Lon and DeAnna Kennard and a klatch of their children and grandchildren, nestled into chairs and sprawled across the carpet, have gathered around a television set to watch a videotape made a year ago by Lon Kennard during a visit to Ethiopia.
The video emphasizes what was and what is. Six of the children - Bedane, Kidist, Shumba, Helen, Merga and Ali - have experienced life in two very different worlds: one in poverty-burdened East Africa, another in Utah's mountain-ringed Heber Valley.The video reveals cluttered Addis Ababa - an orphanage, a lively marketplace, the small house in nearby Holeta where sisters Kidist and Helen were born. Then come rural scenes: handsome people colorfully dressed, some threshing a grain called teff; the flowering trees and lush grasses of a southern resort once frequented by Emperor Haile Selassie; exotic monkeys; and the public field, the "meeting tree" and the huts of the village of Shashemene near the Kenyan border.
As recorded by the tape, relatives and friends gather around Lon Kennard and his strange camera, hoping to relay words and wishes to America. Young boys line up to speak. A few have messages for Bedane, their good friend and soccer ace. A few cannot hold back tears.
Another among them is Zemzem, the oldest sister of Bedane, Shumba, Merga and Ali, who were born in Shashemene.
"Ali, she's talking to you," Kennard says as the family watches this videotaped encounter, "but I don't understand what she's saying."
The younger children, however, have pretty much forgotten their native tongues, Amharic and Oromo. Bedane, the oldest, has not, and translates Zemzem's words:
"She said, `Don't forget your family. Don't forget your country. Don't forget your sisters. Don't forget me, and do what your parents tell you to do. Keep your grades up. Send me pictures, and I'll send you my pictures, too.' "
An uncle then appears on the screen, and again Bedane translates: " `I'm fine. I'm hoping I get to see you before I die.' "
"Daddy," says Shumba rising from the living room floor, "they're breaking my heart."
In conversations years ago, Lon Kennard and DeAnna Bangerter discussed the Peace Corps, adoptions and other hopes and dreams. They married in 1964.
"We had six children in 12 years, and it kind of put things on hold," DeAnna Kennard says.
One child died of sudden infant death syndrome. The couple helped raise another girl. All except Matthew, their youngest, are now grown and gone from home.
Their youthful idealism may have been submerged by necessity - but not forever.
Listening to National Public Radio while driving to work in Salt Lake City one day a few years ago, Lon Kennard heard Cheryl Shotts of Americans for African Adoptions talking about her organization. The couple tracked her down and considered the options she told them about.
"We originally thought we'd adopt one child," Lon Kennard says. "Then two - so they'd at least have each other."
After all, they reasoned, though they live in a close rural community, the people of Heber City are overwhelmingly white and predominately Mormon. Lon Kennard is, in fact, an LDS bishop.
A sibling set - a boy and a girl - seemed like the best idea.
The first inquiries were made in 1993 in Liberia, where English is spoken. They were not successful. The search shifted to Ethiopia. Pretty but thin Alemitu, called Ali, a 3-year-old girl, and her equally cute brother, 5-year-old Merga, were the first likely possibilities. The two were among children sheltered by a man named Yosef Woticha in an Addis Ababa foster home.
But the Kennards were also drawn to a big-eyed little girl, often captured in pictures with Merga and Ali. They wondered about her circumstances. One mystery was that this child was attired differently in various photos, though the Utahns understood that most of the kids possessed only a single outfit. As it turned out, two girls were pictured - sisters Helen, 7, and Kidist, 9.
Lon and DeAnna Kennard decided: If they could adopt two children, why not four?
All of the children were orphans, they were told. The father of Helen and Kidist had died in the province of Eritrea during a civil conflict. Their mother was said to be missing. The parents of Merga and Ali had died of malaria.
The adoptions did not go off without a hitch. Even as the wheels were turning, the adoption agency was caught in a web of false accusations that, until disproved, halted Ethiopian exchanges. Then, on a Sunday a year after the process was initiated, Cheryl Shotts called with a perceived problem, talking with the Kennard's oldest daughter, Jill.
The conversation is summarized in a family journal: Her father, Jill told Shotts, was at the "office." On a Sunday? the caller asked. At church, Jill said. Why did Kennard have an office at a church? Shotts wondered. He is a bishop, Jill responded. Shotts knew the Kennards were Christians; she asked if they were Mormons. Jill said yes they are, and asked if that was a concern.
No, Shotts replied. "I just wanted to tell you that Yosef, the foster father, just told me that he has been taking the kids to a new church in Ethiopia and wanted to know if it was OK. It is the Mormon church and I wanted to get your parents' permission."
DeAnna Kennard says she had prayed that the children could have just such a contact with the LDS Church to help them more easily adapt to their new lives but had never thought such exposure likely in Ethiopia, where Mormons are virtually nonexistent.
With the U.S. immigration and Ethiopian paperwork nearing completion, Lon Kennard flew to Addis Ababa - taking a suitcase filled with candy for the kids - to bring the four home to Utah. He was shocked by the poverty.
"We don't understand subsistence living," he says. "The people living on the underpasses here have it three times better than the people on the street in Ethiopia."
Kennard accompanied Ali and Merga to their village so they could say goodbye to relatives. That's when he discovered that their older brother, Bedane, 10, and a sister, Shumbalo, 9, were alive, not dead as rumored. Shumba, as she is nicknamed, was extremely ill with malaria and, as an orphaned girl, poorly cared for and suffering from malnutrition, Kennard said.
