Award-winning alumnus gives talk on latest book
Mitch Albom '79 discussed his book, ‘‘Finding Chika,’’ which tells the true story of an orphan in Haiti.
Mitch Albom ’79, best-selling author of “Tuesdays with Morrie,” gave a talk on Thursday about his newest boom, the memoir “Finding Chika.”
Albom was introduced by Provost Lisa Lynch, who discussed his award-winning career as “an internationally renowned and best-selling author, journalist, screenwriter, playwright, radio and television broadcaster and musician.” Albom also operates the Say Detroit charity in Michigan and the Have Faith Haiti Orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Lynch said.
“Finding Chika” tells the story of a young Haitian girl named Chika Jeune who met Albom when she was admitted to the Have Faith Haiti Orphanage, and whom Albom and his wife, Janine Sabino, later ended up taking care of when she became sick with a life-threatening disease. During his talk, Albom discussed both his role in the operation of the orphanage and his relationship with Chika. Chika passed away several years ago and Albom wrote this memoir in honor of her memory.
Albom said that Chika was “born tough.” He explained that when the earthquake hit Haiti ten years ago, it killed about 300,000 people — 3% of Haiti’s population — and left about 1 million people — 10% of Haiti’s population — homeless in less than a minute. Though the earthquake destroyed their home, three-day-old Chika and her mother survived, he said. This earthquake is how Albom first became involved with the Have Faith Haiti Orphanage.
He explained that a pastor asked if he could be a guest on Albom’s radio program because he was worried about the children living in his orphanage in Haiti after the earthquake. Albom said, “Something about the idea of children being buried in rubble and nobody knowing if they were missing or gone — I just couldn’t get it out of my mind.”
Therefore, Albom helped organize a trip to the orphanage. After seeing the destruction caused by the earthquake, Albom explained, he assembled a team of 23 volunteers who helped to rebuild the orphanage over the course of nine trips to Haiti. He said that the memory of seeing the aftermath of the earthquake would “never, ever, leave [his] mind.”
When the team rebuilt the orphanage, they included features that it did not have before, such as toilets, showers, a kitchen, a dining room and a three-room schoolhouse. Albom described how excited the children at the orphanage were to stand under the showers for the first time, and showed video clips of them dancing and singing under the water. Despite these improvements, the orphanage still did not have enough funding for adequate meals, so Albom said told the pastor that he could run it himself. Since then, Albom said, he has “been there every month without fail in those last ten years,” as well as taken in another 46 children, with 52 children in total currently living there. “These are children who have been abandoned, orphaned [and] who have survived abject poverty and natural disasters,” he said.
At the orphanage, Albom explained, the children are educated, well-fed and cared for, and they “dream to go to universities like this and earn degrees and come back to Haiti to make their country a better place.” Because of the education system at the Have Faith Haiti Orphanage, as well as the Michigan College Alliance, Albom said that the 52 children in the orphanage will have college scholarships. “These are precious children,” he said. “All of them deserve to have a chance, and each one has a unique and poignant story of how they got here. Chika’s story stood out.”
Chika arrived at the orphanage after her mother died from childbirth complications, since she could not afford a doctor. Albom accepted Chika there, but said, “For every child that I said yes to, I have to say no to ten others. It is the hardest decision and the toughest thing I have to do in my life.” He said that while Chika was at the orphanage, she was loud, bossy, curious and friendly, but when she was five years old, she was diagnosed with Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma, a deadly disease with no known cure.
Albom said that he had received a call that Chika’s face was “drooping,” but finding a neurologist and lining up an appointment for an MRI on Haiti’s single MRI machine was complicated. When they finally heard back from the neurologist, the note read, “This child has a mass on her brain in the pons area and whatever it is, there is no one in Haiti who can help.” So Albom said that he decided to take Chika back to the U.S. for treatment, which marked the beginning of a two-year, global search for “a cure for the incurable,” despite doctors saying she would only live four months and that there was “nothing to stop [the disease].”
Albom said that during those two years with Chika, she taught him seven things.
First, he said, Chika taught him that “you are never too old to become a family.” Albom explained that he and his wife married late and never had children of their own, but found a family when they were caring for Chika.
Albom also said that Chika taught him about “time.” Though he believed he understood time and had his routine schedule, having a five-year-old around changed that entirely. “A child is both an anchor and a set of wings, and my old way of doing things was gone,” he said, quoting the memoir.
Chika also taught him to have “a sense of wonder,” Albom said. He continued, “pretty much everything [Chika] saw was a miracle.” Hot water, highways and cars, mailboxes and television were new experiences for Chika, having come from abject poverty. “Every bit of it fascinated her,” he said.
Albom also said that Chika taught him “how tough children really are.” Albom explained that Chika bravely faced all of her treatments and that he and Janine were more worried about them than she was. “Kid tough,” he said, “it’s different from adult tough.” He added, “[Children] accommodate to the difficulty, they adjust to the pain, they find the play.”
Next, Albom said she taught him about “appreciating the happiness in the moment when you get it.” He told stories and played video clips of a joyful Chika playing games and singing. Quoting the memoir, he said, “If I could change anything from those moments, Chika, it would be to stay in them a little longer, immerse ourselves so we never forget.”
Chika next taught him about “[his] own marriage,” Albom said. He explained that he used to worry about having kids and how it might affect his career and relationship. However, Chika taught him otherwise. Albom said that having a child in his life allowed him to discover “this rich, loving, nurturing side” of his wife. He said that Janine “seemed to be waiting her entire life to take care of Chika.”
Finally, she taught Albom that “it is only when witnessing the final breaths of life that you can truly appreciate the magnificent and indescribable gift that is life.” Albom said this lesson was the final thing Chika taught him before she passed away. “Chika Jeune lived just seven years,” he said, “but they were seven beautiful, amazing, impactful years. She changed us and she changed pretty much everybody she knew, and it is my hope … that she can change the world for others like her.”