Tag Archives: Christian World Foundation

An update on the deGuzman kids, as their mom prepares to return to Ethiopia

Keri deGuzman will board a plane tomorrow morning bound for Washington, D.C. On Thursday, she will check in at the Ethiopian Airlines counter at Dulles International Airport. On Friday morning, she will arrive in Addis Ababa — her fourth trip to the capital of a resource-rich but infrastructure-poor country where more than four million children have been orphaned by poverty and disease.

Her return to Ethiopia comes nearly a year to the day after the trip she and her husband, Phoenix cardiothoracic surgeon Brian deGuzman, M.D. made last July to complete their family through the adoption of two Ethiopia-born babies.

I was with them on that trip, and memories from the experience linger on the edges of every thought I’ve had since we returned.

This time, Keri is going to Ethiopia by herself. This time, her purpose is not the fulfillment of her lifelong dream to be a mom but the passion she and Brian share for improving the lives of so many other Ethiopian orphans who may never know the experience of having a family.

I visited Keri and the busy, bustling deGuzman household on Saturday. It had been a few weeks since I’d seen all four kids — Jesmina, Musse, Solomon and Tesfanesh — and it was wonderful to have a few hours to reconnect.

Solomon and Jesmina.

The children are thriving. Four-year-old Jesmina, the doting oldest sibling, is growing tall and strong, writing her name and asking a million questions. I could see the wheels turning as she figured out how to piece together a small puzzle I brought from home. Jesmina will be starting school in the fall and is clearly ready. She is smart, insightful, empathetic, observant. You know how seriously she takes her role as eldest when she warns her mom that one of her siblings is doing something they probably shouldn’t.

Mussse.

Charming, affectionate 2-year-old Musse is a solid mass of all-boy, in constant motion and fascinated by trucks. (He has quite an impressive collection of them.) Sometimes all that concentrated energy results in unintended results, like when he accidentally breaks a blue crayon his sister is using to draw a picture. As Jesmina voices her protest, he looks up in wide-eyed innocence. In the next moment, his quieter, tender side is evident as he takes his little brother’s hand and leads him down the hall to play. We hear the boys giggling together — a musical, magical sound.

And then there are the babies. The beautiful, even-tempered babies I first saw in a tiny nursery at the foster home in Addis Ababa a year ago.

Solomon.

Solomon and Tesfanesh are babies no longer. They are full-fledged toddlers, with all the commensurate moments of joy and challenge that presents for their parents. Solomon, in fact, is precociously moving into the “terrible 2s,” his burgeoning sense of self resulting in moments of loud defiance and swift evasion — often accompanied by an engaging, heart-melting grin.

Tesfanesh still wears the all-knowing, “old soul” look I noticed the first time I laid eyes on her. She no doubt comes from a long line of wise, introspective women; their legacy lies deep in her thoughtful, chocolate-brown eyes.

Tesfanesh.

Tesfanesh is starting to say some easily understandable words — most notably “Tessy!” when I held her in my arms and pointed to her picture on the wall. I was touched to see that one of the framed photos was a shot I took when the family was united for the first time upon our arrival back in Washington, D.C.

“That’s my picture!” I said.

“I love that picture,” Keri told me. “It’s the only one we have of the six of us together for the first time.”

I listened to Keri describe her expected itinerary during her week-long visit to Ethiopia. I have been to all the places and projects she will visit: the Acacia Village community in Addis Ababa, where Keri, a pediatric intensive care nurse, will initiate plans for a much-needed medical clinic; the Sheberaber Primary School in a tiny village west of the capital city, where plans for classroom buildings will be discussed and the Wolaitta Village construction site in Soddo, where there will soon be a beautiful, clean home for hundreds of orphaned chidren.

Phoenix architect Jack deBartolo 3 and his wife Tricia will be there, too. Jack will return with a team of ASU graduate architecture students in September, when they will do research to design classroom buildings at the Sheberaber school. (Keri is lobbying for me to go along.) Jack’s first EthiopiaStudio team designed the Wolaitta Village project, so he, too, will be checking on its status.

Keri and Brian have pledged to provide the funding for much of this work. Fundraisers they and others are initiating will provide whatever else is needed. From the moment she and Brian left Ethiopia with baby Jesmina in their arms, they have known this is their calling. “We can’t forget about this place,” they pledged to each other — and to a country nearly 9,000 miles away.

Homecoming, July 17, 2010.

RAK Archives
An Ethiopia Adoption Story.
Sharing an Extraordinary Experience.

