"Running My Troubles Away": Once A Means Of Survival, An Adopted Ethiopian Is Now Running For A Future
Andrew Gardner had only sat on the airplane for two hours when he started thinking ahead.
So up and down the aisles he went, asking each passenger if they were going to eat their dinner rolls. Most weren't. He collected the rolls and stowed them away for later.
"At the age of nine, I knew how to take care of myself in a way that I was just worried," Gardner said. "If they don't have food where you're going, at least I have food in my backpack."
Gardner found himself on an airplane for the first time when he was 9 years old. He knew he was going to America, but he didn't really know where he was going.
The map on the airplane was the first one he'd ever seen. When he climbed aboard in Ethiopia he thought the United States was probably a neighboring country. He didn't know better.
In a remarkable twist, Gardner -- a now soon-to-be graduate of Mead High School -- will be taking a collection of goods back to Ethiopia. This time, instead of rolls stuffed into a backpack, Gardner will bring boxes of clothes and money for donkeys and other simple supplies.
It's the culmination of a senior project dreamed up by a pair of Ethiopian-born adoptees, brought to Spokane by two different families. Gardner -- an elite distance runner who will compete for the University of Washington next year -- and his adoptive mom, Michelle, along with a friend, Daniel Schofield, started the process last summer. Their group leaves for Ethiopia on June 8 for a 16-day trip.
Six years old - Run to the market - legs pounding two hours -
heavy bale of grass on my head.
Sweat flowing, neck stiff and aching
Sell grass to rich people
To buy potatoes for a change.
Gardner spent the first eight years of his life in South-Central Ethiopia -- one of the poorest regions in one of the most economically deprived countries in the world, according to a joint study by Oxford University and the United Nations. His village was a collection of mud huts.
Running water and electricity were not an afterthought -- they were not a thought, at all.
He never laid eyes on a car those first eight years. Shoes? Forget about it.
Akin to children in the United States, Gardner had chores as a boy. Instead of washing the dishes and cleaning his room, though, Gardner's life was dependent on his ability to perform his daily tasks.
He would take the "long walk" to lead the cows to graze. He would trek the three miles to fetch a gallon of water -- sometimes he'd do that more than once a day. He would go to the fields and pick coffee beans.
Gardner would take the coffee beans to the market, along with grass, and peddle his goods for money. He used the money, no more than the equivalent of an American dollar, to buy himself food for dinner.
Whatever was left was invested.
"Your parents were like, 'OK, go collect coffee beans.' You go sell it, you get a couple dollars there, and then now, 'What do you want to do with your money?'" Gardner said.
So Gardner bought a chicken. Eventually that chicken gave birth to baby chicks, which grew into chickens that were sold. With the new influx of money, Gardner was able to purchase a goat.
"It was as soon as your mom has to go to work or wherever, you were on your own kid," Gardner said. "I mean you better get your act together and start acting like everybody else."
This was all before the age of 8.
"They don't have shoes; in fact, so many of the kids don't even have pants," said his adoptive mom Michelle. "We had an orphanage [in Ethiopia] and when kids would come into the orphanage a lot of times, we would want to give them clean clothes. So we would start to take the T-shirt off their head and we wouldn't even be able to pull it off their head because they would have been wearing it for so long. It's too small now. We would have to cut it off to pull it off."
Michelle told Andrew years ago that if he wanted to visit Ethiopia after he graduated she would help him achieve that goal. With the lingering offer, he and Schofield -- also adopted from Ethiopia -- kicked around the idea of going back to their birth country and working in a village.
The idea didn't start to become reality until they had to start thinking of a senior project.
"We had a paper thing that was saying do a senior project, do something cool," Andrew said. "So Daniel and I started thinking, it would be really cool if we went to Ethiopia and give the widow women donkeys, get school supplies from here -- because they're super cheap here -- and have a fun day for the people."
