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.
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.
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 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 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.