Two baby girls lie next to each other in the same crib, not knowing that their sweet beginning would lead to an essential friendship.
The girls are Leah Kelly of Savage and Kayli O’Brien of Clearwater, Florida. In 2006, the two were adopted by their respective American families who traveled to China to get them from their orphanage. The babies were just 1-year-old when they were adopted and are now 12. They’ll turn 13 on March 16 and March 21, respectively.
The girls were known in their orphanage as crib mates. They would look at each other and copy each other. Leah sucked her two middle fingers on one hand and Kayli sucked her two middle fingers on the opposite.
“I think what is really cool is that I get to say I knew her before her parents did,” Kayli said about Leah.
Their friendship began shortly after they were born, but more adventures would come in the years following their adoption.
In April 2006, Julie and Steve Kelly, who now live in Savage with Leah and their biological son Ryan Kelly, 7, traveled to the city of Ganzhou, which is in China’s Jiangxi Province. When they arrived, they met eight other families also adopting babies from China.
Nine girls were all adopted from the same orphanage by these families, who live all over America. When the families met and connected, they realized how special of a time they shared. They dubbed the girls “Chinese sisters.”
“Our families were together at this huge moment in our lives,” Julie Kelly said.
Kelly said the orphanage’s director gave the last name Zhang to all the baby girls because of the location of the orphanage in the Zhanggong district of Ganzhou. All nine girls also shared the name “You” because under the Chinese lunar calendar, they were born in the yiyou year, Kelly said. “You” also means “friend” in Chinese, she said. Leah’s middle name is now You Mei, which was her Chinese name.
The families have remained in touch after the adoption. In 2009, the girls reunited. They were 4 years old. Since then, eight of the nine girls have attended at least one reunion every year or every other year, Kelly said.
But with Leah and Kayli, an extra-special connection exists, their moms say.
A red thread
Leah and Kayli’s families make it a point to connect about once a year.
“We kept gravitating towards each other because we knew that they were crib mates,” said Ronda O’Brien, who lives in Clearwater, Florida, with her husband. Besides Kayli, they have three biological children and three grandchildren.
In fact, every year when many Minnesotans escape the state for a warmer climate, the O’Briens often travel to Minnesota to stay with the Kellys in February when school is out for President’s Day. This year, the Chinese New Year took place the day the O’Briens arrived: Friday, Feb. 16.
In 2017, the Kellys and the O’Briens were part of a group that traveled to Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu, Ganzhou, and Shanghai. A total of eight families with 12 children adopted from China, as well as Leah’s brother Ryan, all went on the trip together, Kelly said. Sun Travel organized the trip, as they specialize in heritage trips, she said.
When reunions or special trips aren’t going on, Leah and Kayli stay in touch through their phones, mostly. A few times a week they’ll text or connect through social media, Ronda O’Brien said.
O’Brien said the girls are different in certain ways — Leah, for example, doesn’t like makeup but Kayli does, and Leah prefers hockey while Kayli likes the piano. But they both enjoy video games, theater and talking about boys, she said.
“I feel like it’s a really close bond,” she said. “They feel like they really are sisters.”
And the parents stay in touch through Facebook and email, Julie Kelly said.
“I really do feel like they’re my family,” she said.
Kelly said an ancient Chinese proverb applies to their families. The proverb explains that people who are destined to meet are connected by an “invisible red thread” that may change over time but will never break.
“I just feel that we are connected to these families through this red thread,” Kelly said.