It all began with an accidental e-mail.
In February 2000, Columbia resident Sandy Hanson was surfing an Internet site about adoption when, by mistake, she sent a message to Chris Copeland Bobrick, who lives in Laurel.
Although their exchange was unintentional, the two women chatted a little and learned they had something in common: Both had adopted children from Guatemala - boys born just three days apart. More importantly, they were looking for a way to connect with other families who had adopted Guatemalan children.
"We felt it was very important to link our kids to their native culture," said Copeland Bobrick. "We also wanted to show our kids that there are other families out there that look like ours."
It was not long before several other parents of Guatemalan children joined the two women's online chats, which grew into the Guatemalan Parents Organization (GUAPO). The group has since grown to more than 50 families from Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
Yesterday afternoon, more than 100 GUAPO members - parents, children and those interested in adopting from Guatemala - gathered at Quiet Waters Park in Annapolis for their fourth annual picnic.
Over grilled hamburgers and hot dogs, they swapped stories about parenting and talked about their decision to adopt from Guatemala. For some parents, the colorful, lively culture of the Central American nation - along with its proximity to the United States - makes it an ideal country for American couples looking at international adoptions.
"I have Latino cousins, and the idea of connecting our family to Latino culture felt right," said Towson resident Rachel Bruback, one of the group's founding members. Bruback and her husband, Neil, adopted Chad, now 5, from Guatemala when he was an infant. Together with the Guatemalan sons of Copeland Bobrick and Hanson, he has formed a trio their parents call the "Tres Amigos" (Spanish for "three friends").
Others said they were moved to adopt from Guatemala when they learned that the majority of its population - more than 80 percent - live in poverty. According to the U.S. State Department, Guatemala has the second-highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world, behind only Bangladesh.
Many parents at the picnic cautioned those interested in adopting from Guatemala that, despite its rewards, the process is not without challenges.
Adopting from Guatemala can take more than a year and cost more than $20,000 for agency fees, travel and legal services. Parents who wish to adopt must first choose an agency to work with, and then there are piles of paperwork.
"It can take time," said Hanson, who recently returned from Guatemala with her husband, James, and their newly adopted baby girl, Jade. "But you know that in the end, you'll have a beautiful child."
Hanson recalled the moment she and her husband met Jade, the second child they have adopted from Guatemala.
"We'd been getting photos in the mail, but that moment is difficult to explain," Hanson said. "You wait in a room and get this call that asks you to come down to meet your child. You do your best not to scare them at first because they don't know who you are."
After two trips to Guatemala to adopt, Hanson said, "I wouldn't go anywhere else. I've fallen in love with the country."
Copeland Bobrick said her affection for Guatemalan children has tempted her to find homes for more of them. "It's sad because there are thousands of children who will never get adopted," she said.
While the children at the picnic played tag, tossed baseballs and rode bikes, their parents shared tips on keeping Guatemalan culture in their lives.
Bonnie Horowitz came from Oakton, Va., with her husband and two children - one of them adopted from Guatemala.
"Nina knows a lot about Guatemala because we talk about it all the time," said Horowitz, as her 3-year-old showed off a colorful beaded necklace from Guatemala.
Margaret Vitullo and her husband, Rick, of Takoma Park, came to the picnic because they wanted their two Guatemalan children - ages 2 and 4 - to socialize with families like theirs.
She said that it was their first GUAPO picnic, and they intend to return next year.
"It makes my heart so happy to see all these kids who are having so much fun, and all these loving parents," she said. "The adoption process is very hard, but we all went through it, and we're all so happy."