A House Without Walls

Cover story, Fayette Woman, November 2008

There’s something very special about Karen Kalin’s house.

Elegant, spacious and beautifully decorated—yes. But that’s not what makes it so wonderfully different from just about every other home in Fayette County.

What makes it so special is that, since 1987, Karen and her family have opened its doors to dozens of children from developing countries who come to the U.S. for medical treatment. They are sponsored through an international aid organization, Children’s Cross Connection, International, and travel to Atlanta for surgeries that are not available to them in their home countries. For these children, who are natives of countries such as El Salvador, Columbia and Ethiopia, Karen’s house has been a home away from home.

As incredibly noble as it sounds (and, in truth, as it is), Karen will tell you that she never set out to change the world. “It wasn’t like, I want to go out and find a group or an organization we’ll work with, but it was just that we fell into it and it became a way of life.”

Falling into it went something like this: in 1985, Karen and her husband, Jeffrey, were in the process of adopting a baby from El Salvador. As part of the process they attended several informational meetings for parents from the Atlanta areas who, like them, were adopting children from that country. At one of the meetings they were introduced to another couple from the Southern Arc, Dr. Kenneth Rundle and Pamela Mackenzie-Rundle. Although Karen didn’t know it at the time, becoming friends with the Rundles would change her life.

The Rundles had adopted a girl from El Salvador a few years earlier and were in the process of adopting another baby. Dr. Rundle, a dentist, would sometimes travel to El Salvador to donate his talents to the clinics and orphanages. And, over the course of her trips to the Central American country, Pam Mackenzie-Rundle felt the need to help alleviate the dire conditions of many of its hospitals and clinics. In 1985, Pam decided to found Children’s Cross Connection, an organization dedicated to assisting by bring medical supplies, clothing, and food to the country.

After meeting the Rundles and learning about their efforts, Karen and her husband began contributing. “At that point we were just taking supplies and sending them down there,” she recalls. “It’s amazing the stuff that gets thrown away that others need. So we would go and get the things needed, repackage them and send them down to El Salvador.”

The focus of Children’s Cross Connection changed in 1986, when El Salvador suffered an earthquake that essentially destroyed the country’s infrastructure. Because the country’s only charity children’s hospital was destroyed, there was a sudden and urgent need to bring children elsewhere for medical treatment.

Pam Mackenzie-Rundle started making arrangements to bring them the Atlanta for their medical procedures. The airfare was donated by airlines, such as American Airlines’ Miles for Kids in Need®, and doctors and hospitals donated their services for the procedure. However, as children started coming to the U.S. for healthcare, there was now an immediate need to provide temporary homes for them. Karen and her family were there to fill that need for CCCI.

1987 they hosted their first child, a little El Salvadorian girl named Reina, who had a facial tumor that had eaten away her left eye and part of her cheek. Doctors had to operate on her to reconstruct part of her face, then fitted her with a prosthesis attached to glasses that gave her a more normal appearance.

It was a great experience for Karen and her family. She didn’t mind taking Reina in, and the whole experience went very smoothly. If there were challenges, Karen recalls, they were mainly the barriers of language and culture. “At that time we knew no Spanish, so it was very different. Also, we had to show her how to turn on the lights, show her hot and cold water, how to flush the toilet, you know, things that we take for granted that some of them just don’t have.”

Today, Reina’s photo is part of a large collection of photos that Karen keeps in an overflowing scrapbook. Since Reina first stayed with them twenty-three years ago, Karen and her family have taken in somewhere around one hundred people (Karen stopped keeping track back in 1998, at which point they’d hosted over 60 people). They typically host one or two children per year, although sometimes it’s more than that. Usually each child comes with a parent—most often a mother, although once a father came—but sometimes that’s not the case, and in those situations Karen is a temporary mom as well as a hostess.

The children who stay with Karen are here for a variety of needs. She’s had children with false eyes, burns, amputations, tumors, and open heart surgeries.  Karen drives them to their doctor’s appointments, takes them where they need to go—church, shopping, even school. “They do everything with us, basically become part of our family,” she explains.

In many cases, Karen is there for them before and after the surgery, when they wake up and are looking for a familiar face, and helps with caring for their recovery in the days and weeks after the surgery. When needed, Karen dresses the child’s wounds or provides other post-surgery care. Her visitors usually stay at least a couple of months, depending on what they’ve have done and how many surgeries they need. The shortest visit has been a couple of weeks; the longest, almost a year.

For CCCI founder Pam Mackenzie-Rundle, Karen’s help has been indispensable. “Karen’s a wonderful part of our organization. She’s just an incredibly gifted person and someone who we cherish,” she says.