Ethiopia is calling

Ethiopian President Girma Wolde-Giorgi and his guests (from left): Haddush Halefom (who oversees the Acacia Village project for Christian World Adoption), me, Zerihun Beyene (who works for Christian World Adoption), Brian deGuzman, M.D. and Keri deGuzman. Photo courtesy of the president's office.

I had a dream that I was back at the palace in Addis Ababa, sitting in the office of Girma Wolde-Giorgi, the president of Ethiopia. I was waiting for the president to enter his spacious office so I could interview him for a story.

I saw the same high ceilings, the same heavy curtains, the same bronze cowboy statue on the massive desk — the very statue that intrigued me when I was in President Girma’s office last July, during my trip with adoptive parents Brian and Keri deGuzman.

At the time, I found it ironic. There I was in Africa, thousands of miles from home. And yet what drew my attention was a cowboy, that classic icon of the American Southwest.

I didn’t ask President Girma how a cowboy statue found its way to his desk. Our meeting that day was about the deGuzmans, who were in Ethiopia to welcome two babies into their family. They were invited to meet the president because of their involvement with Acacia Village, a home where 250 children can be nurtured, healed and transitioned into adoptive families. President Girma serves as honorary chairman of the board for Acacia Village, a project of Christian World Foundation.

In my dream, I was waiting in his office by myself, tending to unfinished business. I woke up before I found out what that business was.

A few days later, someone else told me about a dream she’d had. In her dream, I was staying at a beach house in California. The deGuzman family—Brian, Keri and their four beautiful children—had come to visit me. And so had my staff at Raising Arizona Kids magazine. I was fixing lunch for everyone. It was some sort of special occasion.

Ethiopia is calling to me in every way it can. In my own dreams and even in the dreams of someone who is close to me, I am reminded that there is work to be done, stories still to tell.

I have lost some ground in the last few months. The period between November and the end of February is always the busiest and most stressful for my small staff. It begins with research and fact checking for our 128-page Schools, etc. guide to education, which mostly happens in November. December brings double-issue production deadlines for the book and our January magazine.
The holidays throw us all off our game, as various staff members take vacation time to be with family and friends. And then, once we return to work in January, we’re back on deadlines for February, March and the last weeks of planning for our annual Camp Fair.

I knew that I would make little headway with my Ethiopia writing during this time, so I made a conscious, proactive decision to ride it out without punishing myself (too much).

But now it is time to get back on track. After this week, when the April magazine goes to press, I must recommit my time and attention to this story, which has gotten under my skin, dominating my conscious thoughts and seeping into subconscious ones, too.

Ethiopia – the babies are thriving!

I hadn’t seen the deGuzman babies since their birthday party in mid-November. So when I stopped by the family’s Paradise Valley home yesterday morning for a visit, I was pretty sure Tesfanesh and Solomon had forgotten all about me.

Keri greeted me at the door with Solomon in her arms. As I expected, the now 1-year-old toddler (who spent nine blissful hours on my lap during the flight home from Ethiopa last July) nestled his head against his mom’s neck when he saw me, curious but shy.

“He’s playing hard to get,” Keri said, confident that my bond with her children was intact. We greeted each other warmly, eager to catch up on the last few weeks’ flurry of holiday activities, family visits and progress on projects the deGuzmans support in Ethiopia.

Tesfanesh deGuzman.

I heard laughter down the hallway to the left. When I turned to look, I saw Tesfanesh crawling furiously down the hall in my direction. Instinctively, I got down on my knees to put myself at her eye level. Without a moment’s hesitation, she crawled straight to my thighs, using them for leverage as she hoisted herself up to standing and held out her arms for a hug.

I almost lost it. And I definitely lost any resolve I may have had to get back to the office any time soon.

I ended up spending three full hours with Keri and the babies — and also had a moment to catch up with Brian deGuzman, M.D., who had returned from a bike ride as I arrived that morning and had a bit of time at home before heading off to his work as associate chief of cardiovascular surgery at The Heart & Lung Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix. (As he kept insisting he would, when we were still in Ethiopia, Brian calls Solomon “Minte,” an affectionate nickname based on his first name, Mintesnot.) The couple’s other two children — 4-year-old Jesmina and 3-year-old Musse, who also were adopted from Ethiopia — were at preschool.

Solomon deGuzman in the family playroom. A map of Africa is on the wall behind him, part of a wall-size map of the world that was already there when deGuzmans bought their house.

