It was a balmy spring morning in 2012 when Hannah Suffridge invited Ty Gotham, a classmate and friend at Moody Bible Institute, to join her for Sunday services at Reborn Community Church in Chicago followed by an outing to the beach with Elijah, a 3-year-old African American boy in the congregation.
After being introduced to Ty and kissing his mom goodbye, Elijah grabbed Hannah and Ty by the hand and accompanied them to Oak Street Beach along Lake Michigan.
Unbeknownst to Ty, he had just met his future son.
A decade later, on July 28, 2022, Ty and his wife, Emily Gotham, left Cook County Circuit Court in Chicago as the proud parents of 13-year-old Elijah James Gotham. The adoption proceedings marked the end of a surreal, emotional, painful, and unexpected 10-year-long journey for Ty and Eli—and the beginning of a greater adventure ahead.
From that first excursion to the beach, Ty and Elijah quickly formed a close bond. Elijah’s father eventually left the family to fend for itself, leaving Elijah’s mother to raise four boys on her own.
Over the next four years, Ty invested in Elijah’s life every other week while attending Moody. The two became inseparable, hanging out at parks, playgrounds, the beach, and Moody’s Chicago campus. Ty and Hannah brought Elijah into Ty’s circle of friends in Moody’s Communications department, even letting him run around the media lab taking photos of students with Ty’s camera as Ty shot and edited video projects.
Emily, Hannah’s roommate, entered Elijah’s life after she and Ty began dating in 2013.
“Ty is amazing with little kids,” Emily says. “He hit it off with Elijah. When we met, he was playing ninjas with Elijah in my apartment. He becomes an older sibling when he gets around younger kids.”
Even though their upbringings, races, and backgrounds were distinctly different—Ty is white and was born and raised in Wausau, a small town in Wisconsin—Ty emerged as a big brother to Elijah. As their relationship blossomed, Ty noticed more and more similarities in personality, interests, and temperament between them.
“I think Elijah and I are a lot alike,” Ty says. “He has a lot of the same nature as I have. He’s fun loving, outgoing, and yet also stubborn. I could see myself in him. We have a lot of things to bond over. I had a lot of the same life perspectives as him even as a young kid. I always loved kids and looked for ways to hang out with kids, even on campus. It’s why my pastor thought I’d go into children’s ministry.”
‘Then he was just gone’
After building a tight-knit friendship over four years, Ty’s relationship with Elijah suddenly and shockingly halted in April of 2016. Living in a single-parent family with a meager income, Elijah and his three brothers had to sleep in the same bed. One morning when the older boys awakened, they discovered the unthinkable: their youngest brother, an infant, had passed away sometime during the night.
The Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) was immediately alerted, and 7-year-old Elijah and his brothers were removed from the home while the baby’s death was investigated.
With Hannah now residing outside of the Chicago area, DCFS contacted Ty. He and Emily, who had just gotten engaged, hastily registered with DCFS so that Elijah and his brothers could stay at Emily’s modest apartment in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood.
“Emily had a futon and an air mattress. The three boys were sleeping on a futon, Emily slept on an air mattress, and I came over and slept on the floor to help take care of them,” Ty says. “Everything was so chaotic for those boys.”
Two nights later, DCFS transferred Elijah and his brothers into foster care. At the request of Elijah’s mom, the agency cut off all contact between Elijah and Ty and Emily.
“He was just gone,” Ty says. “We didn’t know how to reach or find him. It was tough. We didn’t know where he was or if he’d go back with his mom, and we didn’t know if she was at fault for his infant brother’s death. We felt helpless like we couldn’t do anything.”
“We thought about Elijah often and prayed for him a lot,” Emily says.
A life-altering phone call
After Ty graduated from Moody in May 2016 (Emily graduated in 2015) and married Emily that September, the couple started their new life together in Chicago while struggling to make ends meet. Eventually, with help from Emily’s parents, they purchased a six-bedroom house on Chicago’s west side, renting out the other five bedrooms to former and current Moody students to help cover mortgage payments.
