"They never put any doubt in my mind that I was loved," Abby, one of the four siblings adopted by the Carlson family in 2015, tells PEOPLE
Indiana Pastor Jeff Carlson and his wife Amy couldn’t bear to split up four Polish siblings when they opted to adopt. And while the family of 10 went through some growing pains, they wouldn’t change a thing.
“People should understand how easy it is to help these millions of children be adopted before they age out,” Carlson, 45, exclusively tells PEOPLE. “I mean, you name the statistic, it happens to orphans who aren't taken care of.”
In 2015, the Carlson family completed the adoption of four siblings — Abby, Judah, Naomi, and Shiloh — from a Polish orphanage with the help of a Gift of Adoption grant.
Now 8 years later, the siblings — ages 12, 13, 14, and 17 — have assimilated into American culture and the family, which includes the couple's four biological children, daughter Chloe, 19, and sons Elijah, 18, Gabriel, 16 and Isaac, 13.
Carlson says their adoption cost about $50,000 and was largely paid for through donations from their church. In fact, the pastor said that at the beginning of the journey, he considered selling his truck to get the initial $3,000 he needed to start the process until a church friend offered to give him the money.
But the family never considered not going ahead with bringing all the siblings into their home.
From the start, the parents knew that getting adjusted to life as a family of 10 would take some time.
“We had two very distinct sibling groups who had distinct histories,’’ Carlson says. “They had their own bonding, their own way of interacting with each other. And we take these two sibling groups and try to mesh them together.”
For example, Abby went from being the eldest to having two older siblings in Elijah and Chloe — and Chloe went from being the only girl to suddenly having three sisters.
“Me and my brothers got along pretty well, so there was a part of me that was nervous but also excited about having sisters,” Chloe says. “It was kind of mixed emotions at the beginning.”
Meanwhile, Elijah realized he had a little sister (who was used to being the big sister) that he could lovingly torment.
“Me and Abby were like oil and water right off the bat. We were always head-butting and it was just petty, stupid quarrels all the time,” Elijah says. “It just rearranged the pecking order.”
Although she was used to being the oldest sibling, Abby says she was excited for the change.
“I wanted that,” she says. “What made me most excited was all these thoughts of people here to protect me and love me.”
Still, Abby was naturally wary of their new parents.
“The biggest thing was learning to trust my parents, because my biological parents weren’t people I could trust," she says. "Then with the foster families, I just adapted to the idea I’m not going to stay in one place."
From Day 1, Abby says her younger siblings were ready to be picked up and hugged. But she held back because she wasn’t sure if these new people would be trustworthy.
Sister Naomi agrees, telling PEOPLE she was ready for life in America with this new family almost immediately. "I can't really remember any bad parts to it," she says. "I just remember that I always wanted a lot of attention.”
While the relationships between the siblings eventually worked out, there was one area that Carlson says was much harder: the loss of their culture and their lives in Poland.
“We learned a lot about grief and loss,” the pastor says. “Even though they gained a lot of wonderful things, they lost everything they had known before."
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Although they still sometimes eat Polish food, Abby says her favorite beet soup was not a hit with the family.
“That first Christmas my parents tried to bring some of the foods we had eaten in Poland, and beet soup was one of them,” she recalls. “I loved it a lot and they all hated it.”
Carlson says every year gets better with the crew.
“Kids heal from these traumas. Shiloh didn’t speak very much but about two years ago something changed and she opened up,” he says. “It’s been cool to watch the kids bonding.”
And Abby admits that in the beginning, she held back because she was just waiting to be rejected again.
“It was like I was testing them, just waiting for them to give up. Not because of what they had done, but because of things that happened before,” she says. “I was not an easy child, and am still not easy. But they never put any doubt in my mind that I was loved. It’s something that I still think about at night when I’m going to bed."
She adds, "It hits me: I am loved.”
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