NEW YORK — Ten years ago if you’d asked Craig Juntunen to give up the high life for a scrappy game of softball at the local softball field with a bunch of kids, he’d have laughed.
A confirmed non-parent nearing fifty, he and his wife Kathi were living the good life. They’d retired young, made millions on the sale of his business, had homes in Scottsdale and the Colorado Rockies, traveled the world, played golf on the best courses virtually every day and had absolute freedom to do just what they wanted when they wanted, completely unencumbered by jobs or children.
The lucrative sale of his successful business specializing in human capital for high tech firm handed him, in his own words, “a lottery ticket.” High tech in the 1990s was the place to be and Juntunen was at the epicenter. “Totally a case of right time, right place,” he says. Juntunen cashed out, thrilled that he reached his goal to retire by 40. After a decade of early retirement, Juntunen knew something was missing. But what?
Children were not high on Juneten’s priority list. In fact, Juneten got a vasectomy when he was 30 years old and was adamant –and upfront—about his desire to remain childfree. “I had zero interest in becoming a father,” he says. “I wasn’t just someone who kind of didn’t want kids. I was the kind of person who pounded my fist on a desk, swearing I’d never become a father. I always said it was a shame that Kathi married me because she’d have been a good mother, but it was something she accepted as part of our life together.”
All that changed one fateful day on a golf course, when a friend, who had grown children began speaking passionately about the children he’d recently adopted from Haiti. The more he spoke, the more interested Juntunen became. “I was intrigued by his passion, the way he cared,” recalls Juntunen. “I thought about that and realized that had been lacking in my life. I wanted to become as passionate as he was about something.”
Then, of course, there was the complicated story of Haiti, the dire conditions, the poverty, children living in subpar orphanages, in desperate need of homes that compelled Juntunen to action. That afternoon he told his wife that he was going to make a trip to Haiti to see firsthand what the conditions for children were like and to see if there wasn’t something he could do to make difference.
And just like that, Juntunen boarded a plane for Haiti. Once there he began working with an orphanage introduced to him by his friend. Assessing the conditions of the orphanage and needs of the children was his goal. As he was working on this, he met a little girl named Esperancia (Espie). Their connection was instant. “I can’t explain it at all, other than to say she instantly captured my heart. I called and told my wife that we were about to become parents,” he says.
Kathi scrambled to complete the paperwork in the United States, including the home study, a long and protracted screening process that provides necessary clearing for parents. Meanwhile, Juntunen worked in Haiti, trying to improve conditions for orphans. It wasn’t long before he then met Amelec. Since he and Espie were about a year apart, Juntunen thought they might like having one another as siblings. “I called Kathi and she agreed. We’d be parents to a boy and girl. But we were both adamant about the fact that because of our age (both were hovering around 50 years old at the time), we couldn’t and wouldn’t take on an infant,” he says.
That resolve lasted all of several days before Juntunen, during a visit to an extremely poor orphanage met a baby boy, who’d been abandoned on the street. Since the orphanage where he was brought had no formula, Juntunen, explains, “They were letting nature takes its course. He was dying of starvation.”
Juntunen quickly arranged for the baby to be brought to the orphanage where he originated his work, which was better equipped to take care of a baby. He also vowed to help step up support of the orphanage.
While transporting the baby from one orphanage to another, something happened. “He was lying in my lap in the car and I looked in his eyes and I just knew this kid was a fighter. He was scrawny, malnourished, weak, but I could see something,” Juntunen relates. The orphanage began calling this baby “Little Craig,” but within hours, Juntunen had renamed him Quinn. He was back on the phone with his wife, telling her, they would soon also be the proud parents of a baby boy named Quinn.
Juntunen returned to the States while waiting for all the paperwork on the children to process, and he and Kathi flew down periodically during those months to visit their children and lend more support to the orphanage. It was during this time that Juntunen decided he would do something more. He started Chances for Children, an organization that works with orphanages in Haiti on getting resources.
Today Amelec is 10, Espie is nine and Quinn is five. “Now that the kids are home and living in our community in Scottsdale, their lives are just like other kids. What I learned is that no matter the background, no matter where kids are or even what they’ve been through, kids are kids,” he says.
Juntunen was so changed by the experience of fatherhood that he wrote a book called Both Ends Burning, about his change of life, adopting from Haiti and about his life with his children.
“The tone of the book is very light because that was what I was feeling after this incredibly happy experience adopting my children,” he explains. “I’m not feeling so light anymore, now that so much has changed and so many kids are getting left behind as the international adoption system breaks down.”
According to Juntunen, in 2008 the rules on adoption from within Haiti changed after an audit conducted by UNICEF on the international adoption system prompted the Haitian government to change the way it had been doing intercountry adoptions. “The requirements went back to 1974 regulations that dramatically reduced the number of people who could adopt. I certainly wouldn’t be able to, for instance, because you now have to be between 35 and 50 years.”
“There is a silent social crisis,” says Juntunen, referring to the current state of international adoptions, which have been largely slowed to a crawl and, in many cases, stopped entirely.
Haiti’s devastating earthquake that took place in 2010 actually led to progress, Juntunen reports. “The catastrophic event got the world to move urgently. The governments were able to move quickly to ensure that children and parents in process were matched and brought together,” he explains. Soon after, however, the sense of urgency faded and the holding pattern began anew.
Like many who have gone through the experience of international adoption and as someone who has subsequently traveled the world –from Guatemala to Ethiopia—looking at orphanages and studying the problems in the current adoption system, he believes good intentions to weed out child trafficking, financial windfalls for unscrupulous players and in-country corruption were the impetus to the slowdown. But he also believes that the result has been devastating to the children who are left behind as countries sort through this in a less-than-expeditious manner.
“The children who are languishing in orphanages are the collateral damage. We have just got move things along quicker. Yes, we should have processes in place to protect the children, but we need to do that expeditiously so that children do not go year after year without families,” he stresses. “We all know that the sooner children are in a nurturing environment where they are challenged developmentally, the better off they will be.”
Juntunen founded Both Ends Burning, a non-profit organization with the goal of promoting “a culture of international adoption” and to advocate for ways to make international adoption safe, efficient and cost-effective.
“We cannot and must not let a few cases of corruption in the international system completely put all children into this dire situation, condemning them to live in orphanages or on the streets. When someone robs a bank in Chicago, we don’t shut down the banking system,” Juntunen says, quoting a line that he says Senator Mary Landrieu, said to him at an adoption event once in D.C. “We have a moral obligation to fix this immediately and allow them to come home to loving families. There is no shortage of families wanting to adopt and there is no shortage of orphans. Adults have a responsibility create an efficient and reasonable system to allow these children to flourish.”
To that end, Both Ends Burning is devising a set of international guidelines, a new way to responsibly bring children and parents from around the world together. Juntunen will unveil these guidelines on April 15 in Washington, D.C. at the Holt International Forum.
“Ultimately, I believe that international adoption will lead to the evolution of a global society, where the cross-pollination of races and cultures will shrink the planet. Families created through international adoption are ambassadors, because their children become part of the communities they live in and everyone gains from that experience,” he notes.
As for Juntunen, in addition to his work on behalf of children, he’s also in the process of wrapping a documentary film on international adoption called “Wrongfully Detained: The Case for a New System.” In between, he’s a busy dad to three growing children.
“I’m trying to create a social movement, but, to my kids, I’m still dad. Our family didn’t come together in the most predicable way, but we’re most definitely a family for all that implies, the good and the bad. We love each other and we are there for one another,” Juntunen says. “And that’s the miracle of adoption. It’s one many families would love to experience, if given a chance.”
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