Table of Contents
Bangor Metro, November 2006
by Mike Woelflein
November is National Adoption Month, but for Dawn Degenhardt, it's every day of the year. Meet Aroostook county's most prolific matchmaker.
Born in Portland, the 71-year-old Houlton resident found adoption as a way to build her family and as a cause in Ohio, back in the 1960s and early ’70s. Adoption—and children, and families—became her life’s work, and she became a pioneer. In the decades since, she’s been honored by the U.S. Congress as an Angel of Adoption, been given a National Jefferson Award, been named Aroostook County Woman of the Year, and even had a statewide “Dawn Degenhardt Day” in Maine, in 2002.
Degenhardt and husband Ed, or “Hunk,” as he’s known, adopted six children in Ohio, and were instrumental in starting an adoption agency that works with special needs children there, along with a parenting group, the Council on Adoptable Children. Both still exist today.
The Degenhardts came to Maine in 1974, to open a McDonald’s restaurant. Dawn planned to cut down her advocacy work and focus on raising her adopted children, a group that soon grew to nine, from five countries. Hunk started his career as a McDonald’s restaurant owner/operator. (Today, the couple owns McDonald’s restaurants in Millinocket, Houlton, Calais, and Lincoln.) “But soon, people started asking me, ‘Where did you get those children?’” Dawn says. “I helped them as best I could. And before long, I was back at it.”
Degenhardt founded the Council on Adoptable Children in Maine, and then, in 1977, the Maine Adoption Placement Service (MAPS), which has since grown into an international force in adoption, with major efforts on several continents. Along the way, she’s helped open Russia and Vietnam to aid and adoption from the U.S., and started numerous humanitarian aid efforts in more than a dozen countries.
In 2005, Dawn Degenhardt retired from MAPS. The grandmother of 14 now focuses on the new Degenhardt Foundation, a Houlton-based nonprofit dedicated to helping children all over the world. One area of emphasis is Vietnam. The Degenhardts’ daughter Joy, whom the family adopted from Vietnam in 1972, returned there in the early 1990s to work in children’s advocacy. Her mother is part of Joy’s support team, from halfway across the globe.
“We just try to help, and we go where we’re led and where we’re taken, and do whatever we can,” Degenhardt says. “When I got to be about 42, I felt for the first time that I didn’t have to work for a living. I wanted to start my own child advocacy group and find homes for children. That’s still what we do.”
Though she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1988 and given less than a year to live, Degenhardt continues her work. Bangor Metro spoke with Degenhardt about MAPS, her inspirations and successes, and her new foundation. Several times throughout the conversation, she let loose with a bold, deep laugh of a person who really enjoys her work, and her place in the world.
How did you end up in Houlton?
I was born in Portland. My mother, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother all graduated from Portland High School, as did I. I still have family down there. I needed a job; my sister was in Cleveland, so I moved out there, where I was a paralegal, working at a research center. And I met my husband.
We adopted two kids that were born in Cleveland. And then we wanted to adopt the children that needed homes. It was very difficult to do, but we did it. We went from two kids to six kids in five months. We always wanted to come back to Maine, to raise our family in Maine, and Hunk wanted to have his own business. We learned about McDonald’s restaurants through one of our adoption friends, and we started talking about buying a McDonald’s. It came to pass, and we chose Maine, and so we came to northern Maine. Although I have to say I would have preferred southern Maine at that time. Not so anymore [Laughs].
Tell me about the beginning of MAPS. I understand it was a shoestring operation?
We were licensed in 1977. We saw there were too many kids who needed homes, living in foster care. We had a free office at Ricker College. The president of Ricker was brought up in an orphanage, and he wanted to help us in any way he could. But I did all of our work in my dining room, because I had to be home with the kids. When the college closed, we moved wherever we could for free space. Back then, the [adoption] application was $50, and everybody was a volunteer. We got a donation from the Rotary Club, $500, and we had a budget of $1,200. We placed 12 children that first year. We bought some stationery and envelopes, and I would confiscate office supplies from my husband. I’m still doing that. He pays for everything here that’s not donated.
At the beginning, it was a Maine thing?
For the first 10 years we only placed children in Maine, from departments of human services around the country and from public and private agencies who could not find homes for the children in their care. They were all considered special needs for one reason or another.
A friend of mine who adopted through MAPS in northern Maine spoke of the area’s almost entirely white population, and how MAPS sprinkled little dots of color. How has your group changed the face of northern Maine?
We placed a lot of Afro-American, Asian, and biracial children in Maine, and they were very accepted. Most of them were from the south, and someone once accused us of single-handedly integrating the North Country [Laughs]. That wasn’t the purpose. The purpose was to find families for children.
Were you surprised by the acceptance?
I expected that. I’m from Maine, and I was brought up to respect all races and ethnic groups. I can remember I was in first grade, and this is so firm in my memory. The teacher told us to go home and ask what [ethnicity] we were. My mother says, “You’re an American.” I go back to school the next day, and the teacher says, “That’s not what I mean. Are you Irish or German, or whatever?” That night, my mother says, “You just go tell your teacher you’re an American.” So I did. That was the end of that.
