No matter how many times Jennie Kitch walked past the brochure sitting in her kitchen about adoptive children with HIV, she still stopped and stared at the Ethiopian girl on the cover with the enormous brown eyes.
Kitch just knew the little girl, Eyerusalem, was meant to be her child. But Kitch, a full-time student at a local divinity school, already had three adopted children and little money to spare for an international adoption. Still, her gut told her she had another child a world away just waiting for her.
While Kitch debated what to do about Eyerusalem, Eyerusalem’s grandmother and aunt, already in the United States, were doing the same thing. Both of Eyerusalem’s parents had died of AIDS and Eyerusalem was living with an uncle in Ethiopia. With no money for medicine, Eyerusalem was suffering from an unending spate of medical problems.
“Eyerusalem’s aunt Agere called every agency in the U.S. asking for help to adopt Eyerusalem, but she’s HIV positive and no one wanted her,” explains Margaret Fleming, founder and director of Chances by Choice. Her aunt and grandmother were in the United States legally, but were not U.S. citizens so were unable to bring the child here. They were in a desperate struggle to get her to the U.S. before she died.
About two years ago, Agere called Chances by Choice."She said,‘I’ve called more than 100 agencies and no one wants to help,’" Fleming remembers."I told her that I don’t know who it will be or how long it will take, but I’ll find you a family.”
In the meantime, Eyerusalem languished in Ethiopia. She had pneumonia. She contracted tuberculosis. Four families in the United States each began the process of adopting Eyerusalem; each ended up deciding it wouldn’t work."She was doing terrible in Ethiopia. We didn’t think she’d make it long enough for us to get her home,” Fleming says.
Then Kitch came into the picture."Jennie just knew this was her child,” Fleming says.
The local community and Kitch’s family began collecting money to help with the adoption. Chances by Choice helped, too. Kitch filled out paperwork, applied for medical waivers and muddled through background checks and home inspections.
Mother and daughter finally meet
In December 2005, Kitch flew to Ethiopia to meet her child. Eyerusalem was being treated for tuberculosis so the two stayed in a guest house and Kitch cared for her daughter.
“It was a life-altering experience, not only to be with Eyerusalem and to come to love her so quickly, but also to see Ethiopia and what it’s like there,” Kitch says. The connection between the pair was immediate and lasting—both knew they were meant to be a family. Unfortunately, the bureaucrats processing the adoption papers weren’t as quick to agree. Eyerusalem’s tuberculosis meant she couldn’t come to the U.S. yet, so after a week, the mother and daughter bid each other a tearful goodbye.
Although the adoption became final in May 2006, Kitch still didn’t have the paperwork to bring her daughter home. In the meantime, she prepared her other three children, Anthony, 8, Nathan, 7, and Ella, 3, for their new sister.
“I explained to the kids that Eyerusalem has a sickness that makes her blood weak and she’s coming to us for help,” Kitch says. Not wanting to single Eyerusalem out, Kitch explained to her kids that they shouldn’t touch each other’s blood. Anthony asked if he had HIV too and if Eyerusalem would be OK. Kitch reassured him that he was fine, and Eyerusalem would be too, once they got her home.
On Jan. 4, more than a year since she’d seen her daughter last, Kitch flew to Washington, D.C., to bring home Eyerusalem. Back in Chicago, Kitch’s cousin Candice Morgan packed up Anthony, Nathan and Ella for the trip to Midway Airport to meet their sister. Eyerusalem’s grandmother flew in from Seattle, planning to stay and help settle in the granddaughter she’d hadn’t seen in years. Fleming and other Chances by Choice staff members arrived at the airport bearing balloons.
Finally, after what felt to Anthony like an unbearably long wait, Ella spotted her mom and new sister gliding down the escalator towards them. Exhausted after not sleeping the entire trip from Ethiopia, Eyerusalem could do little more than cling to her mom and peek out at her new family. Her grandmother, overcome with emotion, could hardly bear to let go when she grasped Eyerusalem in a hug.
After years of languishing in Africa, Eyerusalem was home. She is being treated with antiretroviral drugs and began school only days after arriving in the United States. Her future holds possibilities it never could have held in Ethiopia.
A few days after Eyerusalem came home, Fleming arrived at an Ethiopian restaurant in Chicago, joining Agere, the new family and the waif of a child with enormous brown eyes now part of that family.
