Adoptive Family Travel Heritage Journeys

Here’s Why They Work for Adoptees and Their Families


Maybe you’ve dreamed about a heritage journey for years, or perhaps have recently begun thinking about it. We are available to answer your questions, discuss your dream, and provide information for you to consider as the dream takes shape.


Adoptive Family Travel works with adoptees and their families to design trips that visit the sites, and provide opportunities for unique, authentic experiences. Families often connect with people and places important to them like orphanages, birth hospitals, places of finding, foster homes, caregivers & birth family.


Adoptees and their families often tell us they feel like the trip was planned “just for their family” even when traveling with one of our Flagship Ties or Ties Lite groups. That is our goal for each and every traveler on this journey of identity.


You can relax and focus on the amazing experiences and emotions this trip brings. You can trust us to be on top of all the details! Plus, we’ll build in free time as well as flexibility so you can do the things YOU want to do without worry.


Our full team of adoption specialists will be at your disposal including a logistical genius, our in-country team, and English-speaking local guides and translators. We offer optional Connect & Chat for adoptees and Talk Time for parents and spouses. Ties offers the most supportive way to experience your birth country.


It is impossible to overstate the importance of adoptees traveling with other adoptees,
or families traveling with other familie
s. It provides community, resources, friendships, and STRONG bonds through shared experience.


We’ve done adoptive family heritage journeys for almost 30 years now. Nearly every day, we hear from a Ties alumni adoptee or parent. Many of the adoptees traveled as pre-teens or teens and are now in their 30’s or 40’s or even 50’s. They continually talk about the profound impact of their Ties experience. We couldn’t feel more joy to hear their words.

by The Ties Program

Birth Country Connections and Their Impact — The Heart of the Journey

For more than 30 years, adoptees and their families have been setting off on global adventures with the goal of learning more about their birth countries, and ultimately themselves. At the heart of every journey, adoptees are making unique and important connections as they strive to answer, “Who am I?”

You might be inclined to think the only important connections involve meeting birth family. It is true that more international adoptees are meeting birth family than most of us ever imagined possible. However, the points of connection helping adoptees get comfortable in their skin are much more varied and vital to understanding the impact of a heritage journey.

The People We Travel With

There is really no way to overstate the importance of adoptees traveling with other adoptees and their families.

Bonnie MacAdam shared, “The healthiest outcome of the trip for my daughter is that going with a group normalized her situation and her adoption.”  A Kazakhstan Ties adoptee described the shift in thinking like this: “Seeing how happy, warm, fun and just normal all the families were was so important. The kids like me were Americans, but also Kazakh. White parents with Kazakh children. We’re a normal family. Whew!”

The connection among the adoptees traveling grows stronger day by day. “We arrived as strangers and left as family,” says Nicholos Brunson, 15. So, what’s the magic that makes this happen? First, for many of the adoptees, it is the first time in their lives where there is no need to explain their family makeup and who they “really” are.  The other adoptees simply get it.  Some participants have been to culture and/or adoption camp, giving them a leg up on this liberating phenomenon. Campers say this aha moment feels more like, “Oh yeah, back to this comfortable space again.” One of many great reasons for attending camp.

Creating a comfortable, safe space is key to helping adoptees engage and connect further. Together, adoptees visiting their birth country sightsee, learn about culture, explore adoption issues, and have oodles of fun. But many of the things they do come with a twist.

Picture this: adoptees in Korea learning how to make kimchee, or in Guatemala learning how to clap a tortilla into a round, flat patty.  Sounds fun, right? But here’s the thing—food (whether eating it or making it) is intricately reflective of cultural understanding. It takes a lot of courage for teens, tweens and young adults to show interest in something, especially something that communicates “I don’t know the basics of the culture I was born into, but I want to learn.” It would be like a teenager from the U.S. who had never eaten a hamburger, or learned how to make one. Think of the emotions around not knowing. Now, imagine the pride of understanding and mastery.

On Ties trips adoptees can choose to take part in Connect & Chat gatherings where they have an opportunity to further connections, have fun, and to the degree they are interested can begin to process their birth country experience in real time.  They also have lots of ongoing conversation.  “During the trip, I met other kids who were dealing with the same identity issues I was,” reflects Anisha Pitzenberger, who was 17 when she traveled.  “All of a sudden, I realized I was not alone. Talking with the kids I had so much in common with gave me a whole new insight into who I was.”

