This section is continued from part one of this story. Please see the link below to read part one.
Kennard enjoyed the role of savior in a small Ethiopian village. Photo by Rick Egan.
A Market for Children
As Lon Kennard tells it, he was driving to work in Salt Lake City, from his home in Heber City, through Parley’s Canyon, when he heard an interview on National Public Radio with Cheryl Carter-Shotts, the founder of Americans for International Adoption.
The year was 1991, and the terrible vision of starving children—still the only image most Americans can muster of the world’s most populous landlocked nation—was still fresh on Kennard’s mind.
The Great Famine of the mid-1980s claimed the lives of more than 400,000 Ethiopians. But other than buying a copy of We Are The World, most Americans did little to help. Some might argue it’s perhaps better that way. Though Americans mean well, they’re prone to addressing intricate, entrenched international problems with simplistic solutions—a bandage over a festering wound.
Besides, in Ethiopia, home to so much desperation, where do you even start?
In the broadcast, Carter-Shotts offered a simple answer—something pure and benevolent that even Americans of relatively modest means could do to relieve misery in a far away land. They could adopt a child.
Even after the famine ended, malnutrition and disease continued to orphan tens of thousands of children each year. Ethiopia’s orphanages couldn’t hold them all.
Up to that point, and going back to the end of the Korean War, South Korea had been the top “sending” nation for American parents seeking to adopt children from overseas. But as economic winds shifted, and South Koreans were better able to care for their own orphans, the sources for internationally adopted children changed. Russia, China and Guatemala became key sending nations in the 1990s. Ethiopia soon joined those nations as top providers of children to American adoptive families.
Ethiopia, the second-most-populous nation in Africa, sent 95 children to adoptive parents in the United States in 2000, according to the U.S. State Department. During the next decade, nearly 10,000 Ethiopian children were adopted by American families, including 2,500 in 2010 alone.
Gail Gorfe watched the adoption rush with a mixture of excitement and fear. “There were a lot of adoption agencies being created,” said Gorfe, who began working with Adoption Advocates International in Addis Ababa long before the boom. “On the one hand, that meant more adoptions, and that seems on the surface to be good. But it was also inviting problems. There were people who were treating this as a market for children. And there were not enough checks in the system.”
Even with stringent controls, Kennard and his family would likely have seemed a near-perfect placement to adoption officials. A successful medical technology salesman and longtime member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Kennard had recently been called to serve as a bishop in his ward.
And he spoke passionately of giving back to the world that had given him so much.
“When we were young, my wife and I had thought of joining the Peace Corps,” Kennard said in an interview at the Utah State Prison earlier this year. “That opportunity had passed us by while we were raising our children—we had five, and that felt like a lot at the time. But now our children were older and this seemed like a good opportunity to make a difference.”
After hearing the NPR broadcast, Kennard came home and asked his wife to pray with him about adoption. Soon, they agreed, they had received their answer. Although they were nearing retirement age, the couple felt they had more to give.
Heber City had only a handful of black residents, so the Kennards resolved to adopt two children—a brother and sister.
Ali Staking doesn’t remember to which of her adoptive parents she spoke first. In any case, she couldn’t understand what was being said. “But I do remember,” Staking said, “that the people at the orphanage told me to say ‘hi,’ and I said ‘hi’ and they told me to say ‘I love you,’ and I said ‘I love you’ in my funny accent. And the other person on the line was in tears.”
Staking was 3 years old; her brother was five. “Everyone at the orphanage always talked about going to America. We said ‘When I go to America, I will be rich and fat.’ That’s what we knew about America—that everyone was happy, fat and rich.”
Lon Kennard was two of those things. And when the tall, thin, angular and balding man arrived in the orphanage, Staking didn’t know what to think.
“But when he arrived, he said ‘I’m going to be your dad now,’” Staking recalled. “And I went with it, because all I knew was that I was going to America, and that was supposed to be a better life.”
Kennard appeared determined to offer that better life to as many children as possible, first to Ali and her brother, then soon to their two older siblings—another boy and girl—and to two other young girls.
By 1995, the Kennard clan—including parents, biological and adopted children—was 13 members strong.
But Kennard had already set another goal. Their family hadn’t yet fulfilled their purpose, he told his wife and children. Struck by the vast need he’d witnessed in the village of Kersa Elawa, he said he had a burning desire to help “at a greater level.”
“It was something I am certain that God was calling me to do,” Kennard said during the prison interview.
In the ensuing years, he returned to Kersa Elawa again and again, sometimes for weeks, other times for months, as he worked to build an organization that, he told supporters, would help create a model for ending abject poverty in villages across Ethiopia.
By 2009, the organization Kennard called “Village of Hope” had helped dig a 600-foot artesian well, laid the groundwork for a community center, leveled a local soccer field, built a clinic, and established an orphanage for 30 children. The organization, which had a thousand American sponsors—most of them in Utah—also arranged schooling for local children and training for farmers.
“Everything here became better,” said villager Dureti Hussen. “Everybody understood that Lon was the reason for this change.”
Dureti never doubted Kennard’s sincerity. “Many times he would cry when he spoke,” she said. “This is how we knew he was speaking from his heart.”