Fresno woman becomes an adoptive mother at 96
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
– Hebrews 13:2
It’s a girl!
And with those words, allow us to introduce a Fresno family, quite possibly unique in the world.
About six months ago, Bernice Dyck, age 96 and a widowed mother of two sons, finally got a daughter after adopting Chenda Kaub Chumb, age 30. The day those papers were signed, she may have become the oldest adoptive mother in the world, according to the Guinness World Records website.
They were shocked to find that out, just a few weeks ago.
“The full life she helps me live, as my child, is the miracle,” Bernice says. “We travel, when she isn’t studying to complete a master’s degree at Fresno State. It might seem impossible that a 96-year-old woman would be able to adopt a 30-year-old daughter, but we lovingly call it the ‘immaculate conception.’ ”
Like many people who are blessed with good health and longevity, Bernice experienced the sadness of losing her husband and her old friends, one by one. “I was scared that I would be all alone, that I would have to give up my home.”
She also was concerned about Chenda’s sense of belonging. She understands the comfort of having someone nearby to call “mother.”
“This equals any miracle that I have experienced in my life,” Bernice says.
The feeling is tenderly reciprocated.
“When the Dyck family adopted me in September,” says Chenda, “I finally experienced true love and now know how it feels. My adopted mother, Bernice, wants the best for me. Her love and always being my mother means the world to me. The world I finally get to live in.”
Chenda now sees herself quite seriously as “the person who I can finally say is me. I am the better me. The Dyck family was always believing in me. They brought out the best in me, and knew there was and is good in me. My hard work exists because of their love and encouragement.”
I always wanted to be different from everyone else. I was not sure who I wanted to be in particular but I have always wanted to be someone else. Someone who was not me. Being me was not good enough and thanks to that, I am here today.
Bernice and Chenda’s “miracle” is the story of two women – living at opposite ends of the globe and their lives – who are achieving the desires of their hearts together. These unlikely buddies would gradually learn that they had something powerful in common: a fierce yearning to live beyond the scripts that their societies would write for them.
Who knew that the strings of their chance meeting would be woven into a magic carpet, transporting them around the world physically, emotionally, spiritually. And it all was ignited by one man’s quest to do good.
A family’s warm embrace
She might not need to be burped or wear Pampers, but in every sense this is a precious new “baby.” Bernice’s friends did what all good girlfriends do. They threw her a shower at San Joaquin Gardens, a retirement community at Barstow Avenue and Fresno Street. The packages of “baby food” were far superior to little jars of peach puree: gift cards for Red Lobster.
Bernice and Chenda began their mother-daughter relationship Aug. 25, 2003, when Chenda arrived as an international student at Fresno Yosemite International Airport.
She was eagerly greeted by this “prospective” host mother in her 80s. Bernice and her husband, Harry Dyck Sr., shared their east Fresno home with Chenda temporarily before deciding they were all a perfect match.
Chenda studied English for two years, graduated from Fresno City College and then Fresno Pacific University with a degree in kinesiology. Now she is taking tests for her master’s in marriage and family counseling. She hopes to graduate by summer.
Chenda’s new brothers, Skip and Rick, are old enough to be her grandfathers. But no matter, they are thrilled. Both say exactly the same thing: “We always wanted a little sister!” Skip is a retired naval officer, and Rick works in the semiconductor industry in Tokyo.
“We fell in love with her,” Bernice says.
It was a perfect union. I have always been grateful for her presence, since I am so far away. I have called her ‘sis’ regularly. I guess this sort of makes it legal now.
Skip Dyck, Bernice’s son, on Chenda’s adoption
All this does not mean that Chenda has left her family life in Cambodia behind. She visits her mother every year, and Chenda says her birth mother supports the adoption “because I am living her dream.”
There is far more sibling revelry than rivalry in the Dyck family.
Skip joined the Navy out of high school and has been sailing the globe for 30-plus years. Now retired in Michigan, he is still a newlywed, a widower who married last summer. He lives with his bride on a beautiful lake, enjoying his boat, jet skis and three grandchildren who live nearby.
Getting a sister was a complete surprise for Skip, who says, “I have always been grateful for her presence, since I am so far away. I have called her ‘sis’ regularly. I guess this sort of makes it legal now.”
He is a proud brother, and was happy to be in Fresno for Chenda’s graduations from Fresno City and Fresno Pacific.
Skip sees the family relationship as one that grew from necessity to a loving symbiosis.
Rick’s ‘pot of gold’
As for Rick, well, the whole relationship was his idea.
Rick was living with his wife and children in Tokyo. According to his mother, he decided to use an inheritance from his grandmother, along with other seed money, to establish a school in Cambodia, which he called “The Rainbow School” after his mother’s long history of volunteer work with Rainbow Girls, a Masonic organization that mentors young women.
Rick chose Cambodia because he is sensitive to the suffering of the war-torn nation since the Vietnam War.
We went together to a small, dusty Internet café and on a painfully slow line, we looked up Fresno City College’s website. That began a process which changed all of our lives.
Rick Dyck, Bernice’s son, on Chenda’s first introduction to California while she was a teen in Cambodia
The school opened in April 2003 in a remote northern province of Ratanakiri near the border of Laos and Vietnam. At the time, the school had no electricity and only dirt roads. There were 140 students from first through sixth grades.
After the ceremony for the school opening, Rick and friends from Japan stopped for lunch at a small café.
