Today qualifies as an anniversary that I don't want to have. One year ago today, we who are adopting through Imagine Adoption learned that our agency had gone bankrupt, amidst allegations that the executive director and her husband misappropriated and/or stole money from the agency.
One might think that, because we families are so fortunate to have pulled the agency out of the ashes, the pain of last year would have been forgotten by now. I wish that were true. While I am again hopeful that we will be able to complete our adoption, and though I am confident in the viability of the agency and integrity of the staff and board who now run Imagine, July 13th and the ones following left me with a scar as permanent as the one I carry on my cheek from a childhood accident: it is faint to the onlooker, but needs only to be fingered lightly in order to remind me of the event that left it. I won't ever forget the pain of that day and the days following, just as I will never forget the overwhelming relief and gratitude that overtook the deepest parts of me when it appeared that things might yet be saved.
Here's how I remember that day.
In the late afternoon of July 13th, last year, as per my usual habit, I logged on to an online site dedicated to Canadians adopting from Ethiopia. I had been part of the group for about twenty months or so and had found it, for the most part, a supportive group to be associated with. I considered several members of this group to be my friends already. I generally checked in once a day to read about referral news, celebrate milestones, and share in the heartache that so many families had in common due to infertility issues. On that particular day, I noticed with surprise that, in contrast to the usual thirty or forty posts published daily, there were hundreds to read through. I scrolled back to the first post of the day and began to read. It didn't take long to realize that something was wrong. At 8:40 that morning (the exact time that I chose to publish this blog entry today), a post was aired by a woman in Ethiopia collecting her newly-adopted child; she wrote: "Hi. I am in Ethiopia right now. I would highly recommend that anyone who has gotten through court should come right now. Do not wait for your visa...there was bad news." Minutes later, my heart stopped as I read this subsequent post from a parent who was waiting in Canada for her Ethiopian-born children's visas to be processed: "I heard via the grapevine that Imagine is going under - !!! is this true?" Then, minutes later: "Imagine isn't answering their phone!!!"
Within an hour of that first post, the news had been confirmed: Imagine was bankrupt; there were over forty children in Imagine's Ethiopian Transition Home with only three days' food left to sustain them; and rumours were already circulating about the actions of the executive director and her husband that might have resulted in the bankruptcy.
To say that I was devastated would be a gross understatement of how I felt as I continued to read through post after crushing post - it felt like a bad dream was unfolding right in front of me, and I couldn't wake up from it. I wanted to jump ahead in my reading through the day's posts, to read the most current, but knew that I needed to read them all, to absorb the full detail of it all. I can almost not bear to think of that day because of the pain it brings back. It is the first time in my life that my legs could not support my body - I could not stand. So I sat - and wept. Threw up. Ranted. Swore. Prayed. Wept more. I cried for two days, mostly curled up in bed. I arranged care for my son and did nothing but weep and follow the story online. It was a screen-by-screen play unfolding before our eyes. Parents with referrals in hand were racing over to Ethiopia to collect their children and wait there with them until their visas were issued; a wonderful corporate donor stepped forward with a huge financial donation to care for the children in the Transition Home; families wrote heart-breaking posts about this being the end of their dreams for a family. The pain went on and on, and I wondered how we would recover from the loss of our own dreams.
On the third day, I got up from my bed, dried my eyes, and decided that this surely couldn't be over...not just because of something so inconsequential as money. It seems that many families woke up that day with similar resolve. Our online community began to galvanize, and a few Ontario-based individuals took the lead in pulling together a country-wide Steering Committee (of which I became Manitoba representative). Within days, hundreds of families had organized themselves into a group called FIA (Families of Imagine Adoption), and this diverse, passionate and talented group of people began to fight back.
As a result, things began to happen:
• Families began to lobby, without ceasing, various levels of government, as well as BDO Dunwoody (the trustee in bankruptcy assigned to deal with Imagine). We weren't looking for money from the government: we wanted them to issue visas for the children who had been referred to waiting families and who had gone to Ethiopia to collect them; we wanted the government to not revoke Imagine's adoption license; we wanted them to feel the determination of families that the agency must continue.
• The FIA steering committee began to operate via regular cross-country conference calls, and hundreds of hours were spent organizing, planning, and distributing work. The committee worked with BDO, the province of Ontario, the media, and families, forming a communications committee to ensure that updates were presented to families via the yahoo group, as well as newly created website and facebook pages.
• Hundreds of newspaper, television, and radio interviews were completed by families, from coast to coast. Families extended themselves way beyond their usual comfort zone to generate support for a restructured Imagine.
A momentum beyond anything I have ever experienced took hold of the group; we were a force to be reckoned with.
Then came the first creditors' meeting on July 30, held in Kitchener...another day that I will never forget. With the help of another Manitoba family, who generously paid for half of my flight in order to represent Manitoba families there, I attended the meeting. The first thing that struck me was how familiar it somehow was to meet so many people that I'd known online for two years but had not, until that day, met. We embraced, cried, comforted, encouraged, motivated each other. I felt so close to the people in that room, and hold in my heart today the faces and words of many of them.
For the first two hours of the creditors' meeting, the Trusteee presented financial information about the agency and answered many questions. She finally commented that, although she was happy to continue to answer questions, she was more excited about a proposal that she would like to present to creditors. She noted that she had never, in her 20+ years working as a bankruptcy trustee, experienced anything like this situation, and she openly commended the families for doing what they had done to generate the momentum to save the agency. Moments later, facing a silent but electrified room full of families, she asked if we would be supportive of BDO preparing a restructuring plan that would pull Imagine out of bankruptcy and put it back into operation. Sitting there, listening to her, watching her, I started to cry. It was one of those big, ugly cries that you'd like to reserve for the privacy of your home, but I could not have stopped those tears from spilling over. It was a moment of grace, compassion, resilience. An offering of hope. I could feel my insides unclench slightly for the first time since I'd heard about the bankruptcy. The Trustee asked for a show of hands to see if families would support her proposal. Of course, I immediately raised my voting card; then I looked around to see how others were responding. There were approximately 250 people sitting in the room behind me. Voting cards and hands filled the air and everywhere around me, people were crying audibly. Somewhere towards the back of the room, I saw three men standing up - feet spread apart as if to provide needed stability in face of the overwhelming emotion in the room, and both arms stretched out to reach as high as they could towards the ceiling while they wept and voted in favour of a proposal that would see their children come home. The vote was unanimous - 100% in favour. I cry even now as I write of that moment.
That was the beginning of a shift in momentum and it eventually resulted in a series of events: a restructuring plan was presented to families on September 04th; a successful vote saw 260 families agree to invest more money into the agency; and the courts affirmed the plan soon after. On October 01st, the doors to Imagine Adoption's new (and drastically downsized) offices were opened once more, and on December 15th, it was announced that the agency had regained its international adoption license. On December 16th, the best day in a very long time, two families were fortunate enough to receive the first referrals of the new Imagine Adoption.
The months since then have been fraught with ongoing challenges as a result of changes in Ethiopian policies, but nothing has yet happened to put our adoption as much at risk as the bankruptcy. We are so thankful to be able to continue, despite having waited almost twenty-seven months for a referral that was supposed to take between five and seven months.
I have often been asked how I feel towards the former Executive Director and her husband, Imagine's Chief Financial Officer, who were responsible for putting Imagine into this precarious situation, and who are currently under criminal investigation for their actions. I have posted my response to this question before, but the short answer is that I have long ago forgiven them for their actions. I know from my own life that even people who start out with good intentions can slide off 'the straight and narrow' and do things that they never thought possible of themselves. Sue and Rick Hayhow harmed not only Imagine's families in the process; they harmed themselves as well. That is a deep pit for them to climb out of.
Hope is a very fragile thing, as every prospective adoptive parent knows. It can feel powerful and certain one moment, fleeting or gone the next. We are just one of many families who understand this roller coaster ride as we attempt to complete our family. But once again, we talk now about when we bring out child(ren) home rather than the horrible alternative that we were faced with in the weeks following July 13th last year. I have saved every post, every letter, every written communication about those events because someday, just maybe, I will be able to present our child(ren) with a life book that is replete with our story: how we fought to bring them home; how we loved them and held them in our hearts long before we ever saw their faces.
We are willing to step out in faith again, and risk hope, in order that we might someday yet experience that long-awaited and magical phonecall telling us that we have a referral. That will be a happy day indeed! May we families never forget this anniversary, but rather choose to remember it well, that we might not forget the strength of community, the hope that can spring from the depths of despair, or the gratitude with which we will bring our children home.
* Thank you for all of the comments; I'm very thankful to have such supportive people in my life. Ruth.