The family has pretty much adjusted to their hectic, happy lifestyle and the babies are thriving. Solomon (who did eventually warm up to me) is wiry, strong and as charming and flirtatious as ever. As he moves toward the “terrible 2s,” he’s also developing a knack for drama — moments of frustration quickly manifest in piercing cries and explosive jumps that suddenly stop when he is comforted, distracted or appeased.

Tesfanesh, who is a few weeks younger, remains sunny and serene. She is insatiably curious and (so far) very patient with the process of discovery.

It’s been six months since I traveled with the deGuzmans to bring home these two beautiful babies, born into poverty and orphaned in a country more than 9,000 miles away from Arizona. They are happy, cherished, growing and developing right on track. What could be more remarkable?

MORE about the deGuzmans

My December 2010 article, “An Ethiopia Adoption Story,” is now archived online.

Read more blog posts about my Ethiopia journey.

Happy birthday(s) in the deGuzman family

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Two of the deGuzman children have birthdays today. Jesmina is 4. Musse is 3. And yes, they were born on exactly the same day, one year apart. In different villages in Ethiopia.

Their mom and their younger siblings, Solomon and Tesfanesh, also have birthdays this month. So November’s a pretty big month in the deGuzman household. And on Saturday, dozens of the family’s friends — along with Keri’s mom, Carol Drivick, who lives in Naples, Fla. — gathered at Arcadia Park in east Phoenix to celebrate.

I was there because, well, I’ve been at almost every major deGuzman family event in the last 20 months. Ever since I agreed to travel with Keri and her husband, Brian deGuzman, M.D. (a cardiac surgeon at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center) to Ethiopia last July, when they welcomed Solomon and Tesfanesh into their family. The trip has been the subject of many blog posts and an article that will appear in the December issue of Raising Arizona Kids.

It was hard not to think of that trip as I watched all four deGuzman children enjoy their shared party. (It must be confessed that Solomon and Tesfanesh slept through a good part of it.) Four months ago, the babies were sharing a crib in the tiny bedroom of a foster home in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Before that, they were living in an orphanage in the impoverished village of Soddo.

How seemlessly they have folded into this loving family and adjusted to this bountiful life, which has room and resources for inflatable bouncy slides and magic shows and facepainting. For friends and food and birthday presents times four. And even four separate birthday cakes.

“These kids are growing up in a home where they have a lot, but that’s not it,” Carol told me. “It’s the love. I see it in this home. Brian and Keri adore these children. And as they raise their children they try to capture each moment. “

As they raise their children, Brian and Keri also plan to involve them in outreach projects (including Acacia Village) they already support in Ethiopia. During every happy family celebration for their own children, they are also thinking about the many others — millions of others — who remain orphaned or abandoned in Ethiopia.

The happy ending to their family’s story isn’t an ending. It’s the beginning of another story about commitment and purpose and what one family can do to make a difference in the world.

For now, however, it’s enough to celebrate these four young lives.

And oh, yes. Keri’s birthday, too. Her was Nov. 10. Brian had to go out of town that day, so he brought her a beautiful bouquet of flowers after he dropped Jesmina and Musse at school and headed home to pack his bag.

I asked Brian what happens when it’s his birthday.

“Not much,” he said. “Keri usually buys me an ice cream cake and when I come home from work she tells me it’s in the freezer.” He smiled, looking around at the his beautiful family and cherished group of family and friends. “It’s okay. I’ve already had my birthday.”

Ethiopia – an update on the babies

The night we flew back to Phoenix: Brian deGuzman (gray T-shirt) hugs family friend Dinesh Wilson while Keri (right) introduces Brooke Wilson and Maria (in blue) to the babies. Photo by Daniel Friedman.

It’s been a little over a month since Brian and Keri deGuzman brought their babies home from Ethiopia. From the moment they first held Solomon and Tesfanesh, life has been a whirlwind of activity.

While we were still in Ethiopia, each day meant a new destination and new people to meet. Throughout it all — hours of bumpy car trips, bottles and diaper changes in every imaginable environment, endless sets of arms begging to hold them — the babies were remarkably calm. They barely made a peep during our trans-Atlantic flight from Addis Ababa to Washington, D.C., where they met their Ethiopia-born big brother Musse and big sister Jesmina for the first time and spent several days with grandparents, extended family and friends.

It’s like they knew all the commotion was peripheral to the essential reality of their young lives: They have a family. They have a home.

Keri can’t explain it; she just knows it to be true. “When we walked through the door, I looked at Brian and said, “Oh, my gosh. They know that they’re home. They knew that Washington, D.C. wasn’t their home, or anywhere else that we were before we came home. But as soon as we walked in the door it was like they were just happy. Tesfanesh lit up. They went right into their cribs — no problem. They weren’t scared.”

When I visited the deGuzmans’ Paradise Valley home for a few hours last week, I was astonished to see how much the babies have changed. Solomon, now about 9½ months old, looks like he’s grown a foot. His body is as long as his mom’s entire torso and his legs seem to go on forever. He is charming and quick to smile. He enjoys sitting in a bouncy chair and crawling around on the floor — he’s so fast he disappears around the corner if you blink your eyes.

Tesfanesh is a serene, stoic beauty. Now about 8 months old, she also is growing taller and stronger; seeing her sit confidently on a blanket surrounded by toys I am reminded of the room at the Soddo orphanage where these babies got their start. The wise director has a strict rule for the nursery: The babies are to be in their cribs only when they are sleeping. Every waking hour is to be spent on a clean, padded mat on the floor, propped up by Boppy pillows and the loving arms of nannies so that the babies can experience the movement, play and intellectual stimulation so important to those first months of development.

The deGuzman babies are healthy and thriving; their pediatrician has pronounced them completely perfect. I hear no trace of the chronic wheezing Tes had while we were in Ethiopia. Both children continue to battle ear infections but that’s not unusual for babies their age.

Jesmina (3½) and Musse (2½) are back at preschool at The Solel School, where they occasionally stay an extra hour for soccer. Their dad is back to his hectic schedule as a cardiac surgeon at St. Joseph’s Hospital & Medical Center. Keri maintains almost daily contact with friends in Ethiopia and is full of news about the people we met and the projects she and Brian continue to support there.

Life is starting to settle into a routine — as much of a routine as is possible, that is, in a household with four children under the age of 4.

Tesfanesh remains calm, contented, quiet, observant.

Keri with Solomon, who was just up from a nap.

Maria, who helps Keri with the children during the weekdays, gives the babies their first taste of yogurt. (They loved it.)

Solomon can crawl out of sight in the blink of an eye.

Tesfanesh is now sitting easily and jealously watching Solomon, who's a couple of months older, scoot around on his hands and knees. Sometimes she reaches out and grabs his hair as he shoots past her.

Keri took Solomon with her to pick up Jesmina and Musse after preschool; Tesfanesh was ready for a nap so she stayed home with Maria.

Heading down the colorful hallway at The Solel School in Paradise Valley.

Keri straps Solomon, Jesmina and Musse into car seats for the trip back home.

Musse, Jesmina and Solomon play on the floor with Maria. Jesmina was using markers to decorate the inside of a diaper box.

Musse and Keri enjoy a playful moment on the couch.

Ethiopia – Craving reconnection

Everyone kept asking me how the babies were doing. I was running out of answers because I hadn’t seen them.

August in my household was a fun but flurried month of arrivals and departures. We welcomed both of our grown sons home for separate visits from Washington, D.C.. and reveled in the chance to catch up with their friends who stopped by to visit. We helped my cousin’s daughter from Pennsylvania get settled at ASU. We hosted family gatherings so everyone could  spend time together.

Assessing the damange following our second flood.

Work was busy, too. We were still upacking and resettling after our two-month evacuation following The Great Office Flood of 2010. Then we experienced a second, though smaller, flood on Aug. 17. This time, thankfully, just our conference room was affected when refuse water from the hair salon above us rained down for several hours.  (Note to self: Next time we move, make sure the business above us is not so water-dependent.)

My Ethiopia experience was feeling increasingly distant and I was not finding the time I’d hoped to spend sifting through notes and recorded conversations in an effort to document more of that journey. I knew the deGuzmans were busy, too, adjusting to life with four children under the age of 4, getting the older two back into a preschool routine and hosting their own friends and family members who wanted to meet the babies.

Then, in yet another instance of “small world” coincidences and surprising connections that have entered my life since I first met Brian and Keri deGuzman in March 2009, I got an email from Keri.

She’d just run across the book Both Ends Burning: My Story of Adopting Three Children from Haiti, by Craig Juntunen of Scottsdale and wanted to make sure I knew about it. Keri was excited about the book because it paints a positive picture of international adoption.

Raising Arizona Kids ran an article about the Juntunens last December and mentioned the book. Scottsdale writer Sue Breding is still following their story; she is writing a “one year later” update for this December’s magazine and is planning a trip to Haiti with Kathy Juntunen at some point early next year.

Solomon deGuzman.

When I wrote back to share that coincidence with Keri, we made plans to get together. I told her I needed a “baby fix.” Time, like the now quick-crawling Solomon, was getting away from me.

