Padecky: Sara Bei Hall, husband step up to bring African sisters into family

It’s easy, almost required actually, for anyone with a heart and soul to wince, flinch or otherwise sigh when the pictures are seen. African kids, threadbare with their rib cages showing, speak to the humanity in all of us. And that’s where we usually leave it. Generosity doesn’t travel well. Paying the bills tends to limit good intentions.

“We have a moral obligation to do something,” said Sara (Bei) Hall, a 2001 high school All-American cross country runner at Montgomery, a seven-time All-American at Stanford in the same discipline, now a professional runner.

And so she did.

On Sept. 14, Hall and her husband, Ryan, a two-time U.S. Olympic marathoner, adopted four Ethiopian girls. This is known as walking the talk, a bit more than sending in 25 bucks and a box of food to Addis Ababa, that country’s capital. For Hall it’s answering a voice she first heard as a young child.

“I told my mom when I was a kid,” said Hall, 32, “that I was going to adopt when I got older. I had so many cousins who were adopted and saw how well that turned out.”

Kids say the darnedest things, soon to be forgotten in the ether of playtime and sleepovers. But no one has ever accused Sara of being frivolous with her intentions. She is a woman as she was a child, a person of accomplishment, and what she saw in Africa became a logical lifelong extension of her need to make an impact.

“The majority of people (in Ethiopia) have homes made of mud,” said Hall, who has been to Africa eight times with her husband. “They have no access to clean water. Most have one meal a day, if you can call it a meal. It’s a type of spongy bread called injera. If they can afford garbanzo beans they make a stew of it.”

Hall could have added that many families walk six hours to gather water that’s usually contaminated or that 31 percent of Ethiopians live on $1.25 a day or less. Seventy-five percent of the people bed down at night with their livestock in the mud house. In 2014, Oxford University ranked Ethiopia as the second-poorest country in the world, with 87.3 percent of the population classified as poor and 58.1 percent as destitute.

“I joke the female Ethiopian runners have it great,” Hall said. “They can have a male runner pace them for 25 miles and it’ll cost them $2. They can follow that with a 90-minute massage for $5.”

In the spring of this year, Ryan and Sara were training in Ethiopia, armed with a curiosity. There are 4 million orphans in the country. Let’s adopt a baby, they thought. But let’s make some inquiries. They found the red tape involved in adopting a baby to be long, protracted and mind-numbing. However, children older than 3 were easier to adopt. They are called “Waiting Children.”

The Halls visited a rural orphanage outside of Addis Ababa. Forty babies or toddlers were there along with 20 older kids. “We wanted to see what we were getting into,” she said. They had heard of these four sisters, but the couple mingled with all the children.

“It’s not uncommon for people to visit all the time,” Hall said. Ryan and Sara found themselves gravitating to Hana (15), Mia (13), Jasmine (8) and Lily (5). If there is such a thing as kinship, the kids felt it and so did the Americans. Ah, but there was the bureaucracy, enough immigration paperwork to claim five redwoods. Although finalized Sept. 14, the newly formed family of six didn’t leave Ethiopia until Oct. 2. They are now spending their second week together in Redding. The family will split their time between that Northern California city and Flagstaff, Ariz.

Is this going to be easy? Can a second-grader read Latin?

“They don’t know English,” Sara said. “And we don’t know their language - Amharic. Right now we are studying it hard. We know about 200 words. We do a lot of charades to communicate. I want to be able to talk to my girls. One day I will.”

In the midst of suddenly having their family expand to six with a simple stroke of a pen, the Halls haven’t given up on their running. Sara and Ryan are in the midst of training for next year’s U.S. Olympic Trials, both in the marathon. Sara, in fact, finished 10th last Sunday in the prestigious Chicago Marathon, the second-highest ranking American female finisher.

Where were the girls? At their Redding home with Ryan’s parents, Susie and Nicky.

At least one obstacle has been overcome.

“They’re all potty-trained,” Sara joked.

Beyond the current language barrier, others remain. Such as - and this will read ridiculous - being able to walk outdoors. For the past four years, the four sisters were not allowed beyond the walls of their orphanage and courtyard. With 60 other kids. The adjustment for them is nearly incomprehensible. They now are in a foreign country with a language foreign to them as well. And they can walk and explore and experience. And not feel invisible. That is very new concept for them.

“Ethiopia,” Sara said, “is not an empowering culture for women.”

This would seem to be about the time the reader will be offering a very reasonable and pertinent question. Have Sara and Ryan bitten off more than they can chew? After all, they will continue to run for a living and Redding is not an international airport hub and they don’t speak each other’s language and there’s homework not in Amharic.

No worries. This is not their first rodeo on commitment. The Halls have made it their goal to gobble up life and then ask for more. In 2009 they established the Hall STEPS Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to fighting global poverty through better health care. It is not a throwaway statement to satisfy their accountants around tax time.

To wit: They have raised funds to build hospitals in both Kenya and Mozambique. They funded a clean water project in Mozambique. They have funded the refurbishment of a maternity clinic in Senegal. They have traveled to Africa to train alongside the best long-distance runners of the world, each time piggybacking community projects.

“I was expecting more of a negative response to the adoptions,” Sara said. “Stuff like: ‘You’re not serious anymore about sports. You’ll never run again.’?”

If one has ever met Sara Hall, those statements would be absurd. In the past couple of years she has suffered a ruptured appendix and cracked elbows and ribs and yet motors on, to commitment. That’s a very big and important word for her. Her commitment to her faith, to her family, to her sport, to being an effective world citizen, Sara Hall has her foot on the gas pedal that is her character.

“You can’t see everything there,” she said, “and not do something.”

So easy to say, not so easy to do. Life gets in the way too often, doesn’t it? Not for Ryan and Sara. This life IS their way.

“We’re going to do it our way,” Sara Hall said. And she doesn’t have to question why. The answer is right in front of her, when she sees four girls, four girls who remind her daily that Africa doesn’t have to be a statistic.

To contact Bob Padecky email him at

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