Street Talk

Street Talk: Homeward bound

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November 13, 2015
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Business Journal 40 Under Forty honoree Graci Harkema is on the journey of a lifetime.

Harkema boarded a plane last Thursday bound for Africa, where she was born in a mud hut, weighing in at only three pounds and with little expectation of surviving infancy.

Both she and her birth mother were extremely ill at the time of her birth. Hoping to give her the best shot at survival, a week after her birth, her grandmother walked through the mountains and brought her to an orphanage in Kidodobo, Congo.

“The orphanage workers gave me 12 to 24 hours to live,” Harkema said.

But fate stepped in. Only two hours after her arrival at the orphanage, Ray and Jayn Harkema, who were doing missionary work in the area, visited the facility and discovered her.

She was so small and still, Jayn Harkema initially took her for a doll — especially since she’d been placed in a toy baby basket.

After discovering the baby was real, Harkema knew she was supposed to take Graci home.

“She heard a voice say, ‘That’s your daughter,’” Graci Harkema said. “She told Ray that God was calling them to adopt me.”

Despite the odds being against her, Graci survived and was adopted by the Harkemas, becoming their fifth child. After four years in Africa, the missionary family moved back to Grand Rapids.

Based on all the information available, Graci and her parents assumed her biological mother had died at some point after giving birth to her.

”I never knew when my biological mother died. All I knew was that she probably died when I was young,” Harkema said.

In February, Harkema was asked by a friend to help teach her seventh-grade students about the genocide in Rwanda. Harkema had been born only five miles from the Rwandan border.

In order to give the students a broader perspective of everyday life at that time, Harkema reached out to a family friend who had also been at the orphanage when she was adopted.

Through their conversation, Harkema made a shocking discovery — her biological mother was still alive.

Harkema received the following text, “Yes, she is alive. I was in Kidodobo a couple of weeks ago and she came after me, asking about her daughter in America.”

“Not only was she alive, but she was asking about me,” Harkema said.

Now Harkema is traveling with her parents to Africa to meet her birth mother and two brothers for the first time.

She shared her excitement on Facebook last week.

“A week from today, I'm going on a trip of a lifetime. I'm going to the Congo with my parents to meet my biological mother to say thank you. Her decision to give me up gave me life.”

And, it should be noted, gave Grand Rapids another young leader who is in the midst of making her mark on the city.

Body counts

The Kent County Medical Examiner released its 2014 annual report recently.

Of the county’s 5,751 deaths in 2014, information about 1,547 of them was passed along to the medical examiner’s office. Chief Medical Examiner Stephen D. Cohle and his staff performed 337 autopsies.

In the 1,110 cases fully examined by the office, 61.3 percent were due to natural causes and disease. Unique deaths cited in the annual report include two people crushed by objects, one due to surgical procedure, one blunt force injury of a leg and one aviation accident.

Homicides were at their lowest number — 16 — in more than five years, according to Cohle, following a high of 30 in 2012.

There were 75 suicides listed in 2014, as well as 75 deaths attributed to drugs. According to the report, 16 of the drug deaths were also classified as suicides.

Among the findings is that heroin overdose deaths are on the rise. Heroin accounted for 25 percent of the drug deaths in 2014, up from 14 percent in 2010, when there were 61 drug-related deaths.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, there were 153 deaths in Kent County last year in which the cause of death was listed as a fall, with 88 percent of those accidents occurring in which victims were age 65 and older.

There also were 14 bicycle or pedestrian deaths — down from 2013’s 16 — as well as 72 vehicular deaths, with the largest percentage being between the ages of 21 and 44.

There also were 30 unclaimed bodies left with the county.

Cohle noted the sharp rise in cremation permits issued. Over the last decade, the number of cremation permits has nearly doubled, jumping from 1,789 in 2005 to 3,166 last year.

A show-me state

It was a strange week to be a journalist.

The protests at the University of Missouri captured the attention of media nationwide last week after a video showingstudent journalists Tim Tai and Mark Schierberger being blocked, pushed and arguably threatened by certain protestors went viral.

The protests reportedly began after a number of racially incited incidents occurred on campus. Mizzou’s leadership mishandled the legitimate concerns of the protesters and the university’s president, Tim Wolfe, eventually resigned after one grad student declared a hunger strike and the football team announced it would strike until he stepped down.

Although the racial problems at the university are unsettling and important, the incident that hit closest to home for many journalists watching events unfold was when the protestorstried to create a “media-free space” on a campus quad, which is considered a public forum. Anti-media signs even went up (although these were later replaced with more welcoming notices), and reporters were bullied into leaving.

The problem here, however, is a little thing called the First Amendment. As Tai admirably — and professionally — tried to explain to the protesters as they tried to force him away from the scene, the same rights protesters have also apply to journalists.

The situation reached its darkest moment when one protestor called for “muscle” to remove the reporters. That protestor, ironically, was Melissa Click, an assistant professor of mass media at the university and a woman who also has, well, had a courtesy appointment at the School of Journalism. On Tuesday, she resigned her appointment and offered an apology for her actions after receiving a slew of threatening and angry emails.

The situation should not be framed as a sympathy battle between racial inequalities versus freedom of the press. Both matter. #ConcernedStudent1950 protestors have good reason to be upset and the issues they raise deserve attention, but not at the expense of the rights of journalists. Justice goes both ways.

The protestors who were involved in attempting to intimidate journalists out of their First Amendment rights need to educate themselves and start showing more emotional maturity. Healthy and effective change is built on responsibility, and mistreating others as a response to mistreatment completely misses the deeper issue. It turned the protestors into the very thing they were protesting.

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