The People We Meet

The people adoptees encounter in their birth country create connection unlike any other component of the journey. When they can be located, adoptees’ first caregivers tend to be high impact connections. In India, caregivers are called massis. Many years ago, International Mission of Hope in Calcutta closed, and many of the massis relocated to Sabera’s school for girls. With Ian Forber-Pratt leading the India Ties group, Jackson Walker, 18, visited Sabera. The massis were all gathered when Ian began to share the Indian names of the adoptees present. As he said Jackson’s Indian name there was a stir among the women. A massi grabbed his arm, and said “You are mine, even mine, even after 18 years!” She pulled his cheeks (really she did), and Jackson thought, “I found the piece of India I came looking for. And it is mine.”   

Jennie Mullen, 14, met her foster father in China. He hugged her and burst into tears. Jennie cried too, feeling both overwhelmed and happy. Her foster father held her hand the entire time they were together.  “Are you typically a hand holder?” I was compelled to ask. “No, not at all,” she said. “But, I wanted him to keep holding my hand,” she added sweetly, as she recounted the significance of the connection.

Some people adoptees meet in their birth country have been part of their life story from the beginning.  Mrs. Thuy, the proprietor of the now-closed Claudia Hotel in Hanoi, is one such person. Parents frequently stayed at the Claudia when they adopted, and it’s safe to say all families who stayed with Mrs. Thuy would love their kids to meet her. When they do, Mrs. Thuy showers them with love. In doing so, the adoptee becomes actively involved in their own story, a powerful point of connection.

People of importance can be, and often are, somewhat more casually encountered.

Jennie Mullen thought back on a day when it rained so hard she and her parents were stuck along the side of a road for two hours while streets swelled with water. “People who lived in the area were walking around, still doing their errands, carrying baskets of food, some walking their bikes.” Jennie remembers it as a high impact day for her, feeling especially connected to the everyday people with whom she shares her heritage.

Eleanor Chin, 16, made an unexpected connection in China. While there, she interacted with lots of school kids, all wearing uniforms.  Eleanor didn’t resist the message her heart was giving her. “A desire to have my own uniform kindled inside me,” Eleanor remembers. So, the next day she and her dad went on a mission to purchase one. “You can only get those in schools” a store owner advised her.

To her surprise, the store owner went on to say, “My daughter graduated. You can have her uniform.” Even more surprisingly, the store owner offered to have it mailed to Eleanor’s next hotel!  Can you imagine the power of this stranger’s kindness? Long story short, Eleanor now has her very own Chinese school uniform. “My happiness in that moment was unsurpassed,” Eleanor told me.  “The experience contributed greatly to me as a Chinese girl –I’ve always known I was adopted from China but I feel more connected to those roots now.”

The Family We Meet

Birth family meetings of staggering importance are happening in many countries.

Luke Ferriby remembers always knowing he would have the opportunity to travel to Korea when he was 18. His parents, supportive of a search, sent letters and pictures to the social service agency every year on his birthday. When the year came for them to travel, word came back from Korea. His birth mother would not meet. Such hard news.

But then, something else came to light. His birth mother had never received the letters or pictures. What happened next is mind boggling. All 18 letters were translated and sent to Luke’s birthmother along with the pictures. All in one day, she poured through year after year of his life, and learned about the family he had grown up in.  What initially seemed impossible was going to happen. She agreed to meet Luke.

They met at the social service agency, went to lunch, then to Starbucks for green tea smoothies. It became apparent that their time together was coming to a close, no one knowing if they would ever have another opportunity. “I had stuff I had to say,” Luke told me. “At 13 or 14, I realized I had things I wanted to say to her.” And so, with the end nearing, Luke stood. This is what he said: “Please don’t think I am mad at you. I am healthy. I have a good family. Please don’t worry anymore.” Luke said what was on his heart, having made the connection he needed to make.

It is also important to recognize that meeting birth family is not the goal for all adoptees.

