] at my age now, I don’t know if I could” says Johana.
“We fell in love HARD when we hosted Johana,” Mom, Katrina reminisces. Although they didn’t share a common language James, Katrina, and Johana learned to communicate with gestures, expressions, and simple phrases.
That summer, the three of them spent time between New York and their summer home in Rhode Island. “We are an active family, so we were able to do activities together, smiling, laughing, sharing, and enjoying each other’s company while we fished, clammed, hiked, cooked, played basketball, and roasted marshmallows,” says Katrina and Jim.
In Rhode Island, Johana saw the beach for the first time, learned to swim and ride a bike. “I took everything in, but I never thought that this experience would become my life,” remembered Johana.
In addition to family events, they also attended Kidsave events where families interested in adoption could meet all the Summer Miracles kids. “It was when someone started inquiring about Johana that it made the whole situation real,” says Katrina. Driving home from the event, Johana slept between them. “At that moment, James and I decided to move forward with adoption,” said Katrina.
For Johana, the most emotional experience was leaving Katrina and James to return to Colombia. “Driving her to the airport was heartbreaking,” recalls Katrina. James held Johana tightly in his arms as they said goodbye, crying, and hugging. “I didn’t think I was going to see them again,” feared Johana. “Those five weeks was the first time I felt loved, safe, and cherished.” Due to protocol, they couldn’t share with Johana their plans to adopt her.
Back in Colombia, Katrina and James stayed in contact and sent Johana boxes of coloring books, toys, and clothes. On an emotional phone call at the beginning of February 2008, Johana found out she was going to be adopted!
When the family finally reconnected in Colombia, “I was shocked that they were there, and this was actually happening,” says Johana. “I imagine I held my mom’s hand the whole time. Upon leaving Colombia, Johana was a little sad to be leaving behind her culture, county, and family, not knowing when she would see them again. She hopes to one day reconnect with her siblings.
Finally, back to her forever home, Johana began school in the third grade. It was a scary experience for her. “I didn’t think I had an adequate education to succeed, and I was learning a whole new language at the same time. It was a difficult experience for me to make friends and try to fit in,” said Johana. It helped that Johana was in the same school that her mother taught in. Whenever I felt nervous, she would visit her Mom’s classroom. Observing her Mother care and inspire other kids, light a passion in Johana.
“The day I decided I wanted to become a teacher, I was sitting in my mom’s classroom,” reflects Johana, “I remember watching her teach and being excited to see the kids so happy and engaged in learning. I have also had some great teachers that have inspired me to want to make some impact on a child’s life.”
At the time Johana’s 3rd-grade teacher, Mrs. Emig, helped Johana feel included and welcomed by putting notes on furniture and Items around the classroom with their names and translations, helping Johana learn English and getting the whole class involved in learning Spanish. “In Colombia, school was not a priority; it was more about survival,” said Johana. “But here, I became a grade-A student, and I wanted to do well in school.”
“Johana learned English quickly,” recalls Katrina. “She is bright and has always been a good student. Throughout middle and high school, Johana made honor roll every year. She was a wonderful daughter. She is lovable, very funny, fun-loving, levelheaded, and thoughtful.”
That passion for learning paid off. This June, Johana graduated Magna Cum Laude from SUNY Cortland.
Looking forward, Johana is exploring master’s programs and deciding between ESL and Visual teaching programs. She eventually wants to teach high school and travel abroad to Third world countries to teach as well as help in any way possible, whether it is building a home or helping in an elephant sanctuary to give back and positively impact the world.
“Family is not blood,” said Johana. “Having a family means having someone always there for you no matter what, family supports and guides you, and always has your best interest. I didn’t know what family meant when I lived in Colombia. I experienced it for myself when I met Katrina and James.”
“Johana has brought us joy and fulfillment, and we consider her our greatest gift,” said Katrina. “I enjoy her company over everyone else’s. Deciding to become her parent has been the highlight of my life. As I had always said to her, (especially when I asked her to follow our curfew, rules, and advice when she was a teen), it’s all with love “because you are our precious jewel.”