“We were dirt poor,” Ty says.
Four years after Elijah was seemingly taken from their lives forever, Ty received an unexpected voicemail in March of 2020.
“The caller said, ‘I’m Elijah’s foster mother. I heard from Hannah that you used to hang out with him. I was wondering if you would want to hang out with him again,’” Ty recalls. “I was absolutely floored. I called back right away and asked if I could see him.”
An unexpected reunion
The message arrived at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, so Ty’s much-anticipated reunion with Elijah had to be delayed until the summer. Fortunately Elijah’s foster home was in Chicago, which allowed Ty and Emily to reconnect with the now 11-year-old child who had captured Ty’s heart as a precocious 3-year-old.
“I picked him up at his foster home and took him for a drive,” Ty remembers. “We went to a park and hung out for quite some time, then we hung out at our house and just played around. It was so good to see him and be happy that he was in our lives again.”
Even though they had been separated for four years, Ty and Elijah’s special attachment was instantly restored almost as if they had never been apart.
“He was excited to see me,” Ty says. “He remembered me, but he also had forgotten me if that makes sense. While he was in foster care he’d forgotten that I existed. But when he was reminded of me it was very emotional for him. He remembered all the things we had done together. It was a really crazy time of different emotions.
“After we dropped him off at his foster home, his foster mom, we call her Granny, texted me a picture of him with tears streaming down his face. We reignited that bond quickly.”
‘She is a beautiful old soul’
DCFS had determined that Elijah’s mother could not sufficiently raise Elijah or provide a safe and loving home environment for him and his three younger brothers. (Another brother was born after their infant brother had died.) Two of his brothers were living together in one foster home, and the third brother was in another home. Elijah was living in the foster home of an elderly woman affectionately referred to as Granny.
“She is a beautiful old soul,” Ty says. “She’s a black woman in Chicago with a heart for God. She wants to minister to children in these types of situations with the love of a grandmother, and then after some time she finds them a home.”
After Ty and Emily saw Elijah again later that summer, Granny surprised the Gothams again with an even more urgent request.
“As soon as Granny saw that we were Christians and we were married, she said to us, ‘Please adopt Elijah,’” Ty says. “We told her that’s a lot of ask for. We want to, but let’s figure out first if that’s what Elijah wants.”
Foray into foster parenting
Ty and Emily began seeing Elijah more frequently, increasing their visits to weekly. They then asked Granny if Elijah could stay at their home for three days.
“Before that, Elijah probably felt like he’s the only priority when he’s with us,” Ty says. “Let’s see what it looks like when I’m working on my computer and Emily is doing what she is doing and see how he responds.”
The overnight visit went smoothly, as Elijah accepted the routine of being part of Ty and Emily’s home life without expecting to always be their center of attention. Knowing there were obstacles to face—lacking any parenting experience and being only 16 years older than Elijah among the hurdles to clear—the Gothams took a significant step toward adoption when they asked Elijah if he would like them to be his foster parents.
Elijah and Granny each agreed to the offer. After registering with DCFS, Ty and Emily accepted Elijah as their foster son on March 5, 2021, shortly before his 12th birthday.
‘There was no consistency in his life’
As Elijah settled into their home and daily lives, Ty and Emily knew Elijah’s troubled childhood would present challenges. Elijah grew up in poverty-stricken neighborhoods and spent most of his formative years to date in a destitute single-parent family until he entered the foster care system. He battled anger management, feelings of guilt, and low self-esteem even before foster care, and those issues exacerbated as a foster child.
After living in a series of foster homes for a year and a half, Elijah was assigned to Granny’s supervision from December 2017 to January 2019. He then briefly stayed with his godparents before bouncing through a succession of foster homes and finally a group home until Granny requested foster custody again in 2020 when he was 11.
“I had to get him out of the residential home. It was God’s desire for him to return to me,” Granny says.
This sustained 3 ½-year absence of stability left a devastating effect on Elijah’s emotional well-being and sense of security.