Jessica Lackner was 17 when she traveled to Vietnam. While meeting her birth mother had many made-for-Hollywood moments, and Jessica is glad to have met her, she was clear, “Meeting my birth family was not the biggest part of the trip.” She went on to explain. “I really wanted to see where I came from. When I arrived in CanTho, I felt closer to what I had come for than anywhere else.”  She saw the hotel where her mom and grandmother stayed when they traveled to bring her home. She saw how people in the area live out their lives surrounded by the waters of the Mekong Delta. She shopped in the shopping mall that sits on the site of what once was the hospital where she was born. Those were the connections she felt filled her. “If I had not met my birth mother, that would have been ok,” she told me.

Final Thoughts

Over time, I’ve come to appreciate that while meeting birth family is intensely important for many adoptees, it is not true for all.  What each adopted person needs to feel complete is as unique as the individual. At the heart of the journey there are countless possibilities for connection. We simply need to create safe spaces and honor the time necessary for making them.

Becca Piper is the founder and co-director of Adoptive Family Travel by The Ties Program.

Messages of Birth Country Travel

When birth country travel includes the adoptive family, a team of supportive adoption specialists, and other adoptees (and their families), the ingredients are in place for a powerful experience filled with life changing messages


  • The people I share my heritage with are warm, wonderful, genuine people. 
    Now I see that in ME. 

  • My adoptive family understands my need to explore who I am and is supportive. 
    I want them to be ok with this. 

  • I have a safe place to acknowledge the loss in my life, and a safe environment to heal.
    In looking at the losses, I can also see the gains and see them in a new light.

Traveling with other adoptees and their families has given me a community where I feel like I belong in a way no other community ever has.
Everyone just gets it. 


In a study by the Evan B. Donaldson Institute, Hollee McGinnis reports, “For international adoptees positive identity development is most effectively facilitated by lived experiences. Travel to the country of birth topped the list.” Indeed, adoptees embarking on heritage travel are having profoundly significant lived experiences that validate and provide a sought-after first hand knowledge.

What most adoptees know about their birth country, culture, adoption and first family are things other people have experienced and shared with them. The lack of firsthand knowledge is unsettling at best. One Ties participant described it this way, Whenever anyone asked questions about the circumstances of my birth and adoption or my birth country, I recited it like I was telling a story about someone else.  When I got to my birth country, all of that changed.” 

Another said, “This has been the best thing a kid like me could ever ask for. The reason I say that is if you would like to understand your own heritage you actually need to go to where you were born.  It’s like you’re starting from the beginning again.” 

Starting at the Beginning

Ties birth country journeys offer opportunities to revisit chapter one. They incorporate visits to birth cities, finding sites, maternity clinics, hospitals, orphanages and foster homes. Adoptees often meet caregivers, doctors, foster families and more frequently than we imagined early on, birth family. (Note: all visits are choices, not expectations, and sometimes they are not possible or desired. We get that and will support adoptees and their families in what they choose to pursue.)

These experiences provide adoptees validation that their stories are real. There is often a sense that adoptees feel more real themselves as a result.

One teen who traveled recently recounted the emotion he felt when the caregiver at the orphanage called him by his orphanage name. “I had been told Ole was my crib name, but it didn’t seem possible it had really been true. What was even more amazing was that someone remembered ME by that name.”

Adoptees are often surprised to find things like their intake papers, post placement reports and photos (things their parents sent) in a file they can actually see and touch. “When we arrived at the baby home, I saw the same papers that are sitting on the coffee table at home. They even let me take a picture!” a Ties adoptee said with surprise.

Other Ties adoptees have shared:

“I met the doctor who delivered me, and he did a quick physical exam, listening to my heart with a stethoscope and checking in my ears. Even though I’m now 16 years old, he said, ‘You seem to be as healthy as the day I delivered you!’ The idea of a doctor actually delivering me in Korea felt really cool.”

“As an adoptee, the whole day at Social Welfare Society, seeing my file, and meeting my foster family meant the most to me. She was the person who actually cared for me and loved me. When we were having lunch, she kept feeding me, physically feeding me, showing me I had been loved.” 

“I went to the park where I was found. I realized I had truly been there and that someone cared enough to take me there. I thought someone had made that up, but now I’ve seen it for myself.”

