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Chika’s Story

Best-selling author Mitch Albom on the little girl who inspired his latest book.

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Author Mitch Albom couldn’t have anticipated that his book “Tuesdays with Morrie” would become the biggest selling memoir in the history of publishing any more than he could have anticipated becoming a parent to a little Haitian girl.

It was while channel surfing in 1995 that Albom saw an interview with his college sociology professor, Morrie Schwartz, and learned that his mentor was dying of ALS, known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Hearing that Schwartz wanted to share the wisdom he’d accrued over a lifetime, Albom phoned him and began spending Tuesday afternoons with him talking and listening. Determined to assist with Schwartz’s medical bills, Albom wrote a slender book from their recorded conversations. It became a runaway best seller.

His latest book has its roots in just as random an encounter. He’ll be sharing “Finding Chika: a Little Girl, an Earthquake and the Making of a Family” at a literary event sponsored by the Tuckahoe Woman’s Club and open to the public. The club does about 20 programs a year, having played host to such well-known authors as Geraldine Brooks, Timothy Egan and Delia Ephron in the past, with Dave Barry, Min Jin Lee and Delia Owens scheduled to speak this year.

When club members saw that Albom had a new book, they reached out to him.

“So many people loved ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ and we knew he was a great speaker,” says Sabet Stroman, fundraising committee chairwoman for the club. “Several of us who read it had lost loved ones to cancer and we really identified with his heartbreak, but also his gratefulness.”

The multimedia event is sponsored by The Tuckahoe Woman’s Club Scholarship Endowment Fund, which provides grants to area high school students for undergraduate college work.  

After hearing about the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti, Albom couldn’t stop thinking about how children were left trying to live and sleep in dirt and rubble. After contacting his senator and hiring a plane, the military gave him a 10-minute window in which to land on the island. “What I saw that day will never leave me,” Albom says. “It was so completely devastating and the people were so encumbered by the tragedy.”

The Have Faith Mission and Orphanage had no toilets, showers or kitchen and was overrun with people who had no business being there. It was enough to motivate Albom to start traveling to Haiti every month and taking groups of volunteers to assist in the rebuilding effort. When he asked of the orphanage director why the children weren’t eating better, he was told that there was no operating budget.

With years of experience running charities in Detroit, Albom stepped up.

“It’s one of those moments where I can look back and say what was I thinking,” he recalls with a laugh. “I saw something and I opened my big mouth. When I said I could operate this place, the director was quick to say it was all mine after that.”

Chika Jeune had been born only days after the earthquake and when her mother died in childbirth a few years later, the toddler was surrendered to the orphanage. A gregarious child who charmed everyone she met, Chika was found to have an inoperable brain tumor when she was 5. Although he and his wife were childless, Albom’s response was to bring Chika home to Detroit for treatment, a decision that effectively made the middle-aged couple parents for the first time.

“It upended our lives in every way,” he says of learning to go to bed at 8:30 p.m. when she did. “You think your life is laid out in line and you couldn’t possibly squeeze another thing in and then you’ve got a 5-year-old you’re not only responsible for, but trying to save her life. It’s amazing how you adjust.”

After Chika died, Albom realized he had to tell her story. Not only was it cathartic, but it pained him to know that the friendly, outgoing child would never have the chance to touch others with her enthusiasm for life as she had at the orphanage. All proceeds from the book will go to replacing the crumbling 40-year-old orphanage with a new one.

“Had she lived, she would have been remembered by so many people,” he says, calling the book a labor of love. “Writing it means that many more people will know about her, so it’s like giving Chika extra time on earth.”

Mitch Albom appears on Thursday, Jan. 9, at 6 p.m. at The Tuckahoe Woman’s Club, 4215 Dover Road. $35. Tickets available at eventbrite.com.

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