“It was extremely hot,” he remembers, “and we had traveled all day by Jeep on bumpy dirt roads. We were exhausted. On the table in front of us was a little card advertising “Rent a Bicycle – Rent a Motor Bike – Rent An Elephant.”
Now, there is an opportunity you don’t see every day, so they called a teenager working in the café over to their table to inquire about renting that elephant. The young woman was Chenda, or as Rick calls her by her nickname, Meav (pronounced Meow).
Her English was helpful. The guys rented elephants for the next day.
Meav arrived in her family’s Toyota pickup and took them to a village about an hour away. They had no idea at the time, but she had nearly no driving experience and drove the entire trip in first gear. The roads were so bad that no one noticed her bad driving.
“Meav had just graduated from high school,” Rick says, “and was trying to figure out the next stage of her life. On a whim, I told her she should try to study in the United States and perfect her English. This thought never would would have occurred to her or her family. To convince her it was possible, we went together to a small, dusty Internet café and on a painfully slow line, we looked up Fresno City College’s website.
“That began a process which changed all of our lives.”
Realizing a dream
Before she came to America, in junior high, she was able to take some English and Thai classes. She thought that was the best thing that ever happened to her because most young women in her region of Cambodia do not have a chance to go to school and formally learn a foreign language.
She explains that most Cambodian people speak at least two or three broken languages organically because Cambodia borders three other countries: Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Native Cambodians often marry into Laotian, Vietnamese or Thai families. Frequently, there are mixed languages spoken in these multinational homes.
“I used to pretend that I knew how to speak English,” Chenda says. “This pretending skill of mine entertained me for the entire time I had to do my chores. At home, where the sunlight determined the schedules of our lives, only the wealthy could have electricity. We could only use our generator for two hours a day. I tried to make my time in the shower count.
“My father made me take my shower last because then I would be the one to clean the bathroom while taking my shower. For years, I was dirty, while the shower was clean. I did not mind taking my turn last because I could use my time pretending I could speak English while I was alone in the bathroom.”
She considered her childhood ordinary – no different than most Cambodian children. And that bothered her.
“I was not sure who I wanted to be in particular but I have always wanted to be someone else. Someone who was not me. Being me was not good enough and thanks to that, I am here today.”
Even in Cambodia, Rick was so impressed with Chenda’s drive and ambition that he agreed to finance her education in the U.S. He placed the call to his parents asking if they would be willing to host her for a spell and help her find a permanent host family. They had hosted guests from near and far all of their married lives, so they agreed.
The bond was so immediate that the Dycks decided that she should stay with them while she attended school.
The remarkable Mrs. Dyck
That might seem strange, a teenager living with a couple in their 80s. But just a few minutes with Bernice Dyck and you know she’s not your everyday senior. “I’m a Mac person,” she says when asked if she uses the Internet. She has a blazing fast computer and uses Skype for overseas calls.
She had her driver’s license renewed on her birthday in October 2015. She is a vibrant conversationalist and uses the tiniest of hearing aids. She walks anywhere she wants to go, and Chenda recently bought her a three-wheel bike. Bernice shops, cooks and travels. Look at this, she says, doing a few deep knee bends to show her flexibility.
The adoption came about as a decision of the heart and the head, family members agree. Every year that Chenda returned to Cambodia to visit family, the immigration process posed problems.
This equals any miracle that I have experienced in my life.
Rick suggested the idea of adoption from his own international experience. He went to Japan as a foreign student when he was 20, in his junior year at Fresno State. So powerful was his visit, that after Fresno State, he continued in Japanese studies at Harvard, where he completed his Ph.D. He began his career teaching at Harvard and Ohio State, and then went into business in Japan. He maintains his interest in academics and serves on several committees at Harvard.
“I was lucky to stay with a remarkable family,” he says of his first trip to Japan. “This was a pivotal experience for me, and the family and I have been close ever since. We have experienced each other’s joys, sorrows, blessings and problems. We have also adopted each other in every way except the legal process.”
Rick, who holds an American passport, has always been able to go back and forth between the United States and Japan easily.
It was not so easy for Chenda. Each time she returns to Cambodia, she must reapply for a U.S. visa to come back. When she does not get it the first time, she reapplies. There is always the possibility that she will not be able to come back. With the adoption, the family hopes she can easily travel back and forth to what has become her second home.
Taking care of others
Though Chenda came to Fresno for school, according to Skip, “she grew to love and appreciate both of my parents, assisted in taking care of Dad as he declined. (Harry Dyck Sr. died in 2008.) She has been a tremendous companion to Mom; and has always been there when Rick and I couldn’t be on scene.”
That Rainbow school in Cambodia that got this whole thing started is thriving, too. A Japanese family decided to join the project, so the school is now known as the Rainbow-Kawasaki School.
Today the school has more than 300 students. There is a junior high school and also a second school in the provincial capital. The Dyck family additionally supports an orphanage in Phnom Penh.
There is a new dormitory at the school for the teachers, too. Rick decided this was necessary after a very talented teacher left after one year because she was tired of living in a makeshift plastic tent.
He wrote to his mother: “It was not only uncomfortable, but it was not a safe place for a young lady to stay.” Villagers collected lumber and Rick and the Kawasakis put up the money for the construction and outfitting of the dorm.
Rick included a photo. “Take a look at the sign,” he wrote.
The dorm is named for his mother, who, it seems, will always be providing safe shelter to strangers.