living the faith
Dedicating their lives to children
by Sonja L. Cohen and Reuel Amdur
Fred, a Methodist seminarian, met Bonnie McClung, a nursing student, and the couple married in 1953, with Fred accepting a Methodist parish in Chicago within a month of the wedding. Since they had no interest in adding to an already overpopulated world, they decided to have two children and adopt two. By the time they were done they had twenty-one children, nineteen of them adopted from eleven countries, primarily in Asia.
Their first adoption, a half Japanese, half black child from Japan, created a rift in their Chicago Methodist congregation and a third of the members left. “The fear was that we were bringing blacks into the community,” says Fred, adding that the 1950s was a different time, full of fear. The rest of the congregation was supportive, but racial tensions continued to run high. In 1963, Fred decided to leave the Methodist ministry and became a Unitarian Universalist minister, serving at a congregation in Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, the family continued to grow.
While the idea of growing up in a household of twenty-one children might make some shudder, for the Cappuccino children it felt normal. Annie Laurie Cappuccino, the fifth child, was adopted from Korea when she was almost two years old. She says for her it was natural that babies came from all sorts of places. The family was still Methodist when she was adopted, but her stronger memories are of attending Unitarian Universalist congregations. “Unitarian values,” she says, “went a long way in creating a strong sense of community and family and a sense that whatever we were was valuable.” She never felt she had been adopted out of a sense of obligation or as a manifestation of religious values. “I never felt I was being 'saved,' but being drawn into a family that wanted me,” she says.
Annie says they functioned as a fairly traditional family, eating meals together, singing together, marching in civil rights marches together, and there was always a sense of the strength of togetherness and the importance of the family unit. As for having enough space, in 1967 the family moved to Canada to serve a congregation in Pointe Claire, Quebec, eventually settling in a sprawling log farmhouse in Maxville, Ontario, where Fred and Bonnie still live today.
But how did the four-child plan become twenty-one? Bonnie says it was a gradual, unplanned thing. “If you have the ability to take more kids, and you hear that there are some in need, you just do it and worry about where the money will come from later.” Fred says it all started when he married an eccentric young woman who loved children. “My problem is she knows I'm totally enchanted with her, and she takes advantage,” he laughs.
As their children grew up and moved away the Cappuccinos shifted their focus farther from home. During the Vietnam War they helped found an organization called Families for Children that assisted children overseas, and in 1985 the couple left their positions as its directors to start Child Haven, a nonsectarian, nonprofit organization that assists destitute children and women. The organization has seven homes in India, Nepal, Tibet, and Bangladesh. Child Haven homes provide children with full care through high school, and then vocational training so each one can enter the local society as a self-sufficient adult. Another aspect of Child Haven is its work to improve the condition of local women through direct employment, education, medical aid, legal aid, and training opportunities. All told, some 1,000 women and children are served. The organization is based on Gandhian ideals, such as nonviolence and equality regardless of caste, gender, or religion. The Cappuccinos' hope for the Child Haven children is that they will grow up to be good, productive citizens of their own countries, as well as world citizens who may help other people during their lifetime.
These days Bonnie spends much of the year visiting the various Child Haven homes, making four six-week trips a year and coming home for seven weeks at a time. Meanwhile, Fred stays home to make sure the office is running smoothly and money is continuing to come in. With a mixture of pride and sadness Fred discusses his wife's frequent absences. “She is gone almost half the time but she sure is enjoying this,” he says, predicting that Bonnie will continue this work for the rest of her life.
When Bonnie is home, she and Fred concentrate on fundraising. Child Haven is funded primarily through donations and annual fundraising dinners. In addition to local Child Haven home staff, volunteers travel to work three-month stints at the homes. Fred says about six members of their congregation, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Ottawa, which he helped to found, have gone as volunteers and many more contribute financially. “Unitarians are our best source of income,” he says.
Much of the Cappuccinos' success comes from their strength as a couple. The two will celebrate their fifty-first wedding anniversary in July. “When a couple is so closely on the same wavelength, you can move mountains,” says Fred. They say their work is influenced by their Unitarian Universalist values, including respect for other religions and cultures and inclusiveness of all people and ideas. The web of existence is another important principle, one that Bonnie says is partially responsible for their vegetarianism.
The Cappuccinos have won many awards for their work, including the 1992 Friends of Children Award from the North American Council on Adoptable Children and the Order of Canada in 1996 . They are also the only Canadians to win a UNESCO award. But their biggest satisfaction, as their first-born son Robin explains it, comes not from awards and recognition but from the work itself, which they continue to enjoy and find sustenance in. “They genuinely love learning about other cultures and feeling of use in a very troubled world,” he says.Child Haven (www.childhaven.ca) is supported by tax-deductible donations. Contributions may be sent to Child Haven International, Box 5099, Massena, NY 13662-5099.