Bringing Johanna to Blacksburg
BLACKSBURG — Jake Chittenden spent much of his Labor Day playing the role of a relentless salesman in front of his family’s home on Southgate Drive.
“Would you like to buy a goodie?” the 8-year-old repeated to each passer-by.
Like many children, Jake and his two older brothers, Noah and Adam, decided to take up the age-old tradition of running a lemonade stand in hopes of earning enough money to pay for the things they most desire.
Unlike most children, however, what the trio want most is a little sister.
This fall, the Chittenden brothers will spend the hours leading up to each Virginia Tech home football game selling drinks and sugary treats in hope of helping their parents, Tim and Chris Chittenden, adopt 6-year-old Johanna Polanco from the Dominican Republic.
Chris Chittenden said her sons’ stand was just one of many fundraisers the family has taken on over the past two months to generate the $25,000 needed to bring Johanna to America and complete Johanna’s mother Lourdes Polanco’s dying wish of having her daughter become a member of the Chittenden family.
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The Chittendens moved to the Dominican Republic from Raleigh, N.C., in July 2010 after being inspired that spring by a missions pastor.
Chris Chittenden said the pastor spoke about the needs on the Caribbean island that night, and close to 12 weeks later, the five-member family was living there and searching for areas and ways they could help.
They found that way when Chris Chittenden was introduced to the idea of helping to start a school focused on the education of adolescent girls.
She said that because many of the girls’ families could not afford the $3 it costs to obtain a birth certificate, many children legally do not exist on paper and, therefore, cannot attend the country’s schools. Even if they had the proper paperwork, many families could likely not afford the cost of the school uniform and books required by the public schools.
According to Chris Chittenden, the situation is even worse for girls because the Dominican culture generally views a girl to be a woman as soon as she reaches puberty, and at this point, families often push these girls out of the house.
During her time in the country, Chris Chittenden had gotten to know Joy Reyes, a missionary who was working to launch New Hope Girls Inc., a school in La Vega focused on helping this specific demographic.
Knowing that Chris Chittenden was a skilled photographer, Reyes asked her to come take pictures during a trip to recruit students in April 2011. It was during this trip that Chris Chittenden said she first met Johanna.
The group later learned that Johanna’s father had died as a result of AIDS and her mother was having a hard time supporting the family with four children.
Johanna was soon registered for school and showed up the first day in September. There it was discovered that Johanna’s mother, Lourdes, was considering giving her daughter away because she felt she could no longer take care of her.
Chittenden said the leaders of the school urged her not to and asked that she come talk with them before taking such drastic measures, but a few weeks later they found out the mother had, in fact, given Johanna away. By way of Johanna’s neighbors, Chris Chittenden said the school leaders learned to whom the child had been given and proceeded to retrieve her.
“They went to where she had been given. She was home alone and pretty beat up,” Chittenden said.
She said the neighbors begged the school’s leaders to take the child, saying they could hear the beatings and feared for her life.
So Johanna began living as one of the school’s handful of boarding students, where her mother and grandmother often visited. This was the point when Chittenden and her husband decided that if they could, they wanted to adopt Johanna.
According to Chris Chittenden, Johanna’s grandmother feared that the adoption would cause a backlash from the community and convinced Polanco to decline the Chittendens’ offer and instead let the child live with her.
Over the next few months, Chris Chittenden said the grandmother began to allow Johanna to return to the school and also warmed to the idea of her family’s involvement in Johanna’s life, allowing the child to spend weekends and even the Christmas holiday with them.
The Chittendens had all but given up hope of ever officially adopting Johanna, but as the time for the family to return to the United States neared, Polanco’s drastically declining health due to the AIDS virus changed that.
Two weeks prior to their return, Chris and Tim Chittenden visited Polanco in the “dirt floor shack” where she was resting and spoke with her about Johanna’s future.
Polanco made it clear, in front of both Johanna’s grandmother and grandfather, that she wanted Johanna to join the Chittenden family.
“She said, ‘I just want to know when I close my eyes the last time that someone is caring for and loving her.’ … I never saw her again,” Chris Chittenden said.
Polanco passed away July 12.
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On June 6, the Chittendens returned to the U.S., and less than a month later, just as they had planned, they moved to Blacksburg, where Chris Chittenden spent her college years attending Virginia Tech.
What the family had not planned for, however, was coming up with the $25,000 for the adoption just after selling many of their possessions and moving back into the country.
“It’s so far out of the framework of our finances,” Tim Chittenden said.
The family began sending out letters for support and holding fundraisers before the influence of their new neighbors in Blacksburg helped cultivate the idea of using their new location on Southgate Drive to its fullest potential.
“People kept saying, ‘Thousands of people are going to walk past your house on game day,’ ” Chris Chittenden said.
Her three boys’ ears perked up, and they decided to help by crafting a lemonade stand and selling drinks and goodies to fans on their way to the stadium.
Four weeks later, and thanks to a donation of wood from Affordable Fencing in Christiansburg, the Chittenden brothers had their stand prepped, painted and ready for the Hokies’ home opener against Georgia Tech.
Though the stand was ready, their was a bit of a learning curve when it came to the young men’s salesmanship.
Chris Chittenden said on Labor Day her sons decided it would be fitting to dress in Johanna’s favorite color — yellow. Noticing their innocent error of wearing the opposing team’s color on game day, she said she quickly made the business decision for them to change into orange.
Though the family has planned to work all season raising funds to bring Johanna to Blacksburg, they admitted it will likely be next summer before the process is complete.
According to Julie Roesch, the family’s liaison at the Hands Over The Water adoption agency, adoption from the Dominican Republic can often be a strenuous process due to the Hague Convention’s international adoption policies, which include a 60-day trial living period with the child in the Dominican Republic.
Roesch said those policies were part of the reason that in 2011 a total of five children were brought to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic compared with 736 from South Korea and 962 from Russia.
Despite the lengthy process, the Chittendens remain extremely excited to bring the young girl into their family.
“I’m looking forward to experiencing a little sister,” 12-year-old Noah said. “Because everyone says it’s horrible.”
His younger brother Jake had a very similar thought.
“Woo! I’m not going to be the youngest anymore. I would be like Noah to Johanna,” Jake said.
Tim Chittenden was excited, as well, and added that though it had been tough, the entire experience had been a rewarding one.
“It’s been neat to see how it moves people. It’s been neat to see how it affects the kids. It’s been a neat humbling story, I can’t wait to see how it turns out,” he said.
Older brother Adam said he had spent little time worrying about how the story would end.
“It’s not really in my hands. It’s in God’s hands,” the 15-year-old said.
Though it could be more than a year before Johanna is with the Chittendens in Blacksburg — the girl is currently living with the Reyes family in the Dominican Republic — Chris Chittenden said she knew Johanna already felt like a family member.
“On the first day of school she had to draw a picture of her family. She drew us,” Chris Chittenden said.
The Roanoke Times | 381-1643
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