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Like her 7-year-old sister Alaya, 4-year-old Annika Bullock is a daddy's girl — except when she's under the weather. Then no one but Mom will do.

That's why Nicole Bullock celebrated her recent 39th birthday with her feverish younger daughter on her lap, watching a movie in the family's dining-room-turned-playroom.

"I'm the one that buys them too many stuffed animals and lets them break the rules, but when they're in distress, I'm not as good as she is," said dad Geoff Bullock of his wife.

The Brooklyn Park couple had to work hard to experience the everyday joys of parenting. In fact, they had to bet the house to build their family through adoption.

The Bullocks adopted Alaya from the foster care system when she turned 1. Two years later, they had taken custody of newborn Annika while preparing to adopt her. But complications in finalizing Annika's adoption arose, and with them, almost $30,000 in legal fees and other expenses.

"We'd already had her for three months. We'd named her. I told Nicole, 'I'll work five jobs if I have to. She's our daughter,' " Geoff said.

Although $30,000 may sound exorbitant, many families face those kinds of expenses when adopting. According to Adoptive Families magazine, which conducts an annual survey on the cost of finalizing adoptions, an average international adoption costs $42,000, while adoption of a domestic newborn averaged $37,000 in 2015-16.

To raise money to finance Annika's adoption, the Bullocks sold the Brooklyn Park home they had bought as a fixer-upper, cashing out their sweat equity to pay the adoption-related bills.

"I thought there's got to be another way, a better way for families like us to do this," Geoff said.

He made it his mission to find one.

A financial education specialist at Burnsville-based Firefly Credit Union, Geoff went to work crafting a new type of loan — an adoption line of credit.

Because the adoption process often takes several years, this financing allows families to borrow bit by bit as expenses arise instead of taking out a large loan. That can dramatically lower their interest costs over the life of the loan.

Bullock entered his idea for an adoption line of credit in the CUES Next Top Credit Union Executive contest, a national industry competition that rewards innovative ideas from local credit union managers.

"We ask participants to come up with a product that could have industrywide impact, not just for their individual credit union," said Tim McAlpine of Currency Marketing, the credit union industry organization that sponsored the competition.

"Geoff's idea doesn't solve a Minnesota problem," McAlpine said. "It could be a nationwide solution to an issue."

Bullock's idea stood out among the thousand entries in the CUES contest. He was named a finalist in an October convention in Las Vegas, where he pitched his idea again, in a reality show-style competition — complete with a panel of judges, elimination rounds and online voting from the audience.

He was chosen as the national winner.

"Through his own experience, Geoff had beta-tested the concept and proved the relevancy of it," said McAlpine, who presented the award. "He married an unmet market need with an applicable product. When the judges heard it, they had an aha moment."

"When they made the announcement, I started crying," Nicole Bullock said. "Not just because I was proud of Geoff but because I knew this means other people will be able to be parents and kids will get their forever families."

Firefly Credit Union began offering its adoption loan — an unsecured fixed-rate line of credit — on Jan. 2. The loan is available so far only to adoptive families approved through Children's Home Society/Lutheran Social Service, which is Minnesota's largest adoption agency.

"We've known for years that financing adoption is a significant barrier for some families, so we're always looking for new tools that a family can access," said Alexis Oberdorfer, senior director of adoption for the agency. "We're excited about the possibilities of an adoption line of credit. We met with Geoff and gave him input to help this option move forward."

For kids, for families

Oberdorfer said families that adopt waiting children from the foster care system have minimal expenses, but confirmed that families who take the more expensive route of adopting infants face steep costs related to screening, transportation and legal fees.

Some families qualify for a federal adoption tax credit, and others can take advantage of grants or adoption expense reimbursement programs offered in some company benefit packages.

More affluent families may be able to front the costs, but many prospective parents end up borrowing from their retirement savings, hitting up friends and relatives for loans or taking second jobs.

"When families learn about the costs, so often their hearts sink and they have to slow down, go back and regroup," Oberdorfer said. "We want families getting ready to engage with the process to have every vehicle possible to move forward."

In the years since the Bullocks sold their fixer-upper to finance their bills, they've finalized Annika's adoption and moved into a new house.

While winning the credit union contest has been a professional highlight for Bullock, he said, he's more delighted that his idea may help other couples in their quest to become parents.

"Credit unions are collaborative. They don't hold onto something and say, 'This is a proprietary idea that's mine.' They're willing to share," he said. "Folks came up to me after the competition, [and asked] 'How do I get this at my credit union?' This is going to be good for them and good for kids who need families."

That makes Bullock's work on the credit line more than worth it.

"You could not find two sweeter, kinder, more loving girls than my daughters," he said. "Our greatest joy in life is being their parents. You can't put a price on that."

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.