Local author featured in new ‘Chicken Soup’ book
When she came to this country from an orphanage in Haiti, all little Paola could say in English was the word “Hallelujah.” At her orphanage, even the smallest things were celebrated with that word, including a dry diaper or food.
She arrived on the doorstep with only her bottle and two diapers, according to local resident Elizabeth (Betty) Henderson, suffering from a range of birth defects including a double harelip and a cleft palette. She couldn’t crawl or even sit up straight, but within three weeks she was thriving, walking around the house, throwing her arms up in the air at the smallest of joys, crying out that “Hallelujah.”
“She had a spirit to survive,” said Henderson, who featured Paola in the short story “Halleluia Baby” which was recently published in “Chicken Soup for the Adopted Soul,” the latest book in the New York Times best-selling Chicken Soup for Soul series.
Henderson’s witty and heartfelt story was chosen from thousands of submissions (about 5,000 stories) for the Top 100 best to be published.
“To say I’m really excited about the honor is an understatement,” she said. “Writing is my passion.”
A North Fort Myers resident, Henderson is a special education teacher and the girl’s tennis coach at Cape Coral High School. With husband Bill, who teaches at Trafalgar Middle School, she’s also had 43 foster children, along with two of her own and two formally adopted. The couple has had up to 13 children at their house at one time.
“Dinner with 13 children is always a challenge — and so is the laundry,” Henderson said with a laugh.
While she loves all the children she’s mothered, she has a special place in her heart for “special children” like Paola, who she calls Lulu. Since arriving in the U.S. at 18 months of age from Haiti, Lulu has had to have numerous operations, not only for the double harelip and cleft palette, but for other birth defects as well.
Today Lulu is a beautiful child inside and out, a second grader at Trafalgar Elementary.
“She’s happy and well adjusted, but she still has some surgeries to go,” said Henderson, who carries many pictures of Lulu and her other children in her wallet. “After two weeks of caring for her, we decided we wanted to formerly adopt her.”
Adoption from Haiti is particularly difficult, she explained.
“To have this adoption go through was a miracle,” she admitted.
And then to have her work published in such a prestigious book was another of life’s joys.
“I felt it was an honor,” she said. “They [the publishers] actually asked me to be a reader of some of the 5,000 stories. For me to be narrowed down to the top 100, I was awed.”
Henderson’s story also features Nurjahan Khatun, a young girl from Bangladesh who in 2000 came to the U.S. for reconstructive surgery after being attacked by a man throwing battery acid. Nurjahan lived with the Hendersons for a time and in her story Betty pondered how children with so many problems could be so joyful, like her Nurjahan and her “Hallelujah Baby” Lulu, who celebrated so many things.
Henderson said her story was actually submitted to the Chicken Soup publishers more than five years ago and she’d forgotten all about it until they notified her that she had been chosen as a top writer to be published.
“When I got the notification this would be published, it was the same time that Paola’s adoption was going to go through,” Henderson said, noting that it took five years to complete Paola’s adoption.
Henderson’s husband and children were extremely happy for her when she got the writers honor.
“We had a big adoption party for Lulu and I read the story at the party,” she said.
Henderson’s writing also came into play with her other love, tennis. She ran the tennis program for at-risk children in Lee County, a partnership between the U.S. Tennis Associations’ First Serve program, Lee County Parks, the Lee County Tennis Association and Literacy Volunteers of Lee County.
After winning a prestigious award for grant writing for the program, Henderson was asked to give a speech, and found herself nervous to do such a large presentation. Instead, she read a story she had written about a child from the program at the awards ceremony, and moved many people with the humorous and poignant tale.
Henderson grew up in New Jersey and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in special education from Georgian Court University. She currently teaches teaches autistic children at Cape High.
Besides teaching and coaching, she writes often — short stories on everyday humor in life ala Erma Bombeck. She calls them “glimpses into everyday life” and has written about everything from a trip to the doctor’s office to coaching tiny soccer players who set their own rules from their perspective. Humor is important to her.
“If you can’t laugh at yourself, you can spend a lot of time crying, I guess,” she said.
She loves humor so much that she even was a professional clown when she took time out of her teaching career several years ago.
On working with autistic children, she said it also fascinates her.
“You wonder what key goes in to unlock their heads,” Henderson said.
She’s taught both high functioning and profoundly autistic children in her career.
“Chicken Soup for the Adopted Soul” is available through all major booksellers. The Chicken Soup for the Soul books were first published in 1993 and quickly rose to number one on the New York Times bestseller list. With more than 100 million copies sold and 145 titles in 37 languages, Chicken Soup for the Soul has made international publishing history and garnered numerous prestigious awards.
“Chicken Soup for the Adopted Soul” provides insight into what adoption is all about and what it’s really like to be adopted. The publishers said it is a sharing in the celebration of the lives of adopted children who found forever families and parents who found forever love.