From left: Frankie, Angie, Katherine and Pamela make empañadas with their parents, Tim and Jennifer Pohlhaus, in their Bethesda home. Photo by Michael Ventura
Tim Pohlhaus stands at the kitchen counter, kneading masa, a corn flour dough used to make tortillas, in a glass bowl. His oldest daughter, Frankie, 13, holds a glass measuring cup of water. She pours a bit of the water, which contains Latin spices, into the bowl as he continues to knead. “We’re getting there,” he tells her. “It’s got to be uniform.”
Angie, 11, has finished mashing avocados and mixing homemade guacamole. “That’s my favorite thing [to make],” she says. Why? Frankie answers for her, quietly but giggly, “Because she likes to eat it!”
Two more glass bowls sit on the counter—Katherine, 10, has shredded the queso fresco in one, while the youngest child, Pamela, 9, has torn the cilantro into small pieces in the other.
It’s Friday night, so the children, who attend North Bethesda Middle School and Ashburton Elementary School, have a little extra time to play with the new tortilla press. The girls’ mom, Jennifer Pohlhaus, arrives home around 5 p.m., an hour and a half after Tim, who greets the girls off the bus.
Just two and a half years ago, the children were living in an orphanage in Costa Rica. They were well taken care of and loved, Tim says, but growing up among a large group of kids created challenges. “They were rough with one another,” he says of the four sisters he and Jennifer adopted in 2015. One of the first lessons was: “We’re a family of respect.” Hitting, hair-pulling, kicking were not tolerated.
Tim and Jennifer began the process to adopt when they lived in North Carolina around 2003, two years after they married, but multiple moves across the U.S. and obstacles with programs in Ethiopia and Burundi discouraged the couple, so they put things on hold. In 2014, Tim, Jennifer and their dog, Anouk, now 16, were living in their home in Bethesda, where the couple had moved for work. Tim is employed by the Food and Drug Administration, and Jennifer co-owns a government consulting firm. That’s when they both received an email from an agency they were working with and a photo of four sisters in Costa Rica.
“This is what we think is God’s calling, for us to do this,” says Jennifer, who attends St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Rockville with her family. She remembers thinking, the girls need a home, and if we don’t do this, they might not leave the orphanage or they might get broken up.
The couple started learning Spanish (Tim for the first time, and Jennifer as a refresher from high school) and spoke with the girls on Skype for the next five months. They met in February 2015. “We just all ran together and had a big hug. It didn’t really feel like it was real until then,” Jennifer says. The girls say they were shy and a little scared but excited to meet their new parents. For seven weeks, the family lived in a hotel in Costa Rica as they waited for the government to finalize the adoption. The girls spoke very little English, and Jennifer often became the translator.
Once in Maryland, the girls had two months before summer break. Vaccinated and assessed for their grade levels, the girls were paired with bilingual students who could help translate. That summer, as they ran around the neighborhood with other kids, they started to become fluent in English.
Tim, 41, and Jennifer, 40, encountered challenges that most parents of young children experience. To recognize good behavior, they created reward systems. Stickers for kind and respectful actions. Poker chips for doing chores, which could pay for “tablet time.” The systems worked for the most part—except when Angie didn’t seem to care if she earned tablet time. That led to the color system, which could lead to a loss of privileges.
But on that Friday night, after making tortillas, the girls are well-behaved, holding hands around their dining room table. It’s Katherine’s turn to say the blessing before the meal. Then Tim and Jennifer ask the girls to tell one story about their day. Pamela says she and other students had a “hot chocolate lunch.” Angie explains in great detail the fitness routine her class did. Frankie suddenly declares, “I want to be in a club.” When Tim asks which one, she giggles: “I don’t know.”