The service of faith and promotion of justice can unfold in myriad waysBy Eli Francovich
Professor Jennifer Shepherd did not feel complete. Yes, she taught students who were hungry for knowledge. Led meaningful research, chaired Gonzaga’s department of Chemistry and biochemistry. Published papers, won grants, started a photography business, and competed in triathlons, even completing an Ironman. Still she longed for something else. Then in 2002 her husband, kurt Niven, an electrical engineer,
traveled to Ghana for work. That July she packed her bags and joined him for 10 influential days.
“I had never first-hand seen poverty and suffering,” she said. “The children there have nothing compared to U.S. kids, but they’re happy. I’ve never seen more joyous kids. Their eyes are so bright.”
“The greed and selfishness that we see in the United States wasn’t there. I offered this little snack bar to children who were following us. I think there were 12 kids and they shared the whole thing.”
She wanted to help ease the hard life led by Ghanaian children, but didn’t know how. Back home in spokane, she sponsored two brothers through secondary and trade school. This started her thinking about adoption. Her vision clarified into a desire to adopt two siblings who were close to kindergarten age.
For the next several years, she and Kurt focused on financial stability. In February 2010 they returned to Ghana after an adoption agency there matched them with two girls. International adoptions are rarely easy, and although shepherd and her husband quickly fell in love with the girls, the process took several months to complete. she returned to Ghana once again in May, taught at the orphanage school and lived with her daughters for three months while the immigration process ground forward. It was, she said, an important developmental stage in their relationship. The sisters, Therisa, 5, and fair, 7, continually tested her loyalty.
“They didn’t want me to take a shower without them. They were terrified if I closed the door,” she said. “If I left the orphanage they were so fearful that I wasn’t going to come back. It just took day, after day, after day of consistency.”
During this period, shepherd met Samuel, 13. she was drawn by his sunniness and frequent laughter. he liked spending time with her. Almost immediately she wanted to bring him into the family. By 2011, all three adoptions were complete. For the girls the transition, while drastic, was as smooth as could be expected. shepherd attributes this to their age and their existing bond.
“Bringing them together was the best thing we could have done. They share a room. They’re best friends,” she said.
Samuel has had to cope with more challenge. Due to his age, he was quite independent within the orphanage. So he resisted the rules, responsibilities and structure that come with living in an American family. For the last two years, Shepherd has spent two or three hours each evening helping Samuel study. He is now successful academically and athletically, though still adapting to family life.
For Shepherd herself, every aspect of her world feels new, different. “This Ghana experience and ultimately the parenting have filled the gap,” she said. “I’m still totally dedicated to my job but I have a new purpose.”
An invigoration of her faith is one element in her new life. The intense importance of religion in her children’s lives has revamped her own spirituality. she said, “I don’t think I fully appreciated the teachings of jesus until I went to Ghana.
These changes also have ripped through her teaching persona and her own view of the relevancy of her research. For the last 15 years, Shepherd has worked on constructing a new class of anti-parasitic drugs. The hope, she said, is to eliminate the production of a molecule called rhodoquinone, which is essential for parasitic survival. The National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health have supported her work with grants. Much of the time, Gonzaga student participate in her research.
“Because of the poor quality of the water in Ghana and presence of eggs in the soil, virtually all of the children and adults at the orphanages and the villages are infected with parasites,” she said. “My children had infections. I even got one during my three-month stay.”
Ghana, adopting and her research are all connected, and the changes in her life are woven together by one coherent thread: completeness. Shepherd is doing the same work, teaching in a similar way. The difference? She’s happier.
“I have a better perspective on life,” she said. “I have a greater sense of purpose.”