“There was no consistency in his life,” Ty says. “He was hot-potatoed around for four years. He still struggles with the idea if he does something wrong he might get tossed out or somehow rejected. One time he did something wrong in our home and knew he would be disciplined for it. He asked if he’d lose his room as discipline for what he did. I told him, ‘Buddy, you’ll never lose your room or bed or privilege in our family.’”
Foster families grappled with how to handle Elijah’s anger issues; he frequently erupted in temper tantrums, rebelliousness, swearing, and lashing out at authority figures in his life. When Granny first took him in when he was 8, she soon recognized the underlying source behind his extremely combative nature.
“He came here feeling like he was a big mistake, like he was a big mess, that he killed his baby brother,” Granny says. “So much weighed on his heart. He was very, very sad, so I wanted to get the love of God in him. I wanted to begin just at the very tip of the iceberg. I wanted to show him love and build him up, build his self-worth, and show him that he wasn’t just a mess. And every time I went to God, screaming and hollering, asking Him why (Elijah was so difficult), that was His response: Love him.”
Discovering Elijah’s tortured past
As Elijah’s trust of Ty and Emily deepened, he began revealing more details about the severe adversity he encountered as a young child.
“I let him open up about anything he wants to talk to me about it,” Ty says. “Sometimes he doesn’t know the weight of what he’s talking about. One day we were driving through Chicago. He pointed to a building and said, ‘That’s where I used to live.’ I said, ‘The homeless shelter?’ He said, ‘Yeah, me and Momma and my brothers, we lived there.’”
The extent of the poverty Elijah coped with spilled out, even in his eating habits at dinner. He would make sure to consume all the food on his plate even when he wasn’t hungry, fearing that another meal may not come.
“When he lived with his mom, he and his brothers would sneak into the kitchen and eat peanut butter out of the jar in the middle of the night because there was nothing else around for food,” Ty says. “That food insecurity may never fully go away. There’s always that thought in the back of your head that I need to do this to protect myself. It’s now a process of creating something new, a new, stronger, truer voice that says you’re safe, you’re loved, everything’s going to be OK.”
Living with ‘the oddballs’
As the Gothams’ foster child, Elijah also observed how Ty and Emily got along with their neighbors as two of the few white residents in their section of Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood. Most of their neighbors were black or Hispanic, and the Gothams were one of the only biracial households in North Lawndale.
“I think he saw the whole spectrum of reactions to us being the oddballs, from the excitement of people seeing us there to, ‘Like, what are you doing here? Get out,’” Ty says with a laugh. “He got a chance to see us respond to both acceptance and rejection from people who don’t look like us.”
While as new parents the Gothams were learning on the fly how to raise a 12-year-old, Elijah was gaining insights into their parenting both through personal experience and by watching how Ty and Emily treated the children in the neighborhood.
“Some of the neighbor boys called me Dad—they didn’t have a dad in their life, so they called me Dad,” Ty says. “I would hang out with them and even discipline them. If they were doing something they shouldn’t have been doing, I would stop them and spend time talking with them about why what they were doing was wrong.
“One time the boys were throwing rocks in front of our house. I stepped outside and told them, ‘The next person who throws a rock, I’m carrying you home.’ One of the boys held up a rock in his hand and threw it right after I had warned them. I walked down my steps and walked up to him. As soon as I caught him he was bawling. You earn their respect when you make them listen. I carried him home and his auntie asked, ‘All right, what’d he do now?’”
‘He usually gets it right’
Elijah also embraced Ty and Emily’s commitment to teaching him personal responsibility.
“Whatever and whenever we can, we give him responsibilities,” Ty says. “If it’s a chore around the house or something where we’re dependent on him getting it right, he usually gets it right.”
The Gothams also ensured that Elijah remained connected with his brothers, arranging for him to see them once a month. “They’re always excited to get together, then once they’re together they treat each other like typical brothers, fighting and arguing about things as brothers tend to do,” Ty laughs. “Elijah loves his brothers.”