Next: Pictures from my visit and an update on the babies.

Ethiopia – the “in-country” orphanage

A member of the Aerie Africa orphanage staff with one of the 53 children living there on a permanent basis.

Adoption is not always the answer for a child who has been orphaned or abandoned. The Ethiopian government establishes strict criteria dictating conditions under which a child is eligible for adoption. Independent adoption agencies have their own criteria. And then there is the very human element: making tough decisions about individual children.

To be eligible for adoption, a child must be a full orphan (both parents are dead), a “half” orphan (one parent, typically the mother, is dead and the father and/or extended family is unable or unwilling to care for the child) or abandoned — meaning, in many cases, that finding the blood relatives legally empowered to relinquish the child to adoption is challenging at best and impossible at worst.

Even once those criteria have been met, there are difficult decisions to make. Some are related to medical triage: Children age 5 and younger have lower survival rates and are the first to be placed in orphanages to await adoption — when space is available. Children age 6 and older, who have survived that vulnerable, early developmental period, are by their very resilience at lower odds of being adopted by prospective families, many of which are specifically seeking babies or are daunted by the challenge of raising a child with years of trying history. Some of these older children are placed into “in-country orphanages” where they are raised, educated and supported as they transition to productive adult lives within their communities.

The hillside behind the Aerie Africa orphanage.

The Aerie Africa orphanage that I visited with Paradise Valley couple Brian and Keri deGuzman (the parents of four children adopted from Ethiopia), is an example of one such in-country orphanage. On the day we visited, the orphanage had 53 children in residence on a Soddo hillside overlooking the lush Rift Valley. Eleven more (older teens) were living in a transition home in the village.

Noah Frank. (Photo by Brian deGuzman.)

“We’re really rethinking the whole [adoption-oriented] orphanage thing and focusing on raising these children,” said Noah Frank, a recent college graduate from the U.S. who works at the in-country orphanage. “We’re willing to go into new territory to save more children.”

The program is set up, as many in Africa are, so that individuals and families from around the world (mostly the U.S. and Europe) can “sponsor” a child, providing $800 a year to cover basic needs and education. The goal is to help these children pass the national test that is required of all Ethiopian children before they can advance “to university.” The staff hopes to place those who fail in vocational training or jobs.

Playing soccer on the playground in front of the orphanage. Photo by Brian deGuzman.

The day we visited, there were children playing on a neatly kept playground with primary-colored climbing equipment. Some were playing soccer.

We approached a classroom building and spent some time watching a group of children practicing their English. Most of the curriculum is taught in both English and Amharic, the national language; the goal is to have English-only instruction after they reach seventh grade.

English class.

The next room was a kitchen, where meals were prepared, in the traditional Ethiopian way, over a wood fire.

The kitchen, where meals are cooked over a wood fire. Photo by Brian deGuzman.

Out back, a group of older children was practicing martial arts. Shyly, but with obvious delight, they demonstrated some of their moves for us in a setting befitting an epic movie, with sweeping views of the rich lands of the Rift Valley, where much of the nation’s coffee is grown, just behind them.

As we walked back toward the orphanage, we saw some men working in a garden, from which food will be cultivated to feed the children. A huge avocado tree hung heavy with fruit. A shelter is being prepared for 15 to 20 cows and sheep that will graze on the grassy hillside during the day, providing the basis for a revenue-generating business. The children will help tend the livestock.

We visited another classroom, where teacher Felelee Garri (nickname “Chu Chu”) was conducting lessons in a room decorated with colorful cut-outs amplifying aspects of the curriculum (“MATH,” “PLANETS”) and educational priorities: “BOOKS,” “STUDY,” “WORK.”

We walked back outside, where I learned that the orphanage has its own well to provide fresh, clean water. It is a something, believe me, that is not common in this area. It helps immensely in keeping disease (and dirt) at bay.

The day before we visited, the orphanage installed its first modern toilet (what the staff referred to jokingly as a “ferengi” toilet, “ferengi” being the term for a white person from the U.S. or Europe). The new challenge? Teaching the children how to use it. Compared to other challenges facing these children, and this hardworking staff, that one sounded like a piece of cake.

Chu Chu shows Keri deGuzman around his classroom. Photo by Brian deGuzman.

Chu Chu's classroom. Note the bank of donated Macintosh computers in the background. The challenge now is finding someone to load software, service them and teach the students and staff how to use them.

Martial arts lessons in a grassy field behind the school

Working in the garden behind the school.

Two cribs, draped in mosquito netting, in a group bedroom for some of the younger children.