Date: 2004-04-17

Saint Paul Pioneer Press


Author: DEBRA O'CONNOR, Pioneer Press


Address: 3701 Winnetka Ave. N., New Hope, Minn. 55427

Phone: 763-591-0791

E-mail: raiadopt@raiadopt.org

Web site: www.raiadopt.org

Event: Reach the Children Music Concert, a fund-raiser for the Reaching Arms International Children's Fund, will be held at 7 p.m. today at Club 3 Degrees, 113 N. Fifth St., Minneapolis. For more information, call 612-781-8488.

Nila Neumiller is a high-energy, 48-year-old, 5-foot-tall blond woman in a black business suit, working feverishly at Reaching Arms International, an adoption agency in New Hope. Photos of children from the orphanages she started in Ukraine and Kenya are placed throughout the office. Interspersed with them are photos of her own family -- inspiration for the work she has been doing for the past 12 years.

There's her oldest son, with whom she became pregnant at age 15. Two other sons from an early marriage that ended in divorce. Her husband, Bill Neumiller. A fourth boy, who is both their son and their nephew. Four grandchildren.

And finally, their daughter, a 13-year-old Russian girl, who at age 8 was adopted, then rejected, by a New Jersey family. Afterward, as part of her job, Nila brought the girl to the Twin Cities for a thorough checkup and then, she says softly, "this thing started taking off in my heart."

Yes, Nila is softhearted. But she's also hard-nosed. She comes from tough stock and has survived tough times -- teen-age pregnancy, divorce, drugs, depression, people looking down on her.

For better or worse, Nila has a way of doing things people tell her she can't do. Perhaps from that, she has developed a way of convincing people that they should do what she says.

As founder of Reaching Arms, Nila has burrowed through bureaucracies all over the world to connect hundreds of children with adoptive homes in the United States. She has founded orphanages for kids who otherwise would be out on the street. And she has raised her family -- an unusual family, to be sure, but one of which she is proud.

Looking back on an often difficult but ultimately satisfying life, she says, "I don't have a single regret about anything. Not one. Zip."


Nila Marie Garner was born in the sand hills of Nebraska. She had a fiercely religious mother; a rough, impulsive father; and three brothers who were willing to take anything on.

"In my family, people are pretty feisty," she says. "You just go for life and look back later and say, 'Oops, should've taken more time about that one.' "

When she was young, the family moved to South Dakota, first to Rapid City, then to Sioux Falls and then, when she was a teen-ager, to Brandon, near the Minnesota border. It was a podunk town. Everybody had known each other since grade school; the girls were snotty, and the boys were annoying.

But by the time she was in the ninth grade, she was cute and athletic and had made the cheerleading squad. A popular boy two years older began paying attention to her. He asked her to prom. He often brought her to his home, where she luxuriated in his close-knit family.

When she got pregnant, she was 15 and desperately in love. Because of her religious beliefs, abortion was out of the question. She considered whether to give the child up for adoption. Her father told her he'd support her no matter what she decided. That, she says, affected the course of her life.

The father of her son stayed at their high school, but she, by school rules, had to leave for a program for unwed mothers. All her girlfriends, save one, slipped away, as did her child's father.

Once her son, Brad, was born in her junior year, Nila came back to school and defiantly tried out for cheerleading. In the student voting, she came in third, but the administration refused to allow her to participate.

Soon, she left South Dakota and went back to Nebraska, where as a 17-year-old senior she married her brother's best friend to have a father for Brad. By the time she was 21, she had a high school diploma, three children and a divorce.

By then, though, some sort of maturity was setting in. She decided she wanted to be a teacher. With her mother and ex-husband helping care for the kids, she went to college.

In a painting class, she met a man four years her junior. They talked as they drew, and over a year's time, they fell in love. When Bill Neumiller left for a job in Minneapolis, she went along.

Nila married Bill in 1984. She earned two bachelor's degrees, one in art and the other in physical education and health. She taught art in a Minneapolis inner-city school and took evening classes toward a master's degree in art education. She was hired by Inver Grove Heights school district, first to teach art and then as the district art education coordinator.

She took on new, unexpected family responsibilities. First, she and Bill decided to adopt her unmarried sister's baby, born in July 1988. Later the same month, her ex-husband was killed in a car accident, and their son, who'd been living with him, came to live with her. Then, Brad had a serious personal problem she couldn't solve.