"She just laid on the ground," he recalls, "and cried and screamed, `If you leave us we'll surely die!' "
Lon telephoned DeAnna in the United States and together they made the decision.
"If we had four, we might as well have six," Kennard says. "We couldn't leave them there."
`We've had a great experience with them," Kennard says today, "and they've been well accepted in the community. They've done very well. And the older kids have all been very supportive."
Kennard flew with the youngest four from Ethiopia to Utah in August 1994.
"Two days after that, one of our daughters got married. They went literally from wearing rags to tuxedos and frilly dresses. Kidist couldn't stand it - she wanted to wear her baseball cap all the time!"
Bedane and Shumba remained in Addis Ababa for another year as the adoption process proceeded. When they arrived in America, Shumba was still ill and had to spend 10 days in Primary Children's Medical Center's intensive care unit.
One of the challenges has been determining the children's ages. The family knows the birthdates of Kidist, who just turned 13, and Helen, now 11, for they were born near urban Addis Ababa. For the others, "they didn't keep track," Kennard says. "They say, `He was born when the tree in the village was hit by lightning.' We had to give them birth certificates, so we could make up anything we wanted."
By such approximation, Bedane turns 14 this month, Shumba celebrated her 13th year in April, Merga was 10 in November and Ali is 8, going on 9 in June.
"They're growing so fast," DeAnna Kennard says. "It must be the healthy food and a healthy lifestyle." They grow out of their clothing as fast as the family buys it off the rack, she adds.
The Kennards also learned that the mother of Kidist and Helen is alive. She had been struggling, leaving the city three or four days at a time to find firewood to sell to support the children, but all, including a baby sister, were starving. She wanted the children to be adopted so they could survive.
The children have done well in school, though the older kids have had to begin in lower grades and accelerate their education to catch up with others their ages.
"The schools have been so wonderful and so cooperative," DeAnna Kennard says, with emphasis on the "so's." "They've been so good it almost wants to make you cry."
Dr. M. Kent Larsen, principal of Heber Valley Elementary School, is among those impressed by the children's adaptation and progress.
"They're obviously very bright children because they picked up the language very easily," he says. "They're totally assimilated. We've had no problems, and they're very popular among other children."
He adds of the Kennard kids, "These children are just beautiful, it's just striking. You're almost in awe of their beauty."
Paul Sweat, assistant principal at the nearby middle school, attended by two of the children, seconds Larsen's impressions. "They are such good kids, very well adjusted and doing very well," he says.
And the multiracial Kennard clan has added to the Heber community's diversity. "We're all so homogenous here," Sweat says, though that is changing throughout the valley as it shifts from a rural, agricultural economy.
Although still a village, Heber has all the amenities as well as quick access to the Salt Lake Valley. "We can have our small town and be at the mall in 30 minutes," says Sweat, a native of the area.
Race-tinged encounters have been few for the Kennard children. "If there is a problem, maybe they don't tell us about it," DeAnna Kennard says.
The family does recall one incident. When Kidist was in second grade, a boy on the playground called her "Chocolate."
"She didn't know how to react to it," her father says.
Her mother came up with a way to deal with any negative connotations.
"I said, `Do you know anyone who doesn't like chocolate?' " DeAnna Kennard gave Kidist a strategy, and the child ran with it. "She would say to people, `Hi, Vanilla, I'm Chocolate.' "
All the family is at home on a Monday evening. The children are on the living room floor playing "Hands Down," though Ali isn't participating.
"I have to do my homework," she says, showing a gold sheet of paper on which she is figuring out the times tables, with hints and help from her sisters. Shumba, too, decides she'd better do some schoolwork.
"Dad, I have to make ice cubes with a newspaper," she tells her father, who is seated at the kitchen counter reading one while his wife is fixing a dinner of chicken and rice. He decides she means a cube-shaped model, and they rip up paper in various patterns to create one.
Meanwhile, the other children, including Ali, divide up the playing cards and begin a game of "War."
Matthew Kennard, now a senior at Wasatch High School, teases the girls at the dinner table, but overall he's a mature presence - and sometimes a firm older brother. He and Bedane share a love of soccer, and Matt coaches Bedane's recreational league team.
He admits that the sudden expansion of the Kennard family almost four years ago was something of a shock.
"The weirdest part for me was that I was the last kid," he says. But he was used to having little nieces and nephews around. "This was just more kids at home."
And he'd always wanted a little brother, Matt says. He got one with Merga, and then another when Bedane arrive a year later. The two older boys share many interests, such as all things "Star Trek."
Matt was amazed with how quickly the children settled in.
"Kidist was the first one to pick up English. She was talking within three weeks."
And the education hasn't all been a one-way street.
"I even picked up some Amharic," Matt says. "I can understand if they're talking to each other."
Though a few of the children are shy at times among strangers, overall they are outgoing and happy. Bedane, Merga and Kidist are star athletes. At home they can giggle with pleasure together while playing card games.
The children love the Utah Jazz (and in fact each has a photo with a Jazz player). They get to attend games, one at a time, with their father, who has season tickets.
They have become all-American kids - though their parents don't want that "American-ness" to go too far.
In 1999 Lon and DeAnna Kennard plan to take their children back to their homeland. They are eager to go - in fact, the older ones would love to go back for a visit right away.
But their father wants them to do a little preparation.
Yes, they are citizens of the United States today, but they have roots in Ethiopia and should be able to reflect that.
"I've told the kids they have to brush up on their Amharic," Lon Kennard says. "Otherwise, they're just Americans if they go there."