Boy's plight launched a mission

Date: 2001-09-23

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Boy's plight launched a mission

On her arrival, Cheryl Carter-Shotts gets a hug from Tarekwa, a resident of the foster home that Carter-Shotts' agency runs in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Tarekwa arrived at the foster home in July. She will go to live in Boston with her adoptive family when the arrangements are complete.
Staff Photo / Mike Fender

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Americans for African Adoptions, Inc.

By Courtenay Edelhart
Indianapolis Star

Cheryl Carter-Shotts claims she's not a religious woman, but she sends her children to parochial schools, attributes every lucky break to divine intervention and describes her adoption work as a calling.

In fact, the 58-year-old can pinpoint the exact moment she began to sense her destiny.

Carter-Shotts had a reasonably successful consulting business at the time, doing public relations work mostly for racing and hockey teams.

"Around my mid-40s I had this, I don't know, this impatience. I kept asking myself, 'Is this it? Is this what I'm supposed to be doing with my life, writing press releases and promoting race car drivers?'

"And this powerful voice -- I don't know if it was my own inner voice or God or what -- would say, 'No, this isn't it. But when it's the right time, you'll know.' "
The right time was August 1985, when Carter-Shotts saw a 60 Minutes rerun about famine in Africa.

Reporter Diane Sawyer had interviewed a boy with a club foot and a twisted spine at a feeding station in the west African country of Mali. During the 18-second interview, Mohammed ag Albakaye, who weighed just 65 pounds and was about 12 years old, said he slept on the street and was hungry all the time.

Albakaye's words haunted Carter-Shotts. For reasons that to this day she can't fully explain, she was gripped by the conviction that the boy was her son, and she had to find him.

Carter-Shotts and her then-husband, Charlie Shotts, spent months and their life savings tracking the boy down with help from Sawyer, missionaries, relief agencies and the American and Malian governments.

Now 28, Albakaye graduated from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in 1998 and dreams of one day becoming secretary of state and negotiating peace in Africa and the Middle East.

Carter-Shotts easily could have stopped with her adoption of Albakaye. The boy was malnourished and required multiple surgeries on his spine and club foot and for untreated injuries from a car accident.

But the more Albakaye told her about the lives of African orphans, the more she felt it would be criminal not to use her experience to help them find homes.
Carter-Shotts started small, first helping a Bloomington family track down Albakaye's Malian playmate, Nimit.

Eventually, she quit public relations to pursue the work full time. Since Americans for African Adoption was founded in 1986, the agency has placed more than 300 children from Ethiopia, Mali, Sierra Leone and Somalia and will begin working in Liberia this fall.

That's an astounding track record for a woman who never went to college, married for the first time at 17 and by age 23 was a divorced mother of three.


Born in Detroit, Carter-Shotts moved to the Philadelphia area at the age of 9. Bristol, Pa., was a very white community, mostly working class Irish and Italian families.
"She was very pretty and popular," said Delhas High School classmate Lorraine Marconi, 57, of Langhorne, Pa. "We were all a little surprised when she got married, because all the boys liked her."

Carter-Shotts' parents divorced when she was a baby, and she had three stepfathers, the last of them an alcoholic. "I married young to get away from that," she said.
Like most of the milestones in her life, meeting her first husband, Bill Sweeney, was fortuitous.

She'd been dating another boy who, with a friend, had planned to give her a ride home from school on a rainy day. Her boyfriend pointed to his friend's car, and Carter-Shotts dashed through the rain and got in.

But it was the wrong car. It belonged to Sweeney, a startled sailor who had been visiting his former teachers while home on leave.

"Being a young, single man, I didn't mind a beautiful blonde getting in my car," recalled Sweeney, 61, now an electrician in Avalon, N.J.

The two were dating within weeks, and they married two years later. They had three children and bounced around military bases in New England until they divorced.
Today Sweeney is surprised and proud that his once-timid former wife has become an advocate for African orphans but admits he has mixed feelings about her work.
"It's a great thing, saving orphans, but I kind of feel like there are plenty of white American orphans who need homes, and I think that energy should be focused here at home."

Carter-Shotts hears that a lot and always responds the same way: "It's wonderful that you're so concerned about American kids. This is a free country, and you're free to pursue that interest, just as I'm free to pursue my interest in Africa. By the way, what are you doing to help needy children in America?"
That usually shuts them up, she says.


After the divorce, Carter-Shotts worked as a secretary, then she and her three children moved in with her mother, who had relocated to central Indiana to be near the racing industry both women admired.

Carter-Shotts got an administrative assistant's job with an Indianapolis advertising agency and before long was dabbling in public relations. Eventually she started her own consulting business.

In her late 30s, she met and married her second husband, race car mechanic Charlie Shotts.

