The baby smelled like spoiled milk.
He and five other infants had been placed on pillows and strapped to plane seats for the 11-hour flight from Seoul, South Korea to Chicago. A pacifier was pinned to his shirt.
His given name, according to his wristband, was Dong Kuyen Park. He had been abandoned at birth on Nov. 13, 1984, by his mother, who had slipped out of the Dongin Medical Clinic in Seoul City without leaving her name or any way to find her.
When that plane landed at O’Hare International Airport on Feb. 14, 1985, that smelly three-month-old baby became the best Valentine’s Day gift Sally Zies could have ever imagined.
Thirty-one years later, Ryan Zies stands in front of the congregation at Viewpoint Church in Newport Beach giving his first sermon. His topic: adoption. “God adopts every son and daughter,” Zies said. Zies is not a full-time pastor yet, but he’s got a story that resonates with so many people who hear it.
How does a kid abandoned by his birth mother end up as a successful fashion designer in Orange County? How does a fashion designer end up becoming a rising star in a new church?
“That’s my Valentine’s Day story,” he said with a smile.
Sally, who also calls Feb. 14 “Homecoming Day,” says people tell her all the time that she and her late husband Jeff blessed that little baby with their grace.
Just wait until you see what she tells the people who say that.
Sally and Jeff tried for years, without success, to have children naturally.
In 1983, Sally overheard a woman on the telephone making arrangements for an adoption. That’s the first time Sally heard of Bethany Christian Services. When the Zieses signed up, they agreed to take a baby from Korea. The Zieses, who are white, were told to prepare for the ups and downs of an inter-racial adoption.
“I would have taken a green, purple or blue baby at that point,” she said. “In my heart, he was my son first, adopted second and Korean third.”
Ryan was raised in Batavia, Illinois. The Zies family liked the Bethany Christian process so much they did it again about a year later, adopting a girl, Emily, from Korea.
Jeff Zies was a firefighter, owned a local gas station and was a White Sox baseball fan. He raised Ryan on the ballfields around Chicago. Jeff coached Ryan in travel ball, and Ryan was pretty good. He started on the varsity team at Batavia High as a freshman.
Family life came easy, but Ryan wasn’t always accepted in the mostly white community where he was raised.
He remembers being confronted at a stop sign when he was a young boy. He and his cousin were walking home from school when a boy began yelling racial epithets.
“I froze,” Ryan said. “My cousin said, ‘Ryan RUN.’ Then my cousin beat him up (the kid who was taunting Ryan).”
Another time at school, Ryan was confronted with racist comments, and a school police officer got involved. The boy who made the comments was forced to apologize.
There were rumblings in Ryan’s extended family that his parents should have tried to adopt a white baby. The Zieses shielded him from racism as much as they could.
“My parents would tell me that we’re all the same,” Ryan said. “You can’t allow those incidents to shape your identity. Your identity comes from forgiveness.”
His parents thought Ryan was going to be a college baseball player. But he threw them a curveball.
He began to study fashion design.
He went to Iowa State and began designing men’s clothes. His heroes were fashion designers like Marc Jacobs and Zac Posen. In 2004, Ryan was accepted into the London College of Fashion.
“I loved to be different,” Ryan said.
“He gives me a hard time if my shoes don’t match my belt,” Sally said.
In 2007, he moved to Huntington Beach to chase a career in fashion for action sports. He eventually worked for Quiksilver, Element and Pukka designing backpacks, hats, belts and accessories. He designed the Stavi Mustache Hat for Quiksilver.
“That’s my claim to fame,” Ryan said.
On Feb. 23, 2008, his father suffered a massive heart attack and died suddenly. Jeff Zies’ death changed his son. He became more spiritual. He began attending RockHarbor Church in Costa Mesa, and he met pastor Roger Tirabassi, who became his mentor.
“Ryan has grown up a lot,” Sally said. “He’s very involved with the church. I’m glad he has them. It’s his second family.”
In 2013, Ryan was a successful businessman, but his life wasn’t fulfilled. “I didn’t have anything to show for it,” he said.
He heard about a new church being started by his friend Tirabassi in Newport Beach, and he thought it was an interesting concept.
He had no idea how important that church would become in his life.
Without warning, he was laid off from his job at Pukka.
A few days later, he heard Tirabassi talking about the new Viewpoint Church.
“There was a tone in his voice that hit me in the heart,” Ryan said. “They needed help.”
So he volunteered to paint, move furniture and do anything else the Viewpoint Church needed. Before long, Tirabassi offered Ryan a job.
“He’s gold; the real deal,” Tirabassi said. “He’s so loving and empathetic. He loves his family and appreciates where he’s come from.”
Ryan is now the fledgling church’s director of communications. He still takes fashion consulting jobs on the side, but his priority is the church.
“Becoming a pastor is in my future,” he said.
Every Valentine’s Day, Sally Stearn (she’s remarried), sends a card and a present to her son in Orange County.
She wishes him a “Happy Homecoming Day.” This year, she got him a gift card so he can buy furniture for his Laguna Beach apartment.
Sally doesn’t see him as much as she would like. She’s 58 and just about to finish a degree at Northern Illinois University, where she went back to school to study English and creative writing.
She’ll see him again when Ryan flies back for her graduation ceremony.
When people praise her for raising an abandon child, she always gives them the same answer.
“We didn’t bless Ryan,” she said. “He’s the one who blessed us.”