Making Room for Just One More; Lon and DeAnna Kennard

Date: 2006-07-10

By Rebecca Birkin
Beneath the ancient branches of the meeting tree stands a rough-hewn bench. It is the place of honor for the Ethiopian village of Kersa Illala. Lon and DeAnna Kennard’s family sit on this bench, surrounded by the entire village. Following custom, the men stand in front with women and children behind. Some people creep forward and kiss the Kennard’s feet. Despite their hollow cheeks and worn clothing, the villagers’ faces smile with gratitude.

The desire to help others was one of the things that drew Brother and Sister Kennard together. Before they married, Lon told DeAnna his dream of working for the Peace Corps. Now she laughs as she says, “Of course, I didn’t tell him the Peace Corps wasn’t what I wanted to do.”

After their marriage, Sister Kennard gently suggested that adopting a child from a third world country might be a more realistic way for them to serve.

Over the next twelve years, Sister Kennard gave birth to six children. During this busy time, she and Lon continued to talk about adoption, even checked into adopting a child from Viet Nam following the war. Yet nothing ever felt like the right path for them.

One day, when their youngest child was thirteen, Brother Kennard’s usual 50-minute commute from their home in Heber City to Salt Lake City became the start of something unusual. He remembers listening to the radio as he drove down Parleys Canyon. The radio reporter was interviewing a woman who had formed an agency known as Americans for African Adoption.

After listening to the story, Brother Kennard thought about it throughout the day. That night he came home and told Sister Kennard about the many children in Africa who needed homes. He said, “Maybe we’re too old now. Maybe we’ve passed our goal to adopt. But I think we need to think and pray about this.”

The Kennards did, and soon felt inspired to move toward adoption. Knowing the homogeneous nature of Heber City, DeAnna told Lon, “We’d better get two kids so they’re not the only black ones.” Then they talked to each of their children individually to see how they felt about adopting a brother and sister from Africa. Each of them expressed excitement and support.

So the Kennards began to pray that, as Sister Kennard put it, “Out of all the millions of African children, the Lord would help us find two we could love as if we’d given birth to them.”

After a six-week wait, the adoption agent told them of two Ethiopian children, Axxx and Mxxx, whose parents had died of malaria. Their whole village had tried to care for them, but the starving villagers didn’t have enough for themselves.

To give them a chance at life and protect them from their grandmother, who had been abusive, they were brought to the orphanage in Addis Ababa. An aunt, Balditu, called Yosef, the foster father, and told him that the children would die soon — possibly within the week. Yosef sent his son, Megersa, to get them. The long bus ride took eight to ten hours on unfinished, bumpy roads.

On the return trip, Axxx and Mxxx were very ill and vomited repeatedly. Said Lon, “The other passengers were disgusted. Many kept telling Megersa, ‘Why don’t you just leave them on the side of the road? They’re only orphans.’”

Megersa and the children finally arrived. Axxx and Mxxx were not only malnourished, but also had skin parasites. Their foster mother spent hours pulling the worms out of their feet.

The Kennards had originally asked for two children between the ages of seven and eleven. However, when Lon and DeAnna saw the photos of these children, who were probably three and four, [i] they immediately loved them.

The adoption process took almost two years. During that time they received many pictures of Axxx and Mxxx, showing them looking cheerful and returning to health. The Kennards also noticed something else in the photos — another smiling girl. DeAnna says, “She caught our eye and heart.” They looked at each other and said, “Well, if we can adopt two, we can adopt three.”

They called their adoption worker, Cheryl, and asked about the girl they always saw with their children. As they described what she was wearing, one outfit in some pictures, another in the rest, Cheryl said, “That isn’t one girl. Those are sisters.”

Again they said to each other, “If we can adopt three, we can adopt four.” They began arrangements to adopt Hxxx and Kxxx as well.

Hxxx and Kxxx in 1992

The normal time frame to adopt an African child was approximately a year. After an investigation to give the children official orphan status, the court had to rule the children eligible for adoption, then approve the US family. Halfway through the process, some false allegations about American adoptions caused the Ethiopian government to shut down all adoptions to the US. During this time the Kennards wrote their senator, tried to get the ambassador to talk to the Ethiopian government, and prayed. They said, “We know these children are ours.”

Fateful Phone Call

DeAnna had another concern. How would these children react to the gospel? Sister Kennard prayed regularly for her children in Africa. She wanted them to be blessed with a testimony of the restored church of Jesus Christ.

At that time, there was no official LDS church presence in Ethiopia. To be allowed to adopt, the Kennards had been encouraged to list their religion as “Christian” on their adoption application.