He was easily persuaded to become Albakaye's adoptive father and flew to Africa to pick up the boy. Later he made several return trips as the agency was getting off the ground.

Carter-Shotts' adult children sometimes thought she was crazy.

"On the one hand, I was shocked, but on the other hand, I can't say it was out of character or anything," said daughter Lisa Hall, 36, a former teacher in Marlton, N.J. "She's a very compassionate person, and she's always been one to get what she wants."

That's a familiar refrain among all of Carter-Shotts' children.

Asked if he ever worried about his mother traipsing around African war zones, Albakaye laughed.

"Worry about Mom?" he said. "I worry about the people who mess with her."


By her own admission, Carter-Shotts is a tough woman who rubs some people the wrong way.
"In Philadelphia, people said I wasn't aggressive enough, and here everybody complains I'm too aggressive," she lamented.

But assertiveness has served Carter-Shotts well as she's plowed through bureaucrats, soldiers and anyone else who gets in her way.
"I approach everybody with the attitude of 'How can you help me, or if you can't help me, how can I make an end run around you?' " she quipped.

Not that she's always successful with that approach. As she checked in at the airport for her trip last month, an agent said her bags exceeded length and weight restrictions.

Carter-Shotts exploded.

"You mean to tell me you're going to fine a struggling nonprofit international adoption agency bringing supplies to an African orphanage for a few extra inches and pounds?" she said, banging on the ticket counter.

"No," the agent replied evenly. "I'm telling you I'm not checking the bags at all."

Carter-Shotts and her travel companions started yanking items out of the bags, but they missed their flight. During a three-day delay, however, she persuaded airline authorities to allow her to take everything.

Then there was the day she came home to phone messages that soldiers had invaded the agency's foster home in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and evicted everyone inside.
"I'd just come from the Indianapolis 500, for God's sake," Carter-Shotts said, still shaking her head over the episode four years later. "It just didn't feel real."

In a desperate attempt to get the foster home's children out of the war zone, she spent weeks pressuring embassies, politicians and immigration officials. Eventually she made enough noise to get 18 children, the foster mother and the foster mother's boyfriend evacuated to safety.

Suzanne Terrant, 46, of Johnstown, Ohio, spent several frantic weeks worrying over the fate of the children, including a girl she has since adopted.

"There is no doubt in my mind that any other agency would have just thrown up their hands and said, 'Oh well, you're out of luck,' but Cheryl is extremely strong and extremely stubborn, and she just would not give up until every one of those kids was with their families."


Not everyone sings Carter-Shotts' praises, though. Some oppose removing orphaned children from their homelands, and others just don't like her personally.
"I believe initially she got into this out of the goodness of her heart, but somewhere along the way it turned into a business, and her motives became questionable," said Hirouye Teshome, 31, a Northwestside securities analyst.

At one time, the Ethiopian native volunteered to translate documents for the agency. He stopped after becoming concerned that some of Carter-Shotts' placements weren't in the children's best interests, noting that some adoptive parents had returned youngsters to the agency.

Carter-Shotts scoffs at such criticism, saying just six of 306 adoptions have failed -- the children were placed again with new families -- and she earns less than $17,000 a year.

"Sometimes in life, you just know you're right and you do what you have to do," she said. "You don't have to like what I'm doing. Just stay out of my way."

Miami attorney Renu Mody, who serves on the agency's five-member board of adoptive parents, concedes that Carter-Shotts can be abrasive but says it's because she's passionate about her cause.

"A lot of people watch the news and are moved when they see a starving child on television, but most just forget about it after a day or two, or at the most mail a small donation," Mody said.

"How many people do you know who would track down that child and adopt them? And she didn't know a thing about Africa. She had to look up Mali on a map."


Along with Albakaye, Carter-Shotts also adopted Kelemwork, an Ethiopian girl she and Charlie Shotts brought home prior to their 1998 divorce. Kelem, as she's nicknamed, is now a 15-year-old sophomore at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School.

The Shottses also took in another Malian boy -- also named Mohammed -- for about four years, but moved him to a group home when they were unable to overcome his defiant behavior. He was later adopted by a Crawfordsville woman.

"He was a difficult child," Carter-Shotts recalled glumly. "We had him in counseling, tutoring, public school, private school. Nothing seemed to work."
But Carter-Shotts is convinced that even children who have trouble adjusting are better off here.

She acknowledges that white Americans don't know much about African culture but believes they can learn and teach African youths to be proud of their heritage. She encourages families to retain the child's African name and visit his or her country of origin.

Carter-Shotts' long-range dream is that a generation of youngsters educated in the developed world will return home as adults to work toward a wealthier, more peaceful Africa.

And she plans to be there, working alongside them.

"My kids keep asking me when I'm going to retire," she said, shrugging. "Maybe when I'm in my 80s, I'll join the Peace Corps."


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