Officially a forever family
After 16 months as a foster family, Ty, Emily, and Elijah couldn’t wait to make their family official. Elijah’s adoption was approved in the court system in July 2022.
For Granny, the adoption was an answer to years of impassioned prayer.
“Elijah loved Ty. I knew that was from God because Ty had experienced his behaviors and all that,” Granny says. “To top it all off, Ty had a genuine love for Elijah. It wasn’t just a white man wanting to get a black boy; he actually loved Elijah. To hear that Ty and Emily had prayed for Elijah when they didn’t know where he was—it doesn’t get any better than that.
“The agency said I wanted too much for Elijah. I wanted a Christian couple, millennials who could keep up with him, and a good, safe, secure home. And I got all of that.”
New home, new start
Once the adoption was finalized, the Gothams uprooted from North Lawndale to Wausau, Ty’s hometown, for a new start a few weeks later. Ty, Emily, and Elijah moved in with Ty’s parents, joined Ty’s childhood church, enrolled Elijah in eighth grade at D. C. Everest Junior High—Ty’s old middle school—and introduced their son to small-town life in the quaint city of 39,000 residents in north-central Wisconsin.
“Moving in with us was my husband’s idea,” says Sue Gotham, Ty’s mother. “It was a God thing the way it came about. Everyone agreed it was a good decision to move here. We can offer support as grandparents whenever they need us. Mentoring Elijah has been a very special role that I wouldn’t have as much if we weren’t living together.”
Elijah rapidly and happily adjusted to his new surroundings.
“He feels safe here in Wausau,” Sue says. “There’s not the danger that was there in the old neighborhood. He makes friends easily. He’s made friendships in the neighborhood and likes his school and church and going out in nature.”
Like father, like son
Sue and Aaron Gotham, Ty’s father, crack up remembering their introduction to Elijah when he was 7.
“He and his brothers were visiting Ty at Moody. They were so funny. They wanted me to do a cartwheel,” Sue recalls. “My son and husband tried to stop me, but I did it. It wasn’t pretty, but I did it!”
Seeing Elijah on a daily basis now, Ty’s parents have noticed a striking resemblance between Elijah and Ty when their son was Elijah’s age.
“Elijah is a lot like Ty was,” Sue says. “He’s a very positive, very extroverted child with a lot of energy. Ty understands Eli and his thought process most of the time and can handle what he has been through and what he thinks as an active child. They have a similar personality but of course not the same background.”
Elijah adoption announcement
Under the training of his parents and the support of his grandparents and his new church, Elijah is also flourishing in his faith in Jesus Christ.
“He’s always playing worship music in the house and watching sermons on TV,” Ty says. “If we have a conversation with him about a spiritual topic, he will respond to that topic quite readily. Often times he’ll ask me to read a Bible story to him at night. He’s very interested in the Bible. I go into context about the story and narrative with him. He’ll ask questions and share his thoughts and express a lot of interest in the discussion.”
The mom and dad conundrum
Although Elijah already refers to Ty’s parents as Grandma and Grandpa, he continues calling Ty and Emily by their first names. The Gothams understand why.
“He doesn’t call us Mom or Dad, but when he’s talking to someone he’ll call us his mom or his dad,” Ty says. “To be 13 and transition into our lives as buddies and now we’re in the role of parents, it’s a much more complicated question for him. He embraces that we have the authority as parents over him, and he will say he’s glad he has us as his parents. He treats us similarly to how I treated my parents when I was his age.”
Embraced by their new community
The townsfolk in Wausau have welcomed Elijah and his family openly and enthusiastically. This is in part because of the city’s diverse racial makeup of Caucasians and Asian Americans and largely due to the community’s established culture of treating one another with respect.
“I can’t tell you the number of people we’ve run into who have said, ‘Oh, we’ve adopted too,’” Ty says. “Even when I went to register Elijah for school, I ran into two ladies who worked at the school who said they’ve adopted too. They get excited for you and cheer you on. People really respond to our adoption in appreciative ways.”
