According to The Charlotte Observer online newspaper, Neal, now 42, was working with a non-governmental organization in Liberia at the time.
On a regular basis, the mother of eight — two biological children and six adopted was approached by Liberian women asking her to adopt their children and raise them in America.
“One person even went so far as to name their baby Jessica so she would adopt her child,” Jason Neal, Jessica’s husband said.
But none of those babies or orphaned children struck a chord in Jessica Neal’s heart like Emmanuel, the St. Cloud Times quoted by the paper said.
“It wasn’t until I saw his face that I just knew,” she said. “We just connected. And when your heart connects, your heart connects.”
Jason Neal, now 42, remembers the phone conversation he had with Jessica after she met Emmanuel. He was back in Minnesota, caring for their family.
“I was like ‘Are you kidding me?’ I was pretty skeptical,” he said.
The Neals were already in the lengthy process of adopting a little girl from an undisclosed foreign country. The thought of adding another mouth to feed while they were already waiting for their daughter left Jason Neal very conflicted.
“There were so many logical things going through my head,” Jason Neal said.
It wasn’t until delivering a Sunday sermon in front of his congregation at Riverside Evangelical Church in Sartell that Jason Neal came to the realization that adopting Emmanuel, the little boy who stole his wife’s heart, was the right thing to do.
“I remember saying something on the lines of ‘God doesn’t call us to an easy life,'” he said. “And I remember stating out loud, ‘Like adopting a little boy from Africa.'”
With tears in her eyes, Jessica Neal was ready to start the process to bring Emmanuel home.
The couple started the uphill climb through international adoption agencies and financial obstacles shortly after. Emmanuel’s international adoption fees were about $22,000. And an Ebola outbreak that was taking the lives of thousands of Liberians also delayed the adoption because of travel bans.
“Our adoption worker probably lost her mind with the amount of phone calls I would make,” Jessica Neal said. “I would hear about another death, call her and ask how Emmanuel was.”
With the help of a surprise appearance on Thanksgiving 2014 program hosted by ABC’s Robin Roberts, the couple was able to generate enough funds and support to bring Emmanuel home.
The couple took another mission trip to Liberia during the spring of 2015. This was the first time Jason Neal was able to meet his new son.
“It seemed to me like he knew who I was,” Neal said. “He was with us and stayed with us every night in our guest house.”
Jessica Neal said the father and son were inseparable.
After completing their missionary work, the Neals headed back to Sartell to await final approval for Emmanuel’s adoption.
It was a few more months before Jessica, their oldest daughter Kira and Jessica’s sister were able to board a plane to Liberia to bring Emmanuel home.
The journey of nearly 6,000 miles was filled with new experiences for all four of them.
“He never had ice cubes before,” Jessica Neal said. “He never watched a movie before and he was banging on the screen. When they brought ice cream around, he took a bite, opened his mouth, smiled and drooled it all out. He ate the whole thing that way.”
Since that October day, Emmanuel has had to face a number of health challenges, and the family’s move from Sartell to Andover in June 2015 puts them closer to his treatment at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul.
Among other health problems, the 9-year-old has cerebral palsy and epilepsy. He also is nonverbal and suffers from a condition called microcephaly, a disease that causes his skull to remain undersized.
But to his family, those issues are only roadblocks to be defeated in time.
“Every day amazes us with the abilities he does have,” Jessica Neal said.
Emmanuel joined a household that includes Kira, 18; Dayton, 17; Cory, 22; Titus, 13; Miriam, 12; Malachi, 12; Ruth, 11; and Josie, 5.
Within the past few weeks Emmanuel has gone to school with his older siblings, attending kindergarten with the help of a wheelchair.
And the Neals say doctors predict that over the next few months, the treatment they are providing to correct his legs will result in him being able to walk.
“To watch him is so exciting,” Jessica Neal said. “Everything is new to him.”
The family has created a Facebook page to document the progress Emmanuel is making called Chronicles of Emmanuel.
“He’s a rock star,” Jason Neal said.