The first step for the pair -- now joined by another friend, Colton McLendon, and Lori Shauvin, an active member in the Spokane racing community -- was to put on a fundraising race.
With less than two weeks notice, the group was overwhelmed at the number of runners and raised over $2,000.
Nine years old – run to the car to leave for orphanage.
Race around the orphanage
Away from the older kids
Always trying to take anything I have.
Race to new dad and mom
Wondering, hoping, not sure what to expect.
Andrew remembers his family in Ethiopia consisting of his parents and four children. There was an older sister, a younger sister and a baby sister. Relatives lived in nearby mud huts.
He has no idea if any of the family is still together.
Starting at a young age, he walked to a rural medical clinic weekly. He went there to get his baby sister, Tseynesh, formula and himself bread. Andrew would spend the day with Doctor Mary Van Der Kooi, who would feed him lunch and give him a small amount of money. It wasn't a lot, but it was enough to buy food for himself and his sister.
Van Der Kooi even gave Andrew money to buy a lamb to raise and sell for a profit. But one day while working in his garden, a large cat pounced on the lamb, took it up a tree and ate it.
"I noticed this young boy toward the front of the line (he had arrived early), holding his baby sister, about 6 months old," said Van Der Kooi through email about the first time she met Andrew. "She was whimpering, and he was trying to comfort her. I took them inside the [clinic], both for seating and privacy. I made up a baby bottle with powdered milk, but she had no idea how to suck. I had some bread there, so I took a little soft bread and put it in her mouth.
"Andrew: ‘She doesn't have teeth; you can't feed her that way. This is how!' With that, he popped the bread in his own mouth, chewed it, and then spit it out into his hand and shoved it in her mouth. It worked fine."
When he made what he guesses is about a 10-mile walk to the medical clinic with his baby sister early one morning, there was no reason to suspect he wouldn't be making the return trip. On this occasion, though, they told him to get into a van. He didn't know what was happening, but he climbed into a car for the first time in his life.
Andrew was given three options: Live with a staffer near the medical clinic, go to a local orphanage where the children are not placed for adoption or go to the capital and perhaps get adopted and go to America.
Can it really be called a choice if he had no idea the ramifications each held? An older teenager who aided the clinic told Andrew, ‘Don't be stupid, pick America.'
America it was.
First, though, it was Kidane Mihret orphanage in Addis Ababa -- the capital of Ethiopia. Andrew was in the orphanage for less than a year, but he hated it. It wasn't only the four hours of mandatory hard labor the children did each Saturday that got to him.
It was the loneliness that was tough. He didn't know who was a close friend and it was hard to relate with others because the children came from different regions of the country. For the most part, the orphans kept to themselves. But that also applied to Andrew's baby sister, Tseynesh.
"It still haunts me to this day that they wouldn't let me see my little sister because she wouldn't listen to the nannies that they had there," he said. "They were just like, 'You can't come here today, come some other time.' And then like, 'You can't come for this week, you can't come for this month.' They just got me away so the girl would get used to the nannies there.
"At some point when you lose connection, it's so hard to connect with a baby sister. That was really hard. "
It got even harder after Tseynesh passed away.
That was less than two months before the siblings were to join Michelle, her husband Steve and their new American family. Steve came to be with Andrew during his time of grieving. Before he left, the family had decided to adopt another baby girl, Dinah.
The group of students that will travel to Ethiopia has since swelled to five. Andrew, his brother Nathanial, Schofield and Grace Olson are all adopted from Ethiopia. McLendon is a close friend of Schofield and Andrew and wanted to join the cause. The group of adults that will make the trip include Michelle and Lori Shauvin, the president of the Bloomsday Road Runners Club.
Everyone going to Ethiopia paid their own way, with the students working summer jobs to raise the funds. All the money that's been raised will go directly to the people of Ethiopia. Donkeys are one of the main items that will be bought while in Ethiopia. General supplies will also be purchased and they will take over boxes of clothes that have been accumulating in the Gardner household.