Thus far, Elijah has only undergone a couple of negative responses in Wausau. One reaction came from a young boy in their neighborhood. After noticing Ty and Elijah together for the first time, he remarked to Elijah, “That can’t be your dad. Who is your real dad?” When Elijah replied that he didn’t know his biological father, the boy commented, “Your real dad must be from Africa.”
Ty clarified the boy’s remarks to Elijah later that day. “I told Elijah he isn’t trying to be insensitive,” Ty says. “He’s just curious.”
During school, another student told Elijah that he assumed Elijah was planning to beat him up “because the black kid at my last school beat me up.”
Ty says, “We’ve tried to do our best to explain that any sort of racism or anything they might say that seems insensitive is based in misunderstanding. We pointed to times in Elijah’s life where he said something out of misunderstanding the person or situation to help him see the other person’s comments from the other person’s perspective.”
Forever families for his brothers
Like their oldest brother, Elijah’s younger brothers were adopted by their foster families in 2022 as well. Elijah’s 11- and 9-year-old brothers were adopted into the same family, and the youngest brother, who is 4, was adopted into a separate family. Ty and Emily plan to bring Elijah back to Chicago during holidays so he can maintain his connection with his brothers throughout childhood and hopefully long term.
The Gothams are also considering if and when they’ll expand their family with biological children. “It's never been something we feel we have to do, but at this point we’re definitely talking about having biological kids,” Ty says.
After having four brothers, “Elijah said he wants a little sister,” Sue says. “I could see him loving on a little sibling.”
The Gothams also continue to keep in touch with Granny, the inspiring woman who reunited Ty and Emily with Elijah and encouraged them to adopt him. The Gothams still own their home in North Lawndale; Ty stays there when he travels to Chicago for video shoots with Gotham House, his new video production company.
“We still see Granny,” Ty says. “I can’t get anything past her. She’ll call and see how everyone is doing, and if she senses I’m the slightest bit sick she zips right over with chicken soup. She’s got another foster kid now. That’s her ministry.”
A unique parenting journey
As new parents to a teen from a decidedly different background, race, and upbringing, Ty and Emily know their parenting path can be steep, rocky, and at times overwhelming as they help Elijah deal with the weight of formidable childhood challenges.
As one recent example, Ty, Emily, and Elijah were taking a walk with Elijah’s grandparents when Elijah stopped to pet another family’s dog along the trail.
“He hurt himself and started bawling. I told my parents and wife we’d catch up to them,” Ty says. “I sat with him and asked what was wrong. He said he didn’t want to get left behind. It’s that kind of stuff where we have to remind him that he’s loved and we’re not going anywhere. I told him, ‘If you got lost I wouldn’t eat or sleep until I found you.’ That’s the kind of love he hasn’t come to expect yet.
“His definition of love is shaped by how people act after they say it to you. He’s just starting to learn what the word really means. He’s been hurt by so many people.”
To equip themselves to parent Elijah effectively in his unique circumstances, Ty and Emily read, pray, lean on each other and a circle of family and friends, and reach out to people they know and trust who can offer helpful insights and experiences. And they strive to consistently love their son unconditionally.
‘God orchestrated everything’
As profoundly as Elijah has been impacted by Emily and especially Ty, the Gothams say their lives, attitudes, values, marriage, and character are continually developing and evolving through their roles as Elijah’s parents.
“God has grown both of us so much through this whole experience,” Emily says. “A lot of my ideas about my relationship with Him and about being adopted into His family have changed. Dealing with Elijah’s baggage on his terms and watching him unlearn bad habits and learn different habits now, the patience it takes and the love it requires—God is really good about giving us the patience and love we need because I’m honestly bad at that. I’m hoping that I’m growing in this process.”
The amazing adventure with Elijah that started with an innocuous trip to the beach back in 2012 is one that Ty, a video storyteller by trade, could never have envisioned or plotted—but he’s immensely grateful that Someone did.
“Let’s face it: This is all really crazy. We could not have planned it at all,” Ty says. “Looking back, God orchestrated everything. And we’re so glad He did.”