Deep down in their hearts, Fixer to Fabulous couple Jenny and Dave Marrs always knew they wanted to adopt. They started looking at different programs globally approximately seven years ago, and are now blessed with the addition of their daughter Sylvie, who is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“I feel like God put [it] on our hearts that she was ours and right when you knew, it was just like, ‘Yup.’ It was a key in a lock,” Dave shares with PEOPLE exclusively.
“The emotion of it was really similar to the birth of our bio children — that first time holding them,” Jenny adds. “I get emotional thinking about it, ’cause it was just really special.”
Currently, the HGTV stars have five children together: 5-month-old Luke, 5-year-old Charlotte, 7-year-old Sylvie and twin boys Nathan and Ben, 9. Motivated by the global orphan crisis, the couple felt they “both had it in [their] hearts that it was something [they] wanted to do” in expanding their family through adoption.
“It felt a little overwhelming when we started to learn about the need and all the kids without a family, but you can only do what you can do,” Jenny says. “We thought, ‘We’ll focus on one and see.’ So even though it felt like ‘This isn’t really making much of a difference,’ we know that we did. We made a difference for our child and our daughter.”
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It was Nov. 12, 2012, when Jenny and Dave decided Sylvie would be a part of the Marrs clan. After initially searching the adoption programs in Russia and Ethiopia, they came across Sylvie’s profile by chance, but knew immediately “this was our girl.”
Their journey to get Sylvie back to their home of Bentonville, Arkansas, however, was no easy feat, as it wasn’t until August 2013 that she finally became their legal child.
And though Jenny and Dave thought their new baby daughter could join them and their twin boys Nathan and Ben — who were 4 at the time — by September, they encountered a major curveball.
After they had visited Sylvie that same August, Congolese government shut down the following month, which meant no adopted children could leave because they had suspended exit letters, which are required for a child to leave the country. What followed was a grueling and “devastating” journey to get Sylvie back home.
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“I remember exactly where I was when we found out. I’ll never forget when we found out and we were waiting,” Jenny says. “I was constantly refreshing my email, checking, waiting for the news that she was coming home. Then, we got that news and it was crushing, especially because we had left her a month before and we had no idea when she would come back.”
“It kind of puts your whole life on hold. I mean with a biological child there is an expectation of, ‘Okay, at eight to nine months after this process started, you’re actually going to see something,’ ” Dave says. “With [Sylvie], I know everyone suffered because we were suffering and everyone that was close around us.”
On top of that, Jenny had also just found out she was pregnant with their now-5-year-old, Charlotte, which meant Dave was the only one who could travel back and forth to Africa due to her “high-risk pregnancy.”
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And he did almost everything a man yearning for his child could do.
“I specifically went over to Congo, waited outside our U.S. embassy to try to get in and plead my case with the U.S. ambassador,” Dave recalls. “When I tell you, anything that we could do … we were on the phone with congressmen, with our state representatives — like, the Vatican, we tried.”
In their time apart, Jenny and Dave made arrangements for Sylvie to move into a foster home with their friend who was a Congolese physician. They were sure to FaceTime their daughter constantly, as well as share pictures of them and vice versa, and Dave also visited three times.
The most difficult moments to remember Sylvie not being with them in person were celebrations throughout the year, such as her first and second birthdays and Christmas, for which Jenny had already gotten her gifts.
Finally, almost a year later in July 2014, the Marrses found out they could bring Sylvie home. When they heard the news, Sylvie’s foster mom flew to Arkansas with her, which was extremely helpful for both Sylvie and the couple in terms of translation, since she only spoke French at the time.
Nevertheless, the transition was still difficult for the little girl to comprehend.
“She was taken from everything she’d ever known. Everything was new. Everybody looked different,” Jenny shares with PEOPLE. “I distinctly remember the first time we took her for a walk. We have lots of trees and she was terrified of trees because she had never seen them before. Just everything was new to her.”
“Initially, there were a ton of really hard, bad things. But I think we are kind of programmed to forget all that,” Dave says. “So we will continue to have kids, or everyone would have one kid and stop.”
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The father of five specifically remembers giving Sylvie a bath as soon as she got home and she “freaked out” at first because “she’d never had a bath in warm water.” But after she realized that it “felt good,” she relaxed.
And even years after the day she came home, Sylvie was still taking time to acclimate to her new life with Jenny and Dave.
“Two years after she came home, we would find food hidden under her pillow, because I think subconsciously, there’s a fear that, ‘I may not have food tomorrow, so I need to hoard some, I need to save some,’ ” Dave recounts. “So there’s those struggles, but there’s beauty in those when they get overcome.”
On top of transitioning to her new lifestyle, Sylvie also had to meet her twin brothers and then-8-week-old Charlotte. According to Jenny, bonding with the baby came naturally to Sylvie due to her innate ability to care for others, as she had done back in the orphanage.
“That’s just who she is — it’s just her heart. Even as a 2½-year-old, she was so doting on Charlotte and at the foster home. There was a baby there, and she loved baby Emma,” Jenny tells PEOPLE. “So when she came home to have a baby here, it was sort of a comfort for Sylvie, I think. They have the most precious bond.”
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Sylvie’s arrival, however, was a little more difficult for Nathan and Ben “because their worlds had been rocked and it had only been the two of them for four years.”
“It was a transition. I would never say it was the easiest, most perfect thing, ’cause it wasn’t,” Jenny admits. “But it was also something that I look back and I can just see the bonds that were forged throughout that time, and now they’re all so close and they defend each other.”
“I mean, the boys know that if anyone messes with their sister in school, yeah, Dad’s okay with them getting in a fight in that situation,” Dave jokes.
Since they’ve welcomed Sylvie home, Jenny and Dave have been a part of a growing, tight-knit community of people who have opened their families to adoption. All the families, according to the couple, have an instant connection when they meet one another through their shared ups and downs in their adoption journey.
The Marrses hope they can take Sylvie back to the Congo one day, but not until she’s ready to go herself.
“There’s a lot of really hard pieces of her story that we will continue to share with her as she is able to process that information as she gets older,” Jenny says. “I think part of that will be going back to Congo. I think that’s going to be very important, and it’s definitely going to be something that we do.”
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Currently with five children, Dave says they’re “bursting at the seams,” but he and Jenny are always going to have a vested and passionate interest in adoption, especially in assisting adoptive and foster families.
“We’ve got a little blueberry farm that we open up to foster families and adoptive parents,” Dave tells PEOPLE.
“Our farm also supports work in Zimbabwe, which we got connected to through the Congo. We’ve seen the value of keeping first families together,” Jenny continues. “So if there’s a way to help a mom, whatever it looks like, we have this family-empowerment program that we work with our organization [to] help with now.”
She adds, “It’s basically empowering families to start a company so they can have a job — so they can support their kids and keep their kids and they don’t have to make that choice. And just how important that is for a mom to not have to make that choice in the first place, if at all possible.”
Fixer to Fabulous airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET.
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