09 Aug 2011

The Author

Author of the award-winning book Finding Fernanda. Senior Fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. Redux Pictures photographer. Read more here.

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Finding Fernanda among Kickstarter’s First 10,000 Successful Projects

A year ago, a Kickstarter campaign in support of Finding Fernanda was in full swing while I tried to raise enough money to cover my expenses for one final month-long reporting trip to Guatemala. Within a week, so many people had chipped in that the campaign surpassed its $3,000 goal. By the end, Finding Fernanda netted a total of $5,050.

Last week, the number of successful Kickstarter campaigns hit the 10,000 mark. They put together a dizzying video montage of all 10,000 projects, which you can see here. I know Finding Fernanda is in the mix somewhere, but I haven’t been able to pick it out. The clips just fly by too quickly.

One of the things I liked most about Kickstarter was how I was able to pen blog posts exclusively for the project’s “backers” (donors) to read. Here’s one from July 29, 2010, detailing how I first stumbled across the story that sparked the book project.

Betsy Emanuel and her husband Leslie are the reason why this book began.

In December 2008, I stumbled across an email Betsy had posted to an adoption listserve from October 30, 2008. I’d been following the list as a way of doing background research. Betsy’s post was a response to another list member, who was just starting the international adoption process and had asked for advice about choosing an agency.

“As with ANY agency, you always want to check into other relationships that agencies may possibly have behind the scenes,” Betsy wrote. “Emotional photos on a pretty website are NOT always what is going on in the office! For instance, some agencies ‘broker’ if you will, for countries they are not fully lic. in with another agency who does have a license to place children from. You want to ask strong questions about exactly WHO any agency is dealing with in country? Ask direct questions about WHO else may be involved here in this country? I would ASK if ANY other agency or person will be assisting in ANY way with your adoption. IF, IF, IF, you get ANY feeling that you are annoying the agency with these type of questions… then dig deeper and DO NOT ignore your feelings. I would also google the names of everyone involved in my process, even the agency employees. IF you do get a name of a person or an agency who will be helping with your process, then you need to check them out as well. There is a lot of info out there if you know where to look. I hope this helps you — these measures would have helped me if I had known to do this about 3 years ago.”

My curiosity shot through the roof. I emailed Betsy (sadly, with the poor grammar of a busy grad student) on December 8, 2008.

Hi Elizabeth,
I’m a grad student in journalism, and my Master’s thesis is on international adoption, specifically Guatemala. My work is an attempt at addressing the multitude of viewpoints and perspectives out there to create a piece that’s multifaceted and in-depth. I read your post with interest, and would love to hear more about your experience, if you’d be willing to share it.

Many thanks, Erin”

She replied the same day, telling me that she’d used a Florida adoption agency she couldn’t recommend. If I was interested in hearing more, she continued, I should let her know. “The Guatemala program with the Florida agency was a nightmare, to be blunt,” she wrote. “I don’t have a lot of spare time, but if I can help you, I will try. I too, have a daughter who will soon be in grad. school, and have seen her struggle to get observations done this year. I know it is hard to get people to take the time to share info… “

On December 18th, we spoke on the phone for the first time. I figured it would be faster and easier than continuing to email, and I wanted to be able to read her tone of voice. Betsy related a heart-wrenching story of a long adoption process involving three different “orphans,” one alleged kidnapping, and a 9-year-old named Jennifer who went missing only to magically reappear. The adoption journey seemed too strange to be true.

Obviously, back then I didn’t understand much about Guatemalan adoptions.

The timing of our first conversation was incredible. I already had a ticket to fly to Guatemala just a week later, on December 27th. The Stabile Center for Investigative Reporting at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism had granted me $3,000 for a month-long reporting trip. I’d planned on gathering general information, talking to as many people as possible and doing some good old shoe-leather reporting. Yet now that Betsy’s story had come to light, I wanted to see if I could corroborate it.

In Guatemala City, I set out to find the birth mother Betsy told me about, a woman named Mildred Alvarado. To my surprise, after some work, my Guatemalan reporting partner Juan Carlos and I found her. To my even greater surprise, Mildred was willing to talk to us.

Everything snowballed from there.

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