WIESBADEN, Germany - Master Sgt. Matthew Shea and his wife Heidi were unwavering parents long before they met their daughter - a petite 2-year-old girl from China.

The couple wrestled with decisions - should they do an international adoption or shouldn't they'

They struggled through setbacks - after two years of paperwork, their adoption program closed and the Sheas had to start anew.

They dove into the unknown of parenthood contacting the chief of hematology at Walter Reed Medical Center with a blood analysis for a cute little anemic Chinese girl.

"What does this mean, and could we care for her'" Matthew had asked the expert.

And all this they did before meeting Long-Ji-Pei.

A universal smile
Pei, now 3-year-old Ilana Ji-Lin Shea, smiled at the stranger standing in her living room before turning back to watch "Mary Poppins" on the family's television.

Ilana's face is flashed in every corner of the family's home - a pink princess frame, an Andy Warhol-inspired screen saver. In the pictures a dainty smile crosses her face. In person, Ilana smirks and tilts her head.

"She's definitely a character," said Matthew. "She's come out of her shell little by little."

Ilana was only a few days old when she was found in the 16th bed of the neonatology ward in a hospital in Guangdong Province, Shenzhen City.

Her tiny mug shot - one you might see in any infant's passport book - circulated in the local paper.

Did anyone know or claim this baby, the ad asked. No one did. For more than two years, Ilana lived in a Chinese orphanage.

In July 2010, Matthew and Heidi walked into a family room at the Chinese Center for Adoption Affairs in China. They waited in a cozy, non air-conditioned room with a group of fellow future parents. And then the door opened. In walked the children. Ilana wore a white dress and plastic shoes.

The 2-year-old clung to Matthew and Heidi for most of the day. That night she ran around the hotel room, pushed a beach ball and wolfed down McDonald's french fries. Matthew and Heidi watched and laughed. The next day, the Sheas made it official. Ilana was part of their family.

A different set of rules
In fiscal year 2009, Americans adopted 12,753 children through foreign adoptions - 3,001 of those adoptions were from mainland China, according to statistics at adoption.state.gov.

From home studies to background checks, an international adoption can be a long and arduous experience.

"The most commonly asked questions overseas," said Jeanie Veith, Kaiserslautern Military Community Adoption Support Group volunteer, "are how can we adopt while overseas and how long will an adoption take.

"Of course, the answers are as varied as the individuals doing the asking," said Veith. "Much depends on their circumstances and what their individual adoption plans might be."

As a U.S. military service member stationed abroad, Matthew, who is with the 1st Armored Division, is still considered an American during the adoption process, and for foreign adoptions he is treated as such.

The Sheas began the adoption process in 2004. In 2005 the Sheas' progress came to a "screeching halt" after the adoption program in Bulgaria suddenly closed. In 2006, the couple started again.
"It was frustrating," said Heidi.

Mixed in with failed programs and demanding requirements, the Sheas also faced the prospect of three to five more years before an adoption could be finalized.

The Hague Adoption Convention - an international agreement designed to safeguard intercountry adoptions - posed as an obstacle. As countries such as China, began to adopt and implement the rules of the convention, adoption processes began to slow down.

"There were times when you're waiting and you just want to give up," said Matthew.

In 2010 a referral whipped across the world through modems and servers delivered the news to the Sheas in email format - you have been accepted for adoption of a child.

Then a letter of acceptance came along with a picture of Long-Ji-Pei.

A little support goes a long way
The U.S. Secretary of State provides international adoption guidelines and information on its website adoption.state.gov.

But sometimes the questions adopting parents have are more personal.

"It's not just to be with others (who have adopted) but with people who have gone through what you also went through," said Matthew of the KMC Adoption Support Group.

The support group is sponsored by the chapel at Ramstein Air Force Base. For more than 25 years the group has been a source of adoption information and support for military families seeking help in navigating the complicated process of adoption. About 80 people attend the monthly meetings on a regular basis.

Organized and coordinated by volunteers, the support group operates a website - www.usadopteurope.com - to field questions from community members interested in adopting.

"Over the years, the group has become important not only to those seeking to adopt but to those raising children after adoption," said Veith.

About 200 people attend the group's annual European Adoption Symposium, said Veith.

This year's symposium will be held May 7 at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Kaiserslautern, Lauterstrasse 1.

Through the support group, the Sheas pieced together information on different adoption programs. And after six years, they found themselves traveling from China to Hawaii, taking the oath of citizenship for their daughter and returning home to become a family.

"At bedtime it was a blank stare. At mealtimes it was a blank stare," said Heidi.

Growing up in a Chinese orphanage, Ilana had settled into a routine. She lay in bed when told. She ate when told. She cleaned tabletops with circular motions of a wet cloth.

Matthew and Heidi did everything they could think of to coax out the little girl that hid inside. They took Ilana on her first trip to the beach, her first sit in grass and her first time to see animals at the zoo. They gave Ilana her first bath. And they didn't hesitate when Ilana wanted to spend an hour walking the steps of a Chinese temple - up and down, up and down.

They watched as she smiled more every day. They struggled as they encouraged her to walk on her own rather than be carried. The day came when the petite girl broke down into a crying fit.

"We knew the first time she threw a fit, she was ours," said Heidi referencing the breakdown as a breakthrough for a child who at one time hesitated to show emotion.

Ilana watched the television intensely as she fingered a wooden puzzle piece. Heidi then asked something in German. Ilana turned and gave a sheepish grin.

"It's the little goals," said Heidi. "We had to be one second more determined than her."

Not the only family
"We're not the only family to do this," said Matthew as he talked about an upcoming adoption support group meeting.

Matthew smiled as he described the families he met through the adoption process - people from a mixture of countries and cultures all excited to share their experiences.

"Some come most every month (to the meetings)," said Veith. "The meetings are critical to those just beginning in their adoption quests - for information, assurance and cautions."

The Sheas said they certainly learned a lot.

"Don't be afraid to ask someone who's done it," said Matthew. "I'm not going to be offended. We asked people. We learned from them. We accomplished it. Now maybe somebody will learn from us."

The one question the Sheas refuse to answer when strangers ask is "how much did she cost'"

Despite the six years of struggles, frustrations, setbacks and the obvious steep expense of an adoption of any form, Matthew and Heidi shake their heads at the question.

"She didn't cost anything," said Heidi. "She's ours. There's no difference between adopting and having a child. You've got to be willing to take the plunge."