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A New Life in America

story by Jordan Putt

Kelly Walden slips into the dark room with maps tacked up on a pink wall and creeps into bed with her teenage daughter. At first, Kalkidan—or Kal—resists the voice pulling her out of sleep. But soon, the two push back the covers and head to the bathroom where they take turns in front of the mirror.

When Kal was adopted from Ethiopia at age 13, she was scared. She's had to adjust to not only a new family but a new life in Paducah as a Walden. A year passed before she hugged Kelly—a moment her mom cherishes. When it happened, Kal immediately retreated several feet. It didn't happen again for several months.

Now at 16, Kal lets Kelly crawl into bed to wake her up and she's started calling her mom, if only when Kelly isn't in the room.

Kelly and her husband, Wayne, had decided long ago that they would eventually adopt after having three kids biologically. The first year after Kal came home was the hardest, Kelly says, but she celebrated that, no matter what, her newest daughter gained a family.

"After a year of giving her all this affection without receiving it back it got really hard. I wanted to give up, but you just can't," Kelly says. "Well you can, but we just couldn't."

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Kal plays in her backyard. Adopted at 13, she says that one of the things she misses most about Ethiopia is playing outside with her friends.

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Kal's mom, Kelly Walden, spends a lot of time with Kal as she gets ready in the morning, from snuggling in bed to suggesting outfits for school. After rejecting a few, Kal settles on overalls and a green long-sleeved shirt.

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When Kelly first met Kal, she started writing on Facebook about the experience. Eventually, the posts gained traction, and she has written enough to publish a book. Kelly and Kal read one of the passages about the first time Kal attempted a knock knock joke. Because of the language barrier, it didn't go well.

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Kal, 16, sits through a lesson in Spanish class. After three years homeschooling to learn English, she's a new freshman at Paducah Tilghman High School. She says most of her friends are in her English as a Second Language class.

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Kal practices the E-major scale in Matt Hinz's piano class. Matt also has taught Kal's three older siblings. He admires the youngest Walden, saying, "She's just fearless."

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Kal receives her vaccines. Although initially excited for her shots, she shrieks in fear. Her mom attempts to comfort her while holding her arm in place.

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Kal and Wayne discuss the necessary spices for for taco meat. Kal's diet has changed dramatically since she arrived in Kentucky where she found a new love for Mexican food.

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Kal uses Skype with her best friend Roman, who lives in Atlanta. Kal and Roman met in an orphanage in Ethiopia. They reconnected in the U.S. once Roman was adopted by a family, and frequently call each other.

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Kal and her sister Michael-Ellen, rush out the door for school.

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Like many teenage American girls, Kal spends some of her time babysitting children from her neighborhood. Each time, Kelly stays for a while to help before leaving Kal alone. Eventually, Kal will take over completely.

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One early morning, Kelly and Kal relax before Kal goes to school. Except for Michael-Ellen, Kelly's other two children go to college away from home.

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Kal has learned the routine at home and helps out by sometimes taking out the trash.

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The Walden family prays together before dinner. Kal never closes her eyes while praying but has embraced Christianity like her parents.