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Best-Selling Author Mitch Albom Reveals the True Meaning of Family

by SUSAN PASCAL

In his latest book, “Finding Chika,” best-selling author Mitch Albom offers a deeply personal and heartwarming story of Chika, the little girl he and his wife adopted from his orphanage in Haiti. We spoke with Albom about what it means to be a family and the young Haitian orphan whose short life would forever change his heart.

1. Why was it so important for you to tell this story?

The story behind Finding Chika was life-changing for me. Becoming a family in our late 50’s with a little girl from another country who didn’t look like us or talk like us yet blessed us in so many ways, was something I thought other people could embrace and relate to their own family’s situations.

Also, Chika only lived seven years. That’s too short a life. I felt that in telling her story and how she changed the world for those around her, in a certain way she could live on longer than her brief time on earth. By devoting all the profits of this book to the orphanage, it also allows Chika to leave a legacy for her brothers and sisters in Haiti.

2. Can you talk about your work in Haiti?

I started at the orphanage just weeks after the terrible earthquake of 2010. At that time, the orphanage was overrun and in sad physical condition. I was so moved by the spirit of the children there and their resiliency in the face of such a terrible disaster that I began to go back every month and gathered up a group of 23 Detroiters–plumbers, roofers, electricians, etc. With the help of Haitian laborers, we built up the orphanage to a new level, including its first real kitchen, dining room, bathrooms, showers, and, our pride and joy, a three-room schoolhouse.

I took over the operations of the orphanage shortly thereafter and have been there ever since. It’s been nearly 10 years now. I travel there every month and stay for four or five days, overseeing all the operations. We now take care of 52 children, ages 2-18, many of whom have been abandoned and orphaned by natural disasters or family issues. We educate them, nurture them, watch out for their health, provide them with quality food, good lodging, plus there’s play and prayer and creative inspiration and, most importantly, constant love and attention.

They are all on track to graduate at age 18 from our school, which teaches four hours a day in English and three hours a day in French, and I have lined up college scholarships for all of them, either in the U.S. or in Haiti. Their goal is to grow, learn, become responsible adults and, ultimately, make their country a better place.

Personally, I plan to be there the rest of my life, overseeing these children, admitting new ones, and making sure they get the opportunity to live full, enriched lives, something all children should.

3. What did Chika bring into your lives after you brought her home? Share a story or two.

Chika changed everything. Remember, my wife and I did not have children of our own. We married late and it just didn’t happen for us. So here we were, just the two of us together for nearly 30 years. Suddenly there’s this little girl in our lives, a little girl who the doctors told us would only live four months due to an inoperable brain tumor. They said she would likely die in four months. They suggested we take her back to Haiti and just wait it out.

We refused. I knew how brave she was. I knew she had survived the earthquake when she was three days old. We simply could not give in and take her home to die.

So we took her into our lives. And we went from two to three … just like that. Three people at the dinner table. Three seats in the car. Three people at the doctor’s office. Three people all going to bed at a much earlier hour than we used to!

Chika was so curious about this marvelous new country and sudden new family. She would tell us when we had to go to bed, when we had to brush our teeth, pretty much everything. She brought a life force into our home that took it over. Suddenly, with a 5-year-old sleeping in her own little bed at the base of ours, our time, our attention and our hearts were instantly changed. As I wrote in Finding Chika, “A child is both an anchor and a set of wings.”

We experienced that in every way.

But mostly, I think Chika brought laughter. She could find laughter in anything. She’d laugh at my snoring. She’d laugh in the words “Baba Ghanoush.” She was proud and loud and inquisitive. She would ask us how we fell in love? She would ask when was she going to fall in love? Could she marry a prince? Why did squirrels run up the trees? You name it.

Once she was singing “Doe a deer an email deer.”

We said, “No, Chika, it’s female.”

“What?”

“It’s female deer, not email deer.”

She crossed her arms and said, “No. It’s my mouth, and I can say what I want!”

That was Chika.

4. A recent interview said Chika taught you your true purpose. What is that?

I think I was referring to the moment when, late in the disease’s progression, Chika could no longer walk on her own. I had to carry her from place to place:to the bedroom, to the bathroom, to the kitchen, to the car. I was her transportation. She would raise her arms and I would lift her up and carry her wherever she needed to go.

So one time we were sitting at the table coloring and I looked at my watch and I realized I was late for work. I popped up and said, “Chika, I gotta go.” She said, “No Mr. Mitch. Stay here and color.”

“Chika,” I said, “I have to work.”

“Mr. Mitch,” she said back, “I have to play.”

“But this is different, Chika,” I said, “This is my job.”

She crossed her arms. “No it isn’t,” she said, “Your job is carrying me!”

Well. I realized, after I laughed, that she was dead right. That my job was carrying her, that what we carry is what defines us. For so many years I had been carrying my work, my papers, my books, my accomplishments–the things that filled my arms. Suddenly, I was carrying a child. And it was the most blessed burden to bear. She was right, my job was carrying her. My job is carrying children, all of our children in Haiti, and making sure they have a good life. I think we find different purposes as we get older. This has become mine.

5. What message do you hope readers will take away from the book?

There are so many things that Chika taught me, and I tried to write the book in a way that would be universal for anyone who reads it who had a child, wanted to have a child, wanted to adopt a child, foster a child, or in any way enrich his or her life with the gift of children. One message that’s key to me is that there are many ways to make a family. Chika didn’t look like us, or talk like us, or come from us, but we could not have been more of a family–and she could not have been more of a daughter to us–than if she was the spitting image of my wife and me.

There are many ways to make a family, but there are no wrong ways. And that no matter how a family comes together, and no matter how it may come apart, this I have learned to be true: you cannot lose a child. And we did not lose a child. We were given one. And she was glorious.

To read more of Albom’s memoir, “Finding Chika,” click here to order.

This Q&A was featured in the December 8th edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.

SUSAN PASCAL