Someone once said that you’re “first and foremost, an advocate for children.” Where did your inspiration come from?
When I was growing up, we were very poor, but our parents always had room for one more person at the table. We lived near the railroad tracks, and it was just after the Depression, in the late ’30s and early ’40s, and bums were riding the rails. They would come to our house and they would be fed. Always. We didn’t have much, but whatever we had was always shared.
I spent a lot of time at the library. I loved to read and I read constantly. My favorite books were always Heidi, Anne of Green Gables—all these poor children who had no families and lived in orphanages. And I just thought that children shouldn’t have to live that way. They should have families. I always knew when I grew up, I would adopt.
How did you go from adopter to advocate?
In Cleveland, we found that helping the children who had special needs—for whatever reason—was difficult. There were kids everywhere, and we couldn’t seem to put it together and make it happen.
You were trying to adopt or place these kids and getting frustrated with the system?
Very frustrated. We were such advocates. We infiltrated and did a lot to promote adoption. We pressured people, and got things done. We did a lot of good things. A lot of kids were adopted. We were also involved in finding homes for children in Vietnam during the war.
Where did the connection with Vietnam come from?
That was from way back, in the late ’60s, before we adopted. We used to send planeloads of medical equipment and supplies to the orphanages during the war. You could do that back then. You could do anything back then. There were fewer rules and regulations. It was great. If I had known you back then, I would’ve had pictures of 14 kids from an orphanage and said, “Which one would you like?”
In an interview with Time magazine, Joy spoke of her first visit back to Vietnam, saying, “It was so bleak.” Can you give me a sense of what things are like in some of the places you’ve been?
When I first went there with Joy, we went to an orphanage for handicapped children, and in those days they had nothing. It was like seeing the world in black and white. Everything was torn and dirty, and they were sitting in rusty wheelchairs, unable to even move. So no matter what you did, it was an improvement. But where do you start? What do they need the most? We think about that, and it leads us to solutions, even small ones.
You see what you can do with so little, so you want to keep on doing whatever you can. The more we did the more we learned, and the more we learned the more we knew what to do. And it’s the same today. Adoption is a different scene today, but before you can place them for adoption you have to keep them alive and get them healthy. That’s how we developed the aid aspect.
You have been given a lot of awards and a lot of honors, and you usually deflect the attention to others. Is there an award or an honor that you’re really proud of, one that really hit home?
The National Caring Award, from the Caring Institute [in 2002]. I went to Washington, and the other winners were Paul Newman, Maya Angelou, Debi Faris [a Los Angeles woman who recovers dead babies and gives them burials, and worked to change laws in many states to allow mothers to safely abandon babies]. It was such a thrill to be with all these people who I had seen on TV and in movies, and I knew some of the wonderful things they had done. I wondered what I was doing there, because these people had just done some amazing things. The first awardee was Mother Teresa, and she signed my award.
You retired from MAPS in 2005, and this year started the Degenhardt Foundation. What is the foundation’s mission?
“Improving life for children and families worldwide” is our official mission statement. It’s extremely broad, but we wanted it to be broad so that we could go where the need was greatest, and go where we were taken, where we were led. It’s amazing how we’re led to do different things. So we try to improve lives. How do we do that? Whatever’s needed.
What do you see this foundation becoming down the road?
Our hope for the foundation is to develop creative projects that reach the person in need. We want to do the smaller projects, ones that need to be done right now. So often the large aid organizations are out doing needs assessments, while people continue to suffer. It’s bureaucracy. We try to do what needs to be done now.
Will the foundation take on projects in Maine?
We plan to go wherever we’re led. We plan to do local projects and projects in other countries. The worst places in the world where I have been are Sierra Leone and Haiti. The needs are endless in these places. Africa is where everybody is needed to give help. The HIV/AIDS crisis has not even peaked there. It’s on the upswing, and it’s incredible what that’s going to do. Orphanages are full of children with AIDS, or who don’t have AIDS but are orphaned because of HIV/AIDs. And now the children are receiving meds and are living. What do we do with them? What happens to them?
Give me the sales pitch. I’m looking to donate to a charity. Why should I choose the foundation?
For one thing, we engage you. We want to know what your interests are. Education? Libraries? Small business? The handicapped? Hospitals? You choose how you want to be involved. And all of the money—every cent—that you donate goes to the project of your choice. There are not too many organizations that can say that. We’re all volunteers, and there’s no overhead to be paid here by
You’ve got one project in Vietnam now, the Emily Cane Project, which provides canes and mobility training for the blind. How do you decide what to take on?
In that particular instance, the need was identified by my daughter Joy. She had been providing musical programs to the blind in Ho Chi Minh City through a donor, and noticed that they were not trained with canes. She said, “Why doesn’t somebody do that? Why don’t we do it?” At the same time, we had placed a blind baby with a family, and the family wanted to do a project. That was the project she showed them. They funded the first one, and we started in another province, and we hope to do the whole country.
It costs less than $50 a student for the training and the cane. And can you imagine the effect that has, not only on the person that’s able to get out and go outside their house by themselves, but for their families? We can do so much with so little.
This article can be found at the Bangor Metro web site, www.bangormetro.com
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Vietnam Photo Journal
by Don Funk