updated 02/20/2013 AT 2:00 PM ET
•originally published 02/21/2013 AT 1:45 PM ET
Two years ago, Scott and Lauren Sterling were sitting in their Blue Springs, Mo., home when an email landed in their inbox with an eye-catching subject line: “Hi, we need a daddy and mommy.”
That email, sent a world away from a small orphanage in Pacasmayo, Peru – and written by a fellow member of the couple’s church where Scott, 43, is an associate pastor – introduced them to five siblings, then ages 7 to 15, who had lost both parents to tuberculosis. Because the children refused to be split up, the kids’ chances of finding new parents were slim.
“Our first thought was, someone rich ought to adopt these beautiful kids,” says Lauren, 30, a job recruiter who was already a mom to daughter Laney, now 3, and stepmom to Logan, 19, Scott’s daughter from a previous marriage. “But over the next few months, we realized, why not us?”
The Sterlings began a year-long process to legally adopt the five siblings, which involved Skype chats with the kids, reams of paperwork, and $20,000 raised by the Sterlings’ church to help with adoption fees. “It’s very unusual to find a family willing to take in so many siblings,” says Pat Baldwin, director of international programs at Villa Hope, which oversaw the adoption. “What the Sterlings have done is a true act of love.”
In Nov. 2012, the Sterlings flew down to the orphanage to meet Yhonson, now 17, Gerson, 15, Betsi, 12, Joel, 11, and Sibila, 9, in person for the first time and to bring them back to the States.
“The girls came running to us from a distance and jumped into Scott’s arms,” recalls Lauren. Adds Yhonson, who speaks limited English: “We were so happy. It was very emotional. We waited so long to be together.”
The new family returned to Missouri just a few days after Christmas and were greeted by friends and neighbors who had stocked the Sterlings’ kitchen with food, repainted their bedrooms, and set up a Christmas tree loaded with presents for the kids.
“Our home is now a mixture of Spanish, English and Spanglish thrown in and we use Google Translate a lot,” says Lauren. “People say these kids are lucky to have us, but we’re the ones who’re lucky to have them.”
[RELATED_TEXT “More Heroes Among Us:
Know a hero? Send suggestions to email@example.com. For more inspiring stories, read the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine