Padecky: Ethiopian brothers find sanctuary in Petaluma

There was blood, oh yes, there was blood. There was dehydration and malnourishment and scars so deep on the bottom of their feet, they are still there now, 10 years later, and will remain there forever. This is what happens when two very young boys walk barefoot for 185 miles in the South Central Ethiopian highlands.

In hopes of a better life.

When their father taught them how to hunt a lion.

That memory of what could have been and was for so many a death march has never left Indy, now a junior at Casa Grande High School and his brother Teddy, a senior. Stress will activate a mental tumbler clicking malevolent triggers of that trek. His brain, the way Indy put it, “will be consumed in pain.” His belly is no longer distended, but it will begin to ache. He’ll start sweating and lose focus and “an emptiness invades my spirit.”

Then something will happen to ease his discomfort, something so common it can be appreciated by all Americans, even ones who have never been to Africa. “Food usually does the trick,” Indy said.

The story of how Indy and Teddy came to Petaluma, how they found solace and joy and a future in the home of Adam and Stacey Pelzl, their adoptive parents, it very well may create an immediate response in those who read their story.

Burning the toast in the toaster oven may not feel like a big deal anymore.

Indy and Teddy have played nearly every sport the high school offers — that alone 10 years ago would have sounded to them like playing Beethoven on the piano on Mars. Adam and Stacey wanted to give the boys a future that was more than living long enough to take the next breath.

“Every kid deserves a family,” said Adam, a registered nurse who is nursing director at three San Francisco hospitals.

Every kid deserves a tomorrow, and 13 years ago these two African kids weren’t thinking that far ahead. Teddy (birth name Tedrowos) was 3 and Indy (Indrias) was 2. They were living in the Ethiopian Zone of Wolayita. Their mother just had died from tuberculosis.

Their father, finding no work as well as very little water and food — one world health agency states 44% of Ethiopians do not have access to clean water — decided his relatives to the north could help. So they began to walk. Barefoot. For 185 miles. Give or take. The country in the Horn of Africa is two and half times the size of California, both in area and in population.

Sometimes Indy rode his father’s shoulders. They depended on the kindness of strangers. They ate raw meat regularly, a common occurrence in Ethiopia. Sometimes it was cooked over an open flame and made into kitfo, a traditional holiday tartar dish.

“I remember freezing nights and extremely hot days,” Indy said. “I remember the annoyance of flies and mosquitos. Every time I ate I never felt full. My body quickly metabolized it.”

The boys vaguely remember their dad might have carried a tent. They were pretty sure they went to sleep sometimes next to a fire. Indy remembers his father teaching how to hunt a lion and is pretty sure he never had to hunt or kill one. Pretty sure. He’s a bit unclear. He was only 2 and rarely does anyone remember anything from being 2, except maybe how to hunt a lion.

“The danger was kidnapping,” Indy said. Particularly for orphans. Kidnapped. Sold to be servants. A common practice.

If the danger was kidnapping, the pain of hunger and thirst and bleeding feet sent danger to an afterthought. When asked in disbelief if they actually walked 185 miles barefoot, they shrugged. When told a kid in America would scream if asked to walk 185 steps barefoot, the boys offered a slight giggle. Such resoluteness soon would be tested when they reached their dad’s relatives.

Dad was worn out from the trek. His relatives did not have the economic means to help. Without prospects, money or energy, their father took them to the Sodo orphanage in central Ethiopia.

Their bodies were suffering. They were immediately hospitalized and treated for malnourishment. They had delayed growth and distended bellies. Teddy had a small hole in his heart and was treated for inactive non-contagious tuberculosis. Both are healthy now, and it started when they arrived at the orphanage.

With delighted bewilderment, they saw food that didn’t need to be cooked over an open flame. Indy still has fragrant memories of drinking coffee and dipping French bread into traditional sweet Ethiopian spiced tea. A 2-year old drinking coffee? Dipping bread in tea? For these two Ethiopian kids, this was dining on white tablecloths with fine china.

Adam and Stacey will never hear Indy and Teddy complain about dinner. If only how ludicrous it would sound.

“Malnourishment feels like your body is eating itself,” Indy said, “and creates a pain paralleled with unrelenting anxiety.”

Indy and Teddy move quickly from that memory. It is a survival mechanism they have perfected. “My body doesn’t bloat anymore,” Indy said simply.

They even have turned the sun into their friend. “On the journey the heat was unbearable,” Indy said, “but there is something comforting about the sun. Maybe it was because something was constant that you could look up to it no matter how much it scorched you.”

Their resolve now faced the ultimate test. At the orphanage for almost two years, having not heard from their father, the boys saw the adoptive paperwork and picture of this American couple from Petaluma, California.

The father was a healthcare professional. The mother was a school teacher. The picture also had two dogs in it, a cocker and a mini-beagle. It was a Norman Rockwell painting. All that was missing was a plate of chocolate chip cookies and a glass of milk.

“What’s not to like?” Teddy said.

The Pelzls applied for adoption. The biological father did not make the court date. And so they waited. “Longest 18 months I ever had,” Stacey said.

The boys couldn’t be released to the American couple without approval from the birth father. A search began. The father was found. He had died of malnutrition. Because it was an agency adoption, the name of the birth parents were withheld.

The boys will never know the names of the people who brought them into this world. They have no memory of their mother. Indy seems to think his father looked a bit like Pittsburgh Steelers football coach Mike Tomlin. Doesn’t know why exactly but it’s a blur of image that presents itself and flees suddenly. But Indy would like to thank the man he can’t remember.

For the strength to walk 185 miles. For the determination. For optimism. For perseverance, humility, responsibility. For those qualities that have been nurtured by their adopted parents. For finding a second home that never felt like a hand-me-down, a pawn-off, a residence of desperation.

The Pelzl parents made sure theirs was a residence of safety, security — in a very real sense, a sanctuary. This was where they could grow, hope, imagine. Adam and Stacey have six kids— yes, six kids. Three were of their own making. The other three were adopted — Indy and Teddy from Africa and Michael (Dzintars) from Latvia.

“We had an awareness of the immense need,” Stacey said, “the unfairness of our blessed lives compared to so many of the world. Everyone deserves the love and support of a family. We had the ability to provide that. We felt compelled.”

Expressed like that, being Mother Earth doesn’t appear to be so stressful. All three adoptive children have U.S. birth certificates. All three have been taught to be themselves, not what they would imagine other people would prefer them to be.

“When Indy came out for the (Petaluma) Panthers,” said Tre Fitzgerald, Casa’s strength and conditioning coach who also worked with the Panthers’ youth football team, “I noticed he had a Pittsburgh Steeler backpack on. I was commenting on it and Indy said, ‘Coach, I didn’t come here to talk. I came here to play football.’”

Realize the possibilities. Dabble. Ask questions. Test yourself. Sports is a perfect outlet for teenage testosterone. Indy played football and lacrosse. Teddy was a wrestler and a swimmer. Indy entered his junior year as a straight-A student, Teddy as a B-plus. Both want to go to college, Teddy to become an engineer, Indy in the medical field, quite possibly as an occupational therapist.

When a friend heard Indy wanted to become an occupational therapist, the friend said he could hook up Indy with that recent college graduate. “See!” Indy gestured to his parents. “See, what can happen!” It’s the power of community that pushes him, pushed him past starvation, deprivation of all sorts.

“In Africa, Teddy was like a father to me,” said Indy, just one year younger. “He was my guardian angel. Now I want to be the Teddy to other people the way Teddy was to me.”

Said Teddy, spoken like a big brother, “I always look for solutions. I have to fix it.”

Indy wants to go back to Africa, as does Teddy. He wants to see the homeland. “I want to see my tribe,” he said. What he’ll do exactly, he doesn’t know. He just a 16-year-old kid. He doesn’t have it all figured out. He knows a lot of adults are working on it, too. But if he can go there, make a difference, then ...

“I can die and be happy,” Indy said. “It’ll have been worth it.”

“It” will be trekking barefoot and starving and looking over his shoulder for bad guys and lions. “It” will be a journey of the human spirit. When so much was pulling them down, Indy and his brother pulled up. Why they haven’t told this story at Casa, it’s not because they’ll feel embarrassed. Not because they’ll be irritated at someone’s pity.

Indy doesn’t call attention to his past because maybe people wouldn’t understand his interpretation.

“I want to do the right thing at the moment,” he said. Be in the present. Don’t linger behind or pulsate ahead. Live in the moment. Live for the moment. If that doesn’t sound like a 16-year-old, it’s probably because he isn’t. Walking barefoot for 185 miles will take the peach fuzz of anyone’s face, not to mention a moan about dinner being late.

The Pelzl boys have done the coin flip on their life and they never bothered to call “Heads I Win, Tails You Lose.” They called it before the coin ever hit the ground. They called “Heads.” They decided not to lose. They have been given an opportunity to be what once would be considered as realistic as playing that piano on Mars. They have a chance to be American teenagers, with all the humor and privileges contained therein.

“Who could have imagined,” said Indy, a weekend barista at a local coffee shop, “a 145-pound African kid serving lattes to soccer moms?”

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