"We're buying the donkeys so the women can take the water to sell at the market [and] to transport the fire wood so they don't have to carry it on their backs," Andrew said. "The donkey will be the main source for them to do things. I know that the husband and whoever are in charge of the family will use the donkeys to carry giant logs to build houses."
12 years old – run after a soccer ball bouncing off my feet
Parents cheer as I make a goal
Season changes now its football I am running back
Never end to running, running, running
The Gardner household already had an international flair before Andrew and Dinah arrived; their presence only diversified it further. The Gardners have three biological children. They also have adopted from China, Russia, India and Ethiopia -- six total children are from Ethiopia.
In all, there are 12 children. Or, as Michelle jokingly puts it, one to take care of Steve and her for each month of the year when they retire.
Andrew arrived in Spokane on a Saturday in May and on Monday was sitting in a classroom at Evergreen Elementary School. He went just to absorb and experience what it was like sitting in a classroom in the United States. No schoolwork.
There were a lot of new experiences to familiarize himself with.
"In Ethiopian culture, any male is more important than any female," Michelle said. "I mean, a baby boy is more important than his mother. And so it's hard for him at first to have a new mom that he had to listen to, that he had to obey."
Of those new experiences, sports were some of the most successful. Michelle calls him a gifted athlete and says running wasn't always the first choice. There were early signs of greatness in the sport, though -- many of Andrew's track & field records at Evergreen are still intact.
Perhaps the greatest harbinger of success came by accident, though.
When Andrew was in eighth grade, Michelle signed him up for the USA Junior Cross Country Championships, which was coincidentally taking place in Spokane. Not knowing it would draw the top distance runners in the country, she convinced her protesting son there was nothing to lose.
Amazingly, Andrew finished 14th out of more than 80 runners. It was his first 8k.
(Andrew participated in the same race in St. Louis this year and qualified to represent the United States in Poland, where he finished 42nd.)
Despite initial hesitation on Andrew's part, the success hasn't slowed for him in high school. He has two state titles in both the 1,600 meters and 3,200, as well as the 2012 state cross-country championship. He's participated, and shown well, at the Footlocker Cross Country Championships the past three years.
"It was a tough sell because he's good at everything," said Mead cross country coach Steve Kiesel. "He could have been an all-league football player, could have been a great wrestler. You name it; any sport he can do. We're lucky. We're really lucky. I don't know what it was, I don't remember doing anything different when it comes to sales job we did to keep him going or just get him to come out. I'm just thanking my lucky stars he stayed with us after the freshman year."
The Ethiopian-born students will also take time looking for relatives during the trip. For Andrew, that means going to the village of Achura where he lived until he left for the orphanage. He is even spending a week in a mud hut, the same kind he inhabited for the first nine years of his life.
He'll be without running water, electricity and especially no modern day conveniences. But Andrew believes it is important for him to experience because it is a part of his past.
Andrew plans on studying nursing at the University of Washington. He wants to run as long as his body lets him, but knows his athletic career will be over at some point. When that time comes, Andrew expects to continue his life as a nurse.
The reason behind Andrew's desired career path is both simple and admirable.
"The one reason I really thought, even becoming a nurse now, more than half the kids die [in Ethiopia] before the age of 4," he said. "Just the simplest diseases. From water to malaria, and other stuff. The number one is from nutrients; they're not getting enough food or anything like that. I know that going back I really would help.
"This trip won't be a huge plan for the future. It will kind of help them for the moment. I know if I start now that they will have something to look forward for. My goal is to go to the University of Washington, do well in nursing, go back there right away. Because they have doctors that already have medical clinics there, but they don't have a nurse or anything like that that actually works primarily there. That's something that I want to do. I really want to just give back for what I have now."
18 years old – Now I'm offered money to run.
Life has weird routes.
My old burden became my new passion.
(All italicized text come from a poem, "Running My Troubles Away," Gardner wrote for class this year.)