While the Kennards were waiting for permission to bring the children to the US., their adoption worker, Cheryl, phoned. She asked if the Kennard family was “Mormon.” The Kennards’ older daughter, Jill, answered the phone. As she heard the question she hesitated, knowing her answer could mean government cancellation of their adoption. At last she said, “Yes, we're LDS.”

To her surprise, Cheryl told them of an LDS sacrament meeting being held near the children’s foster home. Yosef, the children's foster father, was one of the first to attend the LDS meetings held by a missionary couple the Church had sent to the area. The adoption worker asked if the Kennards minded Yosef taking Axxx, Mxxx, Hxxx and Kxxx to LDS meetings. Their children’s miraculous introduction to the Church was an answer to Sister Kennard’s prayers.

Hxxxand Kxxx

Finally the children were ready to be adopted. Since Sister Kennard was helping her daughter, Jamie, prepare for her wedding, Brother Kennard flew alone to Ethiopia to bring their four children home — planning to arrive back in Utah two days before the wedding.

He said, “By their standards, the foster home was decent. By ours, it was a disaster.” The small three-bedroom home was surrounded by a dirt yard and high fence. Behind the home was a building that resembled a chicken coop. The structure had bunk beds inside, sleeping quarters for thirty-five children. There would be thirty-one, Lon realized, when he took his children home.

As they prepared to leave, Yosef suggested they take Axxx and Mxxx down to their village to say goodbye. They climbed in an old van and headed off toward Kersa Illala. Although it was only a distance of 175 kilometers, it took them over eight hours on the pothole-strewn road, navigating around goats, cows, and people. Halfway there, Yosef looked at the van’s tires and said the van couldn’t go any further. He asked a surprised Lon to buy new ones so they could complete the trip.

Once they arrived, Brother Kennard described himself as “in a haze.” Poverty showed in the bits of torn clothing and in each hopeless face. A nine-year-old girl came up to Lon. He remembers thinking, “She looks so skinny and sick she may die before I leave this village.”

The girl said, “Please don’t take Axxx and Mxxx and leave Bxxx (pronounced Bxxx) and me here to die!” This was the children’s older sister, Sxxx. Her brother, Bxxx, was eight. As Lon looked at her, he realized Yosef had brought him here in the hope that he would take Sxxx and their brother, Bxxx, as well.

Sxxx and Bxxx

“I can’t just take you with me,” Lon told her. Yet as he looked at her emaciated face, he knew she would die if no one helped. So Lon arranged for Yosef to return to Kersa Illala and bring Sxxx and Bxxx back to the foster home, hoping someone in his extended family would adopt them.

When he told DeAnna about Axxx and Mxxx’s older siblings, she was torn. She said, “I can’t just leave them there, but six is too many.”

So the Kennards worked to find a home for Sxxx and Bxxx. Again, however, nothing seemed right. After failing again to find another home for the young teens, Sister Kennard finally admitted what Brother Kennard had felt for quite some time — “I give up. They’re meant to be our kids.”

The four younger children, shown here in 1994. The older two are not in the picture because they came from a different village.

This was just the beginning of this family’s efforts to help in Ethiopia. Five years later, the Kennards took their children back to visit Ethiopia, and traveled back to Kersa Illala. When asked to describe the village, DeAnna said, “There’s no description for it. We had never, never witnessed so much poverty in all the countries Lon and I had seen.”

The same four Kennard children, shown at the same spot in their former village — this time in the year 2000.

The villagers were overjoyed to be reunited with Sxxx, Bxxx, Axxx and Mxxx, and gave the Kennards the honored welcome on the bench beneath the meeting tree. Out of the hundreds of children adopted out of their village over the years, they said this was the first time anyone had brought a child back to visit. Yet despite the gratitude on the villagers’ hollow faces, the Kennards were struck by their empty-eyed expressions. Brother Kennard described their gaunt faces as “hopeless, like a beaten animal.”

DeAnna said one woman held a shawl around her to provide some modesty from the gaping holes in the front of her dress. The Kennards said, “Somehow they got the money to buy soda for us to drink, then stood and watched us drink it.”

They took plenty of photos of their visit. Unlike the typical vacation shots, however, DeAnna says she was crying in every picture. Many of the dehydrated villagers shook from chills caused by malaria. The children’s noses and ears ran with illness. Their eyes were so infected they had to tilt their chins up to see through the slits beneath their swollen lids. There were so many flies buzzing on their inflamed eyes that the children no longer bothered to flick them away.

The Kennards knew they had to do something to help these people. When they arrived home, they started looking for a way.

The Kennard family, minus Bxxx (who was serving a mission at the time this family portrait was taken).

Tomorrow in Meridian — Part Two: With Joy Shall Ye Draw Water

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