“We looked at each other,” Fleming says,"And we said,‘We did it.’"
Chances by Choice saves HIV children one at a time
With every child Margaret Fleming adopts, she swears it will be her last. With three biological children and eight adopted kids, the 70-year-old adoption advocate swears she won’t take on any more of the world’s needy children. And yet, she waits for one more—she swears he’s the last—an HIV-positive child expected to arrive from Ethiopia this summer.
Fleming, of Oak Park, is the founder and director of Adoption Link, which primarily facilitates the adoption of black infants from the Chicago area. Out of this work, Chances by Choice was born. Chances pairs HIV-positive children from around the world with adoptive families in the United States. She also helps find families for special needs children that many other adoption agencies have given up on.
“An agency who doesn’t have a place for a child calls us,” Fleming says."We’ve placed a child with no arms and legs, an albino, children whose birth mothers and fathers have mental health problems.”
Caring for the world’s most fragile children wasn’t what Fleming started out to do. Thirty years ago, she had a successful practice as a clinical social worker and was raising three children. Then she got divorced and also realized she was burned out on the job. She knew something was missing, so she took stock of her life.
“I decided I wanted to adopt a child. But I already had three blond, blue-eyed kids—I didn’t need any more,” Fleming says. So 22 years ago, Fleming adopted Nathan, a 3-day-old biracial boy from Chicago. A few years later, she adopted Alex, and then Chelsea, both African-American children.
“With each child, I think,‘This is it. I have a great family, this is enough kids,’" Fleming says.
When Chelsea was a year old, Fleming decided to start an adoption agency."I thought,‘How do you start an adoption agency?’ Then I realized that maybe the important thing is just to begin.” Fleming continued to work full time while also raising her three young kids. It took a year of working late into the night before her agency was up and running.
Adoption Link and Chances by Choice have become, like Fleming herself, non-traditional. Many families who would be turned down by other agencies find the child of their dreams through Fleming.
“I’m 70, so how could I say people are too old? Frankly, I’m too old for categories,” Fleming says."We try to evaluate very carefully every family and we’re very thorough with background checks. We do turn people down, but we don’t automatically. We take gays and lesbians, we’ve had handicapped parents. We’ve placed more than 700 kids with families.”
The focus on international children with HIV began when Fleming went to Vietnam to adopt Lien in 2002.
“That just changed my life. She was HIV positive and that’s why I wanted her, because I knew no one else would,” Fleming says. What she found when she arrived astounded Fleming.
“It was the most desolate room (the HIV room). It was the hottest, most joyless room in the orphanage,” Fleming says."The kids in Lien’s room were all well cared for physically, but the nurses only touched them to change their diapers. There were no toys. Those babies sat in their cribs for hours and they hardly ever cried because no one came if they cried. No one talked to them. It was just grim.”
Ultimately, Fleming went back to Vietnam and adopted another little girl. She has also adopted children from Ethiopia and an HIV-positive toddler from Chicago. Not all of her children remained HIV positive—sometimes the positive test results are from the child inheriting the mother’s antibodies and at 18 months, Lien’s tests showed she was free of HIV. However, three of Fleming’s children are HIV positive and will continue to take medication to treat their illness for the rest of their lives.
Fleming has expanded her agency to help children who are not up for adoption and who remain in their own country. The agency works with family reunification, sponsorship of children with HIV who are not available for adoption and job training so families can support themselves.
Through it all, Fleming raises her children while also raising AIDS awareness."We’re very matter-of-fact about it and I feel that they’re little ambassadors,” Fleming says."I’ve never seen anyone recoil from my kids if they sneeze or throw up. You know, if it was so contagious we’d all have it, but we don’t.”
For families interested in adopting an HIV-positive child, Fleming wants them to know the agency will do anything it can to make this happen. And if a family can’t adopt, Fleming suggests they sponsor a child for $30 a month—enough to provide food, medicine, school supplies and clothing for the child while they remain in their own country.
For more information about Chances by Choice, call (708) 524-4673 or visit its Web site at www.chancesbychoice.org.
Liz DeCarlo, who lives in Darien, is the editor of Chicago Parent Going Places and the calendar editor of Chicago Parent as well as the mother of Anthony, 13, Emma, 10, and Grace, 8.