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It All Began With a Baby Girl

How one SHU professor turned a con artist’s scam into an opportunity to deliver health care to Guatemala’s rural villages

Deanna as a baby; Deanna and mom Christina with Cesar, a taxi driver who befriended the Gunthers when they were living in Guatemala during the adoption process; Deanna in 2019 at La Merced, a Guatemalan church built in the 1500s.

By Timothy Deenihan

There were red flags popping up all over the place, which is why Christina Gunther kept calling the adoption agent, which is probably why the adoption agent, tired of all the calls, finally told her, “Everything’s nearly ready. Pack enough clothing for three weeks. Go. I’ll see you there. Everything will be fine.”

Every word of this was a lie.

This story begins in Guatemala, January 2005, with the birth of a girl. Soon thereafter, the infant’s father died, the details surrounding his death unclear. Her mother attempted to raise the little girl on her own, but faced insurmountable poverty. Few options existed for a woman with a daughter but no husband, and international adoption presented itself as the best opportunity for both mother and child.

In the U.S., Christina and Fred Gunther were looking to adopt and turned their attention to regions of the world where their adoption might also help ease another’s burden. The ins and outs of adoption can be a challenge in the best of circumstances, however, and adopting a child from another country—particularly a developing nation with patchy record-keeping—brings layers of complexity unimaginable. To help navigate the process, the Gunthers turned to an agency based in North Carolina. They were matched with the little girl, Deanna, 2 years old by this time, and immediately fell in love. They paid the agency to assist with all the arrangements and waited anxiously for the green light to travel to Guatemala to finalize Deanna’s adoption in person.

But the green light never came. So Christina, who was working at Yale University at the time, called the agency for an update, but only received a runaround. She called again. And again. And many times more, each time being told there was some delay or another and to just be patient. Finally, Christina says, in May 2007, “I think [the agent] was just sick of me.” She and Fred were told to head to Guatemala. It would take about three weeks to dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s, but they would soon have their new daughter.

So Christina and Fred packed for three weeks. They took their 7-year-old biological daughter, Sophia, out of the last month of school, and the family headed to Central America to meet Deanna now that things were finally happening.

When they arrived, nothing was happening. “Adopting from Guatemala was a popular option at the time,” Christina explains. “So we happened to meet a few other families who were doing the same thing. But all their stories of the process were totally different from ours,” she says. For a start, the others had paperwork. The Gunthers had nothing.

A representative from the North Carolina agency arrived and took them to collect Deanna. The whole thing had been weirdly “loosey-goosey,” Christina recalls. Meeting Deanna’s foster mother, “I’m sure the agency woman just said something to the effect of ‘Give this woman the child.’ And that was it.” But a person can’t simply leave one country and enter another with a random extra child in tow. There are visas, birth certificates, adoption records, citizenship filings—a whole folder of documents to amass. Yet, when the Gunthers asked the agency representative point-blank about the paperwork process, she was worryingly evasive. “My Spidey-senses aren’t working,” she told them, “so I’m not sure.”

“That was it,” Christina says. “We needed answers.” Calling on contacts, they secured a trustworthy lawyer based in Guatemala City. It took him very little time to get the clarity they’d been seeking for months. “Nothing’s been done,” he said.

Nothing?

Nothing.

When they called the adoption agency’s headquarters in North Carolina, the agency director went on the offensive. “You’ve jeopardized everything!” she shouted, accusing Christina of somehow risking everyone’s adoptions and threatening to come to Guatemala herself. With Fred back in the U.S. commuting to Guatemala only once a month, Christina and the girls immediately moved their location for security concerns.

In the weeks that followed, the Gunthers coordinated efforts between their lawyer in Guatemala City and an attorney in North Carolina to complete the adoption. Coercing the agency to release the necessary paperwork took five months, and still the Gunthers were not in the clear.

The U.S. government was becoming increasingly concerned about Guatemalan corruption regarding trafficking and the sale of children (ironic, as it was the agency director in North Carolina who had scammed not only the Gunthers but at least 35 other families before disappearing without a trace) and had just announced it was closing the window on Guatemalan adoptions at the end of the year—which was only two months away. The Gunthers already had been in Guatemala more than twice that long and had only just got their hands on the documents they needed to start the process.

Racing the calendar, they scrambled to complete the maze of paperwork left to them. “I was so nervous about everything,” Christina recalls. “There were so many opportunities for things to go wrong.”

But—finally—things didn’t go wrong. Finally, things were going right, and by mid-December, seven months after packing for a three-week adventure and with only days to spare before the whole thing would have proved tragically useless, the Gunthers—now a family of four—were headed home.

In a movie, the credits would roll at this point. In real life, stories rarely end when expected.

In the time Christina and her girls were trapped in Guatemala waiting for the lawyers to unravel the mess in North Carolina, she became friends with a U.S. pastor who ran an organization that helped build homes and improve infrastructure for the locals. “You should bring a group down here!” he often would tell her in a boisterous, jovial, joking-not-joking sort of way.

And so now, in her position as director of Global Health Programs and the Health Science Program at Sacred Heart University, that’s exactly what Christina does.

Four times a year, SHU sends students from the Nursing, Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy and Speech & Language Pathology programs to Guatemala to staff clinics run in partnership between the University and the organization founded by that pastor all those years ago. It’s an excellent way for the students to meet the clinical requirements of their majors, complete capstone projects and learn more about cultural competence, while serving as part of a health-care envoy to rural and impoverished communities that never could afford such care on their own.

It’s a win-win, in more ways than one. As of last October, 435 Sacred Heart students have traveled to Guatemala, helping more than 10,000 people. But the benefits go beyond the metrics. “The students get way more out of it than they expect,” Christina says. “They head down there with this missionary zeal—they’re going to save the world. But they begin to realize they have something to learn, too. And it’s not just clinical. They’ve been seeing everything through a very U.S.-centric lens. This helps them really see there’s another way of doing things,” she says. “Another way of being.”

While the fullest extent of that paradigm shift may not be permanent, there is research to indicate that these types of service programs inspire students to orient their careers more toward community-based care.

One example is Cassie Colucci. After graduating in 2016 with a B.S. in health sciences, she carried on at SHU to earn her master’s in occupational therapy in 2018. In 2017, while a graduate assistant with the Global Health Program, Cassie was part of the OT team that spent a week in Guatemala visiting schools and opening a clinic in a rural village there. Now she’s an adjunct at SHU, teaching an online undergraduate course in Diversity and Disparity in Health Care while simultaneously moving into an OT position at the PG Chambers School for children with disabilities in Cedar Knolls, N.J.

And so it is that a little girl born into too much poverty to bear became the impetus to bring health care to communities that cannot afford it and perspective to students who never knew they needed it. Just your everyday story of con artists and corruption, fraudsters and families, faith, lawyers, medics, missionaries, and a mother whose love simply wouldn’t quit.