Over the years, Karen has hosted children of ages ranging from 18 months old to 17 years and up. Playing “host mom” to an 18-month old girl was an interesting experience for her. “The first time she came she was 18 months old, and we became mommy and daddy to her. I had to potty train her. She had only heard Spanish her whole life, but she was just at the point when she was starting to talk, so she learned a lot of Spanglish. It was strange to adjust from having my kids being older, maybe 5 or 6, so they weren’t in diapers anymore. So that was definitely a new experience, having to going back into caring for a baby again.  I felt like now I know what it’s like to be a grandmother, you know, all of a sudden the old high chair’s out, the car seat. I was sad when I had to send her home.”

Some of her visitors have returned. One of her host children, a little girl from Columbia named Maike, came back to Karen this past summer for her third time. As an infant she was burned extensively on her head. She has been undergoing a series of surgeries that, over years, stretch the tissue up to the top of her head, gradually replacing burnt skin with healthy skin. “She is such a trooper when they do the surgeries,” says Karen. Since Maike stays here for such long periods, at one point Karen enrolled her in school. Maike learned English and became acclimated to American culture.

Maike’s mother has never been able to come with her, so Karen’s bond with Maike is a very strong one. “She is like my daughter,” Karen states. Maike goes on vacation with Karen and her family, visiting some of Karen’s former neighbors who knew her from one of her previous visits. “They said, you have to bring her here to see us. So she likes coming here, you know it’s like she feels like she’s coming home. She’s like family. Even when her surgery is over and she could go home, we want her to stay longer.”

That kind of warm attachment is completely characteristic of Karen. She is also a very humble person, especially when someone points out what a wonderful thing she is doing by helping others. As Karen’s friend and neighbor, Vickie Leopold, says, “She opens her heart and home to strangers and invites them into her life, including them with her network of friends and family. It may sound a bit corny but she is so low key about this and yet, in her way, she changes the world child by child and also is an ambassador for the USA. I’d like for her to get the recognition that she really doesn’t ask for or receive.”

Lida Salas, who met Karen through their mutual friend Vickie Leopold and has assisted her in matters requiring Spanish translation, also praises her giving spirit. “Karen is so patient with the kids. They trust her and they look to her for comfort when they’re sick. She’s such a nurturing person, an inspiration to all of us.”

Public recognition or not, Karen’s memories and scrapbook bespeak a completely giving and charitable heart. Karen is full of stories: the teenage boy who came from Ethiopia for open heart surgery; another boy whose jaw was wired shut. “I used to feel so bad for him that he couldn’t eat,” Karen remembers. “I’d make him all kinds of smoothies and shakes.”

This past summer was busy in Karen’s house. In addition to having Maike back for her third surgery, Karen hosted a young girl from Ghana, Dorothy, and her mother, Comfort. They had arrived in April so that Dorothy could have a tumor removed from the bone of her skull, near her eyebrow. The tumor had become so large that it was making her face bulge out, to the point that her eye looked down instead of straight.

The surgeons did two operations: first, a fourteen-hour surgery to remove the tumor, and the second, which took four hours, to give Dorothy a prosthetic skull in the place where the tumor had eaten hers away. Dorothy’s mother, Comfort, was very grateful to be able to stay with Karen. “We live here as a family, not as strangers,” she says.

That much is clear from observing Karen’s natural sense of warmth and generosity; she is undoubtedly the kind of person who adjusts easily to having people with different personalities around. “I’m easygoing, I know that,” she laughs. In fact, for Karen, it’s not at all uncomfortable for her to take in strangers—rather, she feels just the opposite. “When we were doing it the last couple of years, CCCI slowed down because we lost volunteers, the hospitals couldn’t donate as much, and the airlines couldn’t either. So we didn’t bring as many kids. In fact there was a couple of years when we didn’t bring anybody. So that was pretty odd—not to have anybody here.”

Karen feels that her involvement with Children’s Cross Connection has changed her life and Jeffrey’s life, as well as those of her children Ethan, Sarah and Rachel, in so many positive ways. “My family enjoys doing this as much as I do. They’ve made great friendships, they’ve learned other languages and customs, they enjoy trying other foods… except they’re not real keen on the Ghana food that Dorothy cooks, it’s just really spicy. But you know, this experience has been good for them. And they’ve learned to see these people from different cultures, different countries. They’ve made friends with them and played with them as kids, didn’t matter what the language, didn’t matter, they could all play together, shared their toys. They get to see how other people live, other people do not have everything we have and that we take for granted.”