Lawrence bride shares beauty, gratitude revealed through her open adoption experience

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Open adoption has given Rachel Henderson the opportunity to develop a relationship with the couple she chose to parent her baby a decade ago. Over time, Henderson has also forged a friendship with the child who ties all of them together.

A small group of loved ones witnessed the wedding of Rachel Henderson and Brandon Keenan on June 2 in Danforth Chapel at the University of Kansas. The Lawrence couple, also KU graduates and lifelong Kansans, planned a unique Sunday afternoon wedding and a reception where they could talk with all of their guests individually. Among them sat a shy 10-year-old we’ll call “Ellie” — a pseudonym used to protect her privacy.


Henderson, who birthed Ellie a decade ago then placed her for adoption, carried a large bouquet filled with baby’s breath and flowers of dusty blue, apricot and white. She wore a distinctive gown with straight-from-the-‘80s puffy, off-the-shoulder sleeves, while the groom sported a dark green suit. In front of the couple stood the wedding officiant/Ellie’s mom, Erica Voell. Ellie’s dad, Bryan Voell, was there too. Erica and Bryan were married at Danforth 20 years ago.

“I want her day to be as special as my day was,” said Erica, a fourth-generation Jayhawk now living in Johnson County.

In a phone interview and a series of emails, Henderson expressed gratitude to include Ellie and her parents at special occasions like her wedding and to be included in theirs. Henderson, now 28, was just a junior in high school when she became pregnant after what she called the mistake of having unprotected sex. Scared and embarrassed, Henderson didn’t tell her parents until her boyfriend broke up with her three months into the pregnancy.

“And I remember being in high school pregnant, and I’d walk by and see my reflection in a window and I’d be like, ‘I can’t believe I’m 17 and pregnant. I’m a good student. I get straight As. I got a 33 on the ACT. I am going to college, but I got pregnant at 17,’” Henderson said.

Although she reflected upon her own pregnancy and childbirth as relatively easy, Henderson said the adoption part proved difficult. She shed many tears and still considers it the hardest thing she’s ever done. Nevertheless, adoption was always her plan, she said.

Henderson met with three prospective adoptive couples before the start of her senior year. As soon as Henderson met the Voells, she knew. Librarians and art lovers, the couple fit Henderson’s vision of the parents she wanted for her unborn baby. They all believed in the benefits open adoption could potentially provide in their situation.

“I chose Bryan and Erica because they shared my values, and they were the most enthusiastic about an open adoption,” Henderson said.

The trio then began the work of getting to know each other and building a relationship. Even while Henderson acknowledged having the best support system of family members, friends and teachers back then, she knew adoption would hurt.

As soon as Henderson signed the papers at the hospital to terminate her parental rights, she recalled, it felt like she’d died inside.

“I just, I just felt so broken,” Henderson said. “And I asked everybody to leave, and I just wanted to be alone. And I was sitting in my room alone, heartbroken.”

Soon, Henderson’s Spanish teacher arrived with a surprise: She delivered well-wishes and gift cards from the highschooler’s classmates, which made the teenager feel loved and supported.

“In that moment, it was about me and not about my baby,” Henderson said.

When Henderson recently reconnected with her former teacher, she learned the elder woman cried the entire drive home from the hospital after visiting Henderson that day.

“Because she knew how hard my decision was and how hard it was going to be,” Henderson said.

Putting in the work

The Voells have kept their word. They’ve shared Ellie’s adoption story with her since day one via a lifebook they created and have added to over time. When Henderson moved to Lawrence to attend KU, she received a dorm room visit from the family. Henderson has attended Ellie’s birthdays, Girl Scouts graduations and softball games, and the Voell family has reciprocated.

The openness extends beyond the adoption triangle. Multiple generations and extended family members have formed relationships through their connection to Ellie. Erica’s parents sent flowers to Henderson after she gave birth.

Henderson watched Ellie grow while she earned bachelor’s degrees in women’s studies and philosophy and minored in political science. In May, she graduated with a 3.5 GPA and in the top 25% of her class at the KU School of Law. After she passes the bar, Henderson plans to commute to Kansas Legal Services in Topeka and help survivors of domestic violence.

Erica said she considered Henderson’s presence just a normal part of their lives.

“We don’t answer a lot of questions with her friends just because she’s not ready to have that conversation with some of her friends yet,” Erica said, referring to Ellie. “She just says, ‘It’s my birth mom.’”

Keenan, who’s been in a relationship with Henderson since they met in 2018, said he was glad Henderson’s choice had “worked out the way that it has. It’s really nice to know Erica, and (Ellie) and Bryan, and they’re really nice people.” Having someone special offer to officiate their wedding was a bonus.

Stingray Photo Co. Rachel Henderson and Brandon Keenan

Over time, Henderson said the overwhelming grief and loss of the adoption process had abated.

“But I put in the work,” Henderson said. “Bryan and Erica put in the work, and we were able to take this bad situation and turn it into something beautiful.”

“This is the best-case scenario I could have asked for. I don’t feel loss anymore. I just feel blessed. I feel blessed that my baby has this wonderful life with these wonderful parents. I feel blessed that she knows who I am, and I know she loves me. And I’m important to her, and she knows I love her, and she’s important to me. And I really do feel like she’s my little sister.”

Henderson described Ellie as “a firecracker” like herself. They both love Henderson’s new groom as well as Taylor Swift. During a recent meetup they watched “The Eras Tour” concert film while making friendship bracelets with Henderson’s longtime friend Amanda Kwasniak, who has stood by Henderson since elementary school, throughout the pregnancy and adoption experience, and during Henderson’s studies at KU.

Kwasniak served as maid of honor at Henderson and Keenan’s wedding. She said Henderson had always been there for her as well.

“L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.” by Noah and the Whale was the first song Henderson sang for Ellie after giving birth in 2013. Henderson and Kwasniak played it in high school during long drives. Overcome by emotion, Henderson couldn’t remember all of the words at the hospital, so she texted Kwasniak asking for help, and her friend delivered. The lyrics include, “What you don’t have now will come back again. You’ve got heart, and you’re going your own way.”

Stingray Photo Co. Bride Rachel Henderson, left, and maid of honor Amanda Kwasniak pose for a photo on Henderson’s wedding day at Danforth Chapel in Lawrence.

Henderson and Kwasniak have not only grown up together but also alongside Ellie. Looking back, Henderson said she had no regrets.

“I think it’s beautiful that a mistake I made at 17 has led to calling all these wonderful people family,” she said.

Henderson emphasized Erica and Bryan were Ellie’s parents, and she wouldn’t overstep her boundaries. She said she felt grateful the Voells had remained committed to keeping the adoption open over time, and she looked forward to being there for Ellie during her teenage years.

“If I could go back and tell my 17-year-old self like, ‘This is how it’s going to turn out. You don’t need to be afraid. You don’t need to worry. It’s going to be better than you could even imagine.’”

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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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