Birth Family

As you can imagine, meeting birth family has a LOT of impact as well. While not all international adoptees are able (or even desire) to have this experience, there is quite a lot of international birth family reunion happening in most of our programs.

One adoptee sent us this note after his trip: “EVERYTHING changed!  When I was younger, even though my parents told me I was loved and adopted, I still felt resentment and insecure.  While visiting my birth country and meeting my birth family I had a feeling such as somebody letting the air back into the room.  I felt complete and that there was no longer a piece missing.”

This is not to say that meeting birth family is always an intensely satisfying experience. But more often than not, Ties adoptees express positive emotions around the experience, new understandings of circumstances, choices and emotions.

When There’s Nothing

Andrea Christensen recalled how emotional she had become when seeing her file.  “I think I had always known there would be nothing there about my birth family, but there was always this part of me that had hope.  When there really was nothing, I cried, and I don’t usually cry.”   When asked if that experience created greater sadness, she said, “No, I think it brought me more to acceptance and being ok with it.”

In perhaps the most poignant words ever spoken on this topic, Aimee Sonkiss described where the “not knowing” has taken her. “Like those who have lost a parent through illness, or absenteeism, I know I have an emotional burden of the uncertainty, hurt, and unfairness of the situation surrounding my birth parents and unknown history. But like many others, although I can’t say I’ve found peace with the situation, I’ve come to terms with it as a part of my whole. Instead of covering the emotions over and pretending they’re not there, I think I’ve learned to accept their existence and live alongside them.

Other Ways Adoptees Connect & Validate

Being There Matters

For many adoptees, simply BEING there is intensely significant. Returning from China Ties, Molly McPeak wrote, “I knew I was adopted from China, born in Anhui Province, found somewhere in Tongling City, but when you actually get a chance to go back to your roots, everything seems to come together. Even though I can’t remember the years I was there, it felt like the missing part of me was finally found. I found out the reason behind my name and the actual site where I was found. All the missing information was finally right in front of me.  I learned who I truly am.”

Peruvian born Carmen Knight describes it this way, “Through our senses we are able to make a connection to the place where we started our lives. While there are many wonderful things about our countries, there usually are some things that are sad and are hard for us to confront, such as poverty. Yet, the processes of making our birth countries and culture real is acknowledging and accepting the good and the bad. Once we can come to terms with all that is our birth country, we can be proud in where we come from.”   

Being There Opens Opportunities

While Eleanor Chin traveled, she interacted with lots of school kids, all wearing uniforms.  She remembers, “A desire to have my own uniform kindled inside me.” So, the next day, she and her dad went on a mission to purchase one. “You can only get those in schools” a store owner advised her.

To her surprise, the store owner went on to say, “My daughter graduated. You can have her uniform.” Even more surprisingly, the store owner offered to have it mailed to Eleanor’s next hotel!  Can you imagine the power of this stranger’s kindness? Eleanor now has her very own Chinese school uniform. “My happiness in that moment was unsurpassed,” Eleanor told me.  “The experience contributed greatly to me as a ‘Chinese girl’ –I’ve always known I was adopted from China, but I feel more connected to those roots now.”

Being There Communicates

Sometimes things that would otherwise go unnoticed have the most impact. “I traveled the summer I turned 12,” recalls this Ties participant. “I cannot even begin to put my experience into words, but I believe this story best captures what the trip meant to me. Upon landing at the capital city airport, I noticed all the models on all the billboards looked like me. For the first time in my life, I truly felt beautiful.”

The guys in our Guatemalan Ties program are also tuned into how their appearance connects them to their birth country. We often find them at the barber shops where stylish haircuts with grooves cut into them are all the rage. We’re pretty sure this picture says it all!  (After their haircuts, the boys decided to start a band called The Hot and Spicy Tortillas. This is their cover!)

Guatemalan Ties: After their haircuts they decided to start a band called
The Hot & Spicy Tortillas. This is their cover!

Next up in this series: A Homeland Journey Answers Your Child’s Biggest Question:  Why?  

Other parts in this Identity Series:
Birth Country Travel: Upon Arrival
Language and Birth Country Travel
Blending In and Standing Out