BENTON TOWNSHIP — The title of Mitch Albom’s latest book is “Finding Chika,” about the two-year effort by the author and his wife to save the life of an irrepressible 5-year-old Haitian orphan with a rare brain tumor.
The question, Albom told his audience at the Economic Club of Southwestern Michigan on Monday, became who found whom.
“I’m pretty sure Chika found us,” Albom said, sharing experiences that left him and many others in tears.
Albom, the author of bestsellers “Tuesdays with Morrie” and “The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” became involved with a Haitian orphanage following the devastating earthquake that hit the island nation in 2010, killing thousands and leaving 1 million homeless.
His “Detroit Muscle Crew” built the orphanage its first kitchen, shower, school and indoor toilet. It now is home to 52 children.
Chika was born three days before the quake, in a single-room cinder block house that collapsed around her family but spared their lives. After that, they slept in a sugar cane field for two weeks. When Chika was 2, her mother died in childbirth because there are no doctors for poor women delivering a baby, and she was brought to the orphanage.
The “joyous, loud” and adorably bossy child became a favorite, Albom shared. But when she was 5, the Alboms were alerted to medical problems Chika was having. An MRI revealed a mass in her brain, and the Alboms brought her to the United States for further tests and treatment.
The diagnosis: diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma, a childhood brain tumor that is always fatal, doctors told them. It was a death sentence the Alboms refused to accept, sending them on a mission around the world to find a cure.
The childless couple, then in their 50s, was also setting out on a journey of discovery, learning that it’s never too late to become a family.
Chika taught them about the sense of wonder, “that everything is a miracle,” Albom said.
They learned about how tough children can be, “kid-tough,” Albom said, as Chika went through radiation treatments and surgeries without complaining or losing her sense of humor. She showed them how to appreciate happiness in the moment, “even in adversity.”
She taught them how to say goodbye as “Mr. Mitch and Miss Janine” counted down Chika’s final heartbeats.
It’s only when you witness someone’s final moments that you appreciate the “indescribable blessing” of being alive, Albom said.
For Chika it was “seven beautiful, amazing, impactful years.”
Albom said he is now telling her story “for the poor kids, for the sick kids, for the forgotten kids,” so that they won’t be forgotten and Chika won’t be forgotten, and her life will make the world a better place, showing how one life can touch many others.
Albom has founded nine charities under the umbrella SAY Detroit, including the Family Health Clinic, Dream Scholars and the Say Detroit Play Center. A Hole in the Roof Foundation helps faith groups who care for the homeless to repair the spaces in which they carry out their work. Working Homes/Working Families is provides homes for working families in need of decent housing. The Detroit Water Ice Factory sells frozen desserts, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to the city’s neediest citizens.
The Have Faith Haiti Mission is dedicated to the safety, education, health and spiritual development of that country’s impoverished children and orphans, and since the earthquakes of 2010 has been managed by Albom and the Hole in the Roof Foundation.
Information is at www.havewfaithhaiti.org.
Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak