The woman's husband describes her as "the most driven person" he knows, and her teenage daughter calls her "amazing." But Carolyn Twietmeyer shies away from praise. She says faith and family are what drives her to open her heart and her home.
The sound of children playing can warm even the coldest heart. As parents, Kiel and Carolyn Twietmeyer get to enjoy that pleasure 11 times over.
"When I hit the door at the end of work, there are a ton of kids that can't wait to see me, and I don't know anyone that fortunate," Kiel Twietmeyer said.
They are a truly blended family. The Joliet couple already had seven biological children when they decided to adopt another from Ethiopia. One child turned into three -- Rachel, Samuel and Seth -- when Carolyn saw a picture of the family. The children's parents had passed away.
"I laid eyes on them…and I saw that they would likely be separated, and again, my simple mind said, 'No.' So, I said, 'I need to do what I need to do to fix this,' and hopefully my husband would go along with it," Carolyn Twietmeyer said.
Then, the family learned that Sam, now 6 years old, was infected with HIV. The couple got a tough lesson on the rigors of the immigration process when they tried to bring him home in 2007. Those hurdles inspired a movement. Carolyn calls it Project Hopeful.
"We educate, enable and encourage families to adopt children with AIDS, HIV and severe special needs. We have worked every angle to make it easier, doable and more possible from the government level," the mother said.
Following their own example, the Twietmeyers returned to Ethiopia last year to adopt Selah. She is also HIV-positive and was not receiving medication while living in an orphanage.
A pair of small shoes Selah wears are symbolic of her survival.
"The HIV kids, they are so sick. The people they don't help them. They're scared of them because they think they can have HIV. That's why they're scared of them," 12-year-old Selah said.
By contrast, fear was the furthest emotion from the hearts of the couple's biological children as they embraced their new siblings.
"Not a lot of people get to experience the things that our family as a whole has been through, such as Selah coming home, and she was really sick. But to us, it didn't matter how sick she was. We took her in, and she got better," said Kylie Twietmeyer, who is 16 years old.
Both Sam and Selah have been treated at the University of Chicago's International Adoption Clinic by its HIV team, since their arrival.
Nurse Practitioner Linda Walsh says infected children can live long, fulfilling lives, but some myths persist.
"The meds are better tolerated with less side effects. I'm not going to say it's easy to live with HIV. It's not, but it's do-able," Walsh said. "Parents always ask, 'Well, what about if there's an accident or a skinned knee?' Well, in that case, we would say the same thing we would tell anybody...if there's any blood, you should use gloves or a barrier."
"Day-to-day life in a household, you're not going to pass it. It doesn't happen that way," said Walsh.
Even though the family manages on the father's sole salary as a house painter, Carolyn Twietmeyer hopes to return to Ethiopia to bring home Selah's older brother and sister late this summer.
When hailed as extraordinary for her efforts, Carolyn rejects the notion, saying she is doing God's will and she'd rather be replicated than celebrated.
"One person making one choice to take on a child, and whether it be through adoption or along with another family to aid in adoption, just takes one. If a lot of ones took on a lot of ones, it would change everything," she said.
Project Hopeful will be working in conjunction with the University of Chicago to host educational seminars about adopting children with HIV and AIDS.
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