Table of Contents
Jody (Haskell) Boulet adopts a new life with three children from Vietnam.
by Marc Glass
Photos by Jody (Haskell) Boulet
“You’ll have to excuse me,” said Boulet, as she got up to help Zane open the door and find the object of his desire, a cup of yogurt, which he consumed with gusto. “It’s pretty typical of orphans from Vietnam to eat and eat and eat when they first arrive. They’re used to being hungry. They’re afraid the food supply is going to stop.”
From left: Yanic, Mike, Zane, Jody and Sophie Boulet days after Zane joined the family. Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, September 2006.
Zane, who, seven weeks ago was among scores of orphans living in the central coastal city of Da Nang, toddled back to the kitchen counter, took crackers from the bowl and handed one each to his new sister, Sophie, 9, and new brother, Yanic, 5.
“That’s an orphanage thing, too,” said Boulet. “They horde, but they also share. Nothing’s owned by any one person in an orphanage.”
Hanging on her mother’s every word, Sophie nods in agreement and explains that after lights out Zane pulled every stuffed animal he could find into his crib during his first two weeks with Boulet and her husband, Mike, at their home in Fairfield, Maine.
“He must have been really hot. I don’t know how he could sleep with all those stuffies,” said
Sophie, who, with birth brother, Yanic, was adopted by the Boulets in December 2002 from the Khanh
Hoa Child Protection Center in Nha Trang, Vietnam. Sophie and Yanic were placed at the orphanage days after birth, meaning Sophie spent five formative years in the orphanage, while her birth brother, Yanic, was there for approximately one year before being adopted.
Yanic and Sophie welcome their new brother, Zane, on the Giving and Receiving Day at the Red Cross Orphanage, Da Nang, Vietnam.
Yanic is perhaps still adjusting to his new station in life as middle child. He sits apart from the group and, despite accepting the cracker from Zane, regards the interloper who is consuming much of his mother’s time with thinly veiled indifference, not quite welcoming Zane to be a sub-contractor in his Lincoln Log construction project taking shape on the nearby living room floor. But a recent photograph of the three siblings betrays Yanic’s deep affection for his new brother. Yanic has Zane in a cradling embrace, and both Boulet boys are wearing identical, bright yellow Hawaiian shirts.
“Yanic had this thing where he always wanted his baby brother to dress exactly like him,” Boulet said.
And, to hear Boulet tell it, she always wanted to adopt children–at least since the age of 16, when she first saw street children on a high school-sponsored week-long visit to Spain.
“When you see begging children with nothing to eat, that’s something you never forget,” said Boulet, who has returned to Vietnam with her family five times in nearly as many years to do humanitarian work at the orphanages from which Sophie, Yanic and Zane were adopted. “I never wanted what everyone else seems to want: a birth-child, cookie-cutter version of themselves.”
Although the children were not created in her likeness, Boulet is, nonetheless, teaching them in her image. With a degree in elementary education and a concentration in international studies, Boulet taught primary grades at Mercer Elementary School and Bloomfield Elementary School in Skowhegan until June 2002. Now, she draws upon her child-development training in ways she never imagined at UMF. For instance, given that Sophie lived in Vietnam until she was 5, instructing her to speak and comprehend English made teaching an essential part of mothering.
“After one month, she could understand what we were saying. After three months, she could clearly communicate her needs back to us,” Boulet said. “Teaching meant helping her understand how to put her tongue between her teeth to make the ‘th’ sound, how to cope with frustration, finding creative ways to make up for the sensory depravation she grew up with. There wasn’t enough human interaction at the orphanage.”
She then powers up a laptop to show photographs taken on what she describes as part-vacation, part-humanitarian aid trips to Vietnamese orphanages. Searing images of squalor mixed with poignant portraits of hope begin to flood the screen. The sudden hush of the kitchen is broken by the scamper of feet, as Sophie, Yanic and Zane leave their carefree play and huddle close to the computer, gazing at scenes of a past life–a life gone but not forgotten by Sophie. With a serenity that can come only from knowing–completely–the life she left and the life she now lives, she watches the slideshow of images: children who look like her, napping elbow-to-elbow with only grass mats to cushion a concrete floor; HIV-positive children are sequestered but by no means lonely, as they take a meager meal at a common table; a sweaty infant, unable to nurse a bottle because of a cleft palette, respirates baby formula through a gaping hole that is both nose and mouth. Boulet says the preponderance of birth defects is testament to abject poverty, malnutrition, an absence of prenatal medical care and the indelible stain of Agent Orange that continues to seep through generations in Vietnam.
The only ray of sunshine in the darkness is the irrepressible smile gracing every single face. The photographed orphans are, for the moment, ecstatic because Boulet, her family and others from the Degenhardt Foundation, which oversees humanitarian aid projects for the welfare of children and families worldwide, have come with food and clothing, as well as the arguably more sustaining gifts of hope and love.
“The first time we visited, we didn’t realize we should bring gifts for the children. The kids swarmed Mike and reached into his pockets for something. All he had was a business card in his pocket. They tore it to shreds trying to get a piece of something from outside,” she said. Mike says that first visit convinced him that their original plan for adopting only two siblings wouldn’t suffice.
Sophie meets with her caretaker for the first time in four years. The caretaker raised Sophie from birth to age 5 at the orphanage in Nha Trang.
“We were pretty touched by the tremendous number of children there. It’s gut wrenching. You tell yourself, ‘I’m not doing enough by only taking two home,” said Mike, who owns and operates Mainely Trusses, a manufacturer of wooden roof and floor trusses in Fairfield. “We feel in part that we’re using our good fortune to benefit others and ourselves. They’ve made our lives richer.”
“Our children get very concerned about the welfare of the orphans, especially blind children, the children with birth defects,” Boulet said. “We have to reassure them that it’s OK to play patty-cake with them or sing songs with them. We want them to still see their home country and make sure it’s part of their lives. We’re not really into the conventional Disneyland vacations.”
Barely two months after visiting to adopt Zane, Boulet yearns for a sixth trip to Vietnam. And the need for her family’s help has never been more critical. Within weeks of the third adoption, typhoon Xangsane, packing winds of 92 miles per hour, laid waste to much of Da Nang, including the orphanage that cared for Zane. According to NASA’s Earth Observatory website, Vietnamese authorities consider typhoon Xangsane to be the biggest storm to hit the country in several decades, and Boulet is working with the Vietnamese Orphan Relief Fund–the organization through which Zane was adopted–to ensure the orphanage is rebuilt.
The rebuilding work aside, Boulet says she has an ulterior motive for visiting Vietnam again as soon as possible.
“I always saw us as a family of five. Mike says there are five right now, including us as parents. I have hopes of finding Sophie a sister. Maybe I can talk him into it,” she said.
[Reproduced with permission from Farmington First, a publication of the University of Maine at Farmington.]
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Vietnam Photo Journal
by Don Funk