"I couldn't fix it for him. I couldn't be big enough or smart enough or strong enough," she says. "I thought, 'Well, I'd better consider God in this.' "

As a rebellion against her own mother's religiosity, she had deprived her family of religion. Now, it was time to go back to the roots of her faith. So, she took her troubled son to church, sitting in the back row. Eventually, the new emphasis on God in their lives helped both of them.


A turning point came in the early 1990s, when she went to listen to some missionaries who had been in Eastern Europe. By the time she heard the third missionary tell about the problems with children there, Nila was in tears.

"I said, 'I don't know what's going on in my heart, but I think I'm supposed to go to Russia.' " In 1992, she did.

"In the orphanages, I would go sit with the children. I wanted to get to know them as people. I wanted to touch their skin."

One orphanage was, by any definition, a prison for street children. The children came to her and put their little, fragile, pale hands in hers. "That's where the Lord hit the hammer on my heart."

She came back a different person, her husband says, and the demands of training teachers in a new art curriculum overwhelmed her. A few months later, she collapsed. Her limbs went numb. She cried constantly.

Diagnosed with clinical depression, she quit her teaching job, consulted a psychologist and embarked on a thorough soul-searching. "My question to God was, 'You're showing me what I can't do. Show me what I can do.' "

God may not have shown her directly, but she felt he was making suggestions. Thoughts came to her that she couldn't shake -- find out about the Department of Human Services, which oversees adoptions in Minnesota. Get licensed. Contact consulates. She began asking how she might start an agency to find families for some of the children she remembered so clearly.

She didn't have the right credentials or enough money. But in many ways, she had been preparing for this, albeit in fits and starts, her whole life. Small children had always flocked to her.

Having her first son "forced me into the reality of being responsible for another human being. This little person's life depended on me. That sowed permanent seeds in my spirit and my heart."

That feeling was renewed in Russia: "Once you have an orphan in your arms who clings to you, you know you have to do something about it."

Nila, it turned out, was well-armed to make a difference. During her rough life, she had learned to confront authority and get past it, to achieve when others assumed she wouldn't, to marshal self-confidence even when it seemed unwarranted. Someone with an easier life may not have been so scrappy and therefore so successful.

And so, in her basement, she started Reaching Arms International, which was licensed as a child placement agency in 1993 and now has 10 employees in its New Hope offices and 49 abroad. Through her agency, about 500 children have been adopted by American families.

The agency runs orphanages in Urkraine and Kenya, where children not only are educated and cared for but also learn to paint, play instruments, sing and dance.

In America, the Bridge of Love program matches older children to American families, who host them for several weeks with an eye to adoption. Along the way, Nila attended divinity school and became an ordained minister, and she now counsels women through a program called Phoebe's Way.

There is more on Nila's horizon -- making the current orphanages bigger and better and establishing additional orphanages in China, India and Vietnam. She also sees a great need for a home for unwed mothers, a place that, unlike the institution she went to 33 years ago, would "have a real home feel where the young women can grow in their skills, personalities and strength."

On their honeymoon 20 years ago, Nila took her first airsick plane ride; now, Bill says, she hops on a flight and spends a week abroad, no problem.

Bill has a demanding job himself, as assistant creative director at John Ryan Productions in Minnetonka, but he sees his role in the family as supporting Nila as she answers her calling. He takes care of their children and their home in her absence, freeing her to achieve more.

"I'm just in awe of what she's done since I've known her. It's been terrific. Not that it's been easy, not that it's been roses the whole time," Bill says. "It's just been an amazing thing to watch, and I've had the best seat in the house."

Debra O'Connor can be reached at doconnor@pioneerpress.com or 651-228-5453.

5 Photos

1) Nila Neumiller

2) On the grand opening of the Cradle of Children's Hope orphanage in Novoselki, Ukraine, tollders look out the window from their new home, established by Reaching Arms Inaternational of New Hope, Minn. The little boys established a tradition that day, says agency founder Nila Neumiller (above), who visits there often: "When we leave the kids all climb up in the window and twll us goodbye."

3) A group of boys comes to meet Nila Neumiller and learn about the orphanage in which they are going to live at Kisumu, Kenya.

4) Nila Neumiller, found of Reaching Arms International in New Hope, cuddles children at the Cradle of Chidlren's Hope orphanage in Novoselki, Ukraine.

5) Street children in Kiev, Ukraine, live under the crawl spaces of apartment buildings and sleep on the water pipes to say warm. This photo was taken in the winder of 1998-99, prior to the opening of the Cradle of Children's Hope orphanage in Ukraine.


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