Seeing the best at the worst of times
Roxanne Loper was almost home. Her journey had begun 15 months before, when she spotted a picture of a baby girl on the World Partners website and sensed something special.
She and her husband, Clark, ranchers in Alto, Texas, had not been able to conceive a child naturally. They inquired about the girl online, whose name was Alexandria, scraped together their savings and started the adoption process.
On Aug. 18, 2001, they flew out of Dallas to Frankfurt and then Russia. Next came a six-hour car ride across the Ural Mountains into Kazakhstan. Their destination was an orphanage known as Baby House Number Two. Located on a dirt field, it housed 80 young orphans, including their 2-year-old daughter.
For the next 14 days, they would visit the orphanage two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon so Alexandria could get to know her new parents.
The Lopers finalized their adoption at a Sept. 5 court hearing and embarked on a protracted flight home. On the morning of Sept. 11, they were on their last leg, hours from Texas, when the pilot re-routed them to a town they had never heard of: Gander, Newfoundland. They were told something vague about U.S. airspace being closed.
Soon they became one of 38 planes re-directed to the Canadian island’s northeastern edge. Some 6,595 weary travelers descended upon Gander, population 10,300. And at the worst of times, they experienced the best of humanity. Their fear and fatigue were met with comfort and compassion.
For the next four days, Gander locals embraced “the plane people,” as they were dubbed – Britons, Germans, Americans, Arabs, Dutch, Chinese, Russians, Pakistanis, Italians. Volunteers greeted them at the airport, smiling warmly. Bus drivers on strike got behind the wheel again to take them to the schools, shelters and churches. They sang together, told stories and played chess.
Locals invited the plane people into their homes for hot tea, hot showers and computer access, charming them with Gander’s unique lilt, their sentences ending with “me dear” and “me lovely.”
Donations of every kind poured in: diapers, a stroller, toothbrushes, underwear. Pharmacists filled more than 1,000 prescriptions in 24 hours at no cost. A military general walking to a store was invited to a 7-year-old’s backyard birthday party, where she momentarily forgot how dangerous the world had become.
The members of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church welcomed Hannah O’Rourke, whose son, a New York City firefighter, was missing in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. She felt sustained by the Eucharist and, for the next hour, at home in the church universal.
The president of the Lion’s Club took special care of the Lopers throughout the week and rushed to their rescue when they almost boarded a plane headed back to Frankfurt.
Eventually they made arrangements for a ferry and car ride into the States. By then, Roxanne had the flu, but her heart was doubled over with gratitude: for her new daughter and for the strangers who had treated them like family. To know that a place like Gander existed offset the horror of terrorism.
“It made me feel that people are mostly good,” Roxanne told me when I called recently.
She is now 46. She and Clark were surprised by three healthy pregnancies after adopting Alexandria, who is 19.
The Christian couple is still inspired by Gander, where divine intervention was unmistakable.
“We try to help whenever and however we can,” she said. “Little things. We pull over every time we see someone with car trouble.”
In this season of gratitude, we too must “look for the helpers,” to quote Mr. Rogers, and be the helpers, remembering that one act of kindness begets another, believing in God and Gander and each other.
Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn.