Shelbyville Journal; Real Home at Last for a Family of 30

Date: 1994-03-15

Since 1990, Dan and Kathy Blackburn and the 28 adopted children they saved from the chaos of post-Duvalier Haiti had made their home in an abandoned grammar school in North Vernon, Ind.

But the lease was going to be up on March 1, and the building had deteriorated to the point where all 30 Blackburns had to use the single working shower.

The family thought it had found a solution in a vacant school in Shelbyville, a largely white town of 15,000 people 27 miles southeast of Indianapolis, when a few families raised a ruckus, saying that a large family of black children in the neighborhood would erode their property values.

That is when the rest of Shelbyville took action. And that is how the Blackburns came to have a two-story, 12,000-square-foot house built with the love, labor and largess of new neighbors and friends.

"There was a large outcry," said the Rev. Alan Rumble, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Shelbyville. "People were saying: 'This isn't us. We're not racist.' " When the Shelbyville school building was deemed unsafe because of asbestos contamination, townspeople decided to build a house for the Blackburns.

The Shelbyville Ministerial Association agreed to lead a fund-raising campaign, and it found that people around the state were moved by the Blackburns' story.

Dan and Kathy Blackburn, 50 and 46 respectively, went to Haiti as Christian missionaries with their two sons, now adults, in 1976. The couple, who are white, had been there scarcely a year when Thomas, now 16, was brought to them as a malnourished 2-week-old baby with a thorn embedded in his head. Sam, 15, arrived a month later as a newborn covered with voodoo charms to keep away the spirit of his dead mother. Later, during a malaria epidemic, 10 babies arrived within two months.

"Before we ever went to Haiti, our ministry was always involved with children," Mrs. Blackburn said. "We were just trying to do what we believe God was asking of us."

After the ouster of President-for-Life Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986, the Blackburns fled to the neighboring Dominican Republic after learning of an impending attack by local thugs. In 1989, the Blackburn children were admitted to the United States for humanitarian reasons, and in 1991 Mr. and Mrs. Blackburn officially adopted the 28 children, who later became United States citizens.

As Mr. Rumble and others spread the word, a house for the Blackburns became a cause celebre in Shelbyville, a former farming community whose major employers include Knauf Fiberglass and Freudenberg NOK, a maker of lipseals and O-rings. Businesses, churches and well-wishers of central Indiana and beyond donated nearly $100,000.

Carl Mohr, a local contractor, donated five acres to the Blackburns and obtained at cost the steel frame, concrete and some other materials for the house. "My wife and I had been to Haiti and the Dominican Republic," Mr. Mohr said, "and we figured that this was a way of doing something here at home."

The Blackburns' vulnerability prompted townspeople to stretch themselves, Mr. Rumble said, adding, "Many of us were humbled by the fact that we were pulling something off together that we never could have done by ourselves."

On the first weekend of March, a 15-vehicle caravan carried the Blackburns and their possessions to their new house.

The children, aged 7 to 18 -- 21 are teen-agers -- took off their shoes reverently as they entered the spartan structure. Then they ran through the house, finding their bedrooms and leaping onto mattresses. "It's kind of exciting," said Rebecca, 14.

When Lizzie, 14, was asked if the house was the best thing that had happened to her family, she said no. "Coming to the United States was the best thing," she said.

The house has eight showers, and the master bedroom has a tub, which Mrs. Blackburn calls "an unbelievable luxury." There are 14 other bedrooms, each with twin beds or a bunk bed. Rosie, 18, the leader among the children, gets a private room. Back at the schoolhouse, all of the children slept on hospital pads on the floor.

In the house's open, cavernous first floor there is room enough for a small schoolful of children to study reading, math and science, which is what the 28 young Blackburns do under the tutelage of their parents. The Blackburns' biological son, Chuck, 27, also helps in the home school.

Mr. and Mrs. Blackburn consider teaching and child-rearing their full-time jobs, and the family relies on the generosity of others for most of its basic needs. They get no government aid. Mr. Blackburn also cleans a nearby school two nights a week with the help of the older children; that job "brings in $200 a week and is good training for the kids," he said.

The new house has strengthened the family's bonds, the elder Blackburns said. Two weeks before the move, some family members visited the house. Rosie, Mrs. Blackburn recalled, turned and said: "I'm sorry. I'm seeing that you and Daddy could have lived in a real house like this all along if you hadn't come to Haiti."

Mrs. Blackburn said she replied: "Don't be sorry. There are always trade-offs in life. If we hadn't come to Haiti, we wouldn't have all of you kids."


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