YORK, Pa. — Natalie Quesenberry’s journey to Bulgaria — and an uncertain future — began in August 2014 when she and her husband, Eric, watched a documentary detailing the plight of orphans in the eastern European country.
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The film, Bulgaria’s Abandoned Children, documented the lives of 75 children who had been abandoned simply because they had disabilities. They were pretty much warehoused in an institution called the Social Care Home. Many of the children couldn’t speak — not because they were unable to, but because nobody had ever taught them. Some just wasted away, bedridden.
It haunted Quesenberry. She was adopted herself, and the stories about the abandoned children of Bulgaria stayed with her, keeping her up at night. The children deserved better.
She and her husband — devout Christians and members of Tidings of Peace Mennonite Church in York — felt they had to do something. Had they witnessed such suffering and done nothing, that would be a sin, Natalie said.
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On Aug. 25, 2014, they signed the papers to begin the process of adopting two children from the home in Bulgaria. In his prayer journal, Eric wrote, “I thank God for calling us to this great task. God will not give me more than I can take.”.
They already had a big family — four children of their own and a niece and two nephews they were raising as their own. They knew it would be a challenge, but they knew they could meet it.
Eric and Natalie had been together since they were both 17. They met at a roller skating rink. They were both supposed to meet other people, but they were stood up. They started talking and never stopped. They knew when they met that they were meant to be together.
Eric studied carpentry and worked a variety of jobs. In 2007, he and a partner started Exact Machine Service in York. The business is successful. Natalie is a nurse. She doesn’t have to work, she said, but she still does because she loves her job. Nursing is a calling.
They bought a large house in the suburbs, Springettsbury Township, and raised their family.
They were a little nervous about expanding their family. But they trusted in God and they knew it was the right thing to do. If they could give one child a chance at a better life, they would be serving God.
The adoption process was lengthy. They had to submit a dossier and open their home for inspection. Finally, last fall, they traveled to Sofia to meet the boys they were going to adopt.
It was scary, Natalie said, overwhelming. The children’s needs are so great and resources are so scarce.
They met Jaron and James. Jaron is 5. He was born prematurely and has been blind since birth. James is 11 and is considered moderately developmentally delayed, something that may have been the result of his institutional upbringing.
Natalie remembered thinking, “What are we doing? Maybe God’s crazy for having us do this.”.
Still, they went forward.
On Feb. 20, they flew to Sofia, accompanied by their 13-year-old son, Ian, who had always dreamed of having a passport and traveling abroad.
It was a whirlwind, Natalie said. They arrived after a 14-hour flight, slept, and the next day they went to the orphanage and picked up Jaron and James and took them back to the apartment they rented. They had to stay in the city for a week so the boys could pass their physical exams and acquire visas.
The day before they were to leave, Feb. 27, they went for a walk in the city with the boys. It was strange, Natalie said. People stared at them and the boys. It was unsettling.
They returned to their apartment feeling discouraged, she said. They prayed and talked. Natalie told Eric, “Together, we can do this. Everything will be OK. I love you.”.
Eric went into the bedroom, and Natalie followed a short time later. When she entered, she saw Eric kneeling at the bedside. She thought he was praying, but then she noticed that his foot was turned at an awkward angle.
She called his name.
He didn’t respond.
She turned him over and began CPR, her nursing training taking over.
She knew, though, he was gone. A heart attack. He was only 44.
He died on the eve of their 24th anniversary.
She began screaming. It was terrifying, she said. Ian fetched the building’s doorman, who called an ambulance. Natalie posted a message on an adoption website. “My husband just dropped dead. I don’t know what I’m going to do. Please pray for me.”.
Three missionaries responded to her message and came over to help. A neighbor who heard her screams also came by. People took her into their homes and took care of the boys while Natalie figured out what she had to do next.
Eric was cremated, and she was able to bring his ashes home — along with the boys. Some people, she said, told her that perhaps she shouldn’t bring the boys home, that she perhaps needed some time.
“I knew that Eric would have wanted me to bring the boys home and trust in God,” she said. “Otherwise, his death would have been for nothing.”.
She has had time to ponder the question that has bothered since her husband died: “Why would God do this to anyone?”.
She knows that God has a plan for her; she just doesn’t know what it is. She always thought Eric was part of it. And now he isn’t.
She does know one thing, though — one thing that she hopes is the lesson from her experience.
“Every day God gives you is a gift,” she said. “You have to live your life. Don’t hold back. Live your life and live it big. Love the people in your life every day because they could be gone in a minute.”.
She had a cousin tell her, “Everybody is going to die, but not everybody lives.”.
She said, “Eric really lived his life.”.