A.Younkin Photography Jacqui McNeill with daughter Emilia
Jacqui McNeill was just 12 when her mom suddenly died of heart failure, but the child — one of 11 kids in total — didn't think twice about caring for her seven younger siblings.
Filled with anger and sorrow for years, Jacqui eventually found solace in her Irish Catholic faith and became closer to God, culminating in her decision to become a nun after high school. However, during her time in a religious community, she found that her desire to have her own child one day was too great to move forward with nunhood.
"You have to live a life of poverty and a life of celibacy for the church," says Jacqui, now 29, in this week's issue of PEOPLE. "People would come over and visit, and I would hold the babies the whole time or play with the kids. I would just cry when they left because it hurt so much to know that I was saying, 'I'm willing to not have kids in my life.'"
Inspired by the work of Mother Teresa, Jacqui decided to travel from her home in Ohio to India, where she worked for four months alongside children with disabilities at a foster home.
"I didn't understand how anybody could look at these kids and see anything but beauty, vulnerability and innocence," she says. "I would have brought them all back with me at 24 years old."
While she was aware she couldn't adopt all of the children, Jacqui knew in her heart that one child somewhere in India would someday call her mom. So on April 27, 2018, the day she turned 25, the legal age to adopt in India, the single behavioral therapist submitted the paperwork to officially adopt.
Courtesy Jacqui McNeill Emilia McNeill
After two long years filled with more hurdles than she expected, Jacqui was finally matched with Emilia, who was born without arms and legs as a result of a rare and often fatal condition called Tetra-amelia syndrome.
"I remember opening her information and saw 'limb deficiency,'" says Jacqui. "Then I saw it was all four limbs."
Her immediate reaction was fear, she says, "but I knew that she was mine."
"The first time I saw a picture of her face, I just wept," Jacqui adds. "I didn't know what her needs would be, but you go above and beyond and do what you have to do for your kid."
During the adoption process, there were many moments when Jacqui doubted if her lifelong dream would ever come true.
After Jacqui officially applied, she was denied numerous grants because she wasn't married. She eventually found helpusadopt.org, an organization that helped her raise the $45,000 in fees.
"They gave me a huge grant and helped make this possible," says Jacqui, who also took on other side jobs. "I am so grateful."
Following another year of waiting due to numerous issues — including delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic — Jacqui was able to travel to India in April of 2021 and finally bring Emilia home.
"When I picked her up, they told me, 'Good luck. She's a grumpy child. She never smiles,'" the mom recalls.
But Jacqui has had the opposite experience with Emilia, whom she describes as a "joyful and happy" 4-year-old child.
"She doesn't do anything but smile, and she's had a lot to overcome," says Jacqui.
For more about Jacqui and Emilia McNeill's journey, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.
A.Younkin Photography Jacqui McNeill holding baby Emilia
With 10 hospitalizations for something as minor as the common cold, and many days filled with doctor's appointments, Emilia is still "a little fighter," says Jacqui, who takes her to physical and occupational therapy three times a week.
Emilia is now at a regular preschool, can scoot up the stairs and manages to eat and drink by her herself. While she "makes a huge mess doing so, she's very determined," says Jacqui. "I tell her all the time that 'can't is not in our vocabulary.'"
Mom and daughter start every morning with snuggle time and enjoy the simple things, like making Emilia's favorite meals — including different curry and rice dishes the little one calls "picy India" — at least three nights a week together.
Thankfully, they have many families who have also adopted from India in their community of Wadsworth, Ohio.
"We all get together, celebrate the different Indian festivals and live out the culture," says Jacqui, who hopes her daughter will one day go to college and have a full-time job.
Looking back on her own difficult origins, Jacqui is thankful for what her mom's passing taught her about life.
"That loss, that pain, that suffering in a sense was a blessing for me. With this whole adoption journey, I've had the compassion in my heart and the knowledge of what ache is like for a mom," she says. "I didn't know what was missing until I got her. Now, life has beauty and purpose."