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Bringing Richard home, the story of a crowd-funded adoption

By Dorrine Mendoza, CNN
updated 5:40 PM EDT, Fri November 1, 2013
The Watkins family, from left: Kristen, Duane and Chaltu. The family dog, Babs, has passed away since this photo was taken.
The Watkins family, from left: Kristen, Duane and Chaltu. The family dog, Babs, has passed away since this photo was taken.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Family turns to crowd-funding for help with adoption
  • Donations pour in from 41 countries
  • Most of the donations are in $10 increments
  • Family is stunned, speechless by the overwhelming response

(CNN) -- Kristen Watkins had just pulled into a parking spot at her local Target store when the full significance of the previous 24 hours hit her.

She remembers one of her favorite songs, "You Love Me Anyway" by the Sidewalk Prophets, playing in the background:

"But you love me anyway
It's like nothing in life that I've ever known
Yes you love me anyway
Oh Lord how you love me. How you love me."

Her husband, Duane, says kindness is too small a word to describe what their family experienced the day Brandon Stanton, who was practically a stranger, agreed to help raise the $26,000 they needed to complete the adoption of their son in Ethiopia. And if it hadn't been for the bad traffic that day in New York City, the whole chain of events might never have happened.

Stanton is a bond trader-turned-photographer who launched the website Humans of New York almost three years ago. He was recently featured on CNN.com for his book of photographs based on the website, which reached No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list. Although he focused mostly on New Yorkers, Stanton has also featured stories about people from as far away as Iran. His stories have titles like, "The Forbidden Ones," "The Chess Hustler" and "The Happiest Accident." In addition to stories, he posts portraits of unique moments in the city, such as one of himself, Col. Chris Hadfield and David Karp, founder and CEO of Tumblr, who is dressed like a slice of bacon.

Needless to say, Stanton is an interesting guy.

And because he is interesting, Duane Watkins, a television photographer, was part of a crew doing a story about Stanton. Duane was driving the crew and Stanton around New York when Duane remarked how similar traffic in the city was to Ethiopia.

"Ethiopia?" Stanton asked. "What story were you working on there?"

"It wasn't a story," Duane replied. "We were picking up our daughter."

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Stanton blogged most of the conversation between himself and Duane. It revealed some of the most intimate decisions made by couples about adoption. Duane admitted he was initially against adoption, even though Kristen was for it. Time went by, and one day, while watching a show about aid work in Ethiopia, he opened up to the idea. But it was not as easy as they'd hoped. First, they had to abandon the idea of adopting an infant. Then they released the hope of adopting a toddler. Finally, Stanton wrote, they were shown a photo of an unsmiling 7-year-old girl who had been blinded in one eye.

"That's our daughter," Duane had said.

It's been about two years since Chaltu joined the Watkins family. Duane says he loves telling the story because each time he does, he gets to relive it: Relive meeting his daughter for the first time; relive the first awkward conversations; relive bringing her home; relive the expansion of his heart he wasn't sure was possible.

And when he, Kristen and Chaltu were ready to expand the family, again they were drawn to Ethiopia. And again they were challenged to set aside what they thought they wanted. "Richard" (not his real name) is an older boy between 8 and 16. On the advice of a social worker, Kristen and Duane are protective of their son's identity, so much so they've asked that even the name of the adoption agency be kept confidential.

When Duane met Stanton, they had done what they could in terms of paperwork and paying fees, but now the "big chunk" of money was due, and the family didn't have it.

"We held a yard sale last weekend," Duane said. "We had an epiphany that all the material things we had were not meaningful and decided to sell everything that wasn't essential." Out went Duane's music equipment. His cameras. Anything they thought might get in the way of bringing Richard home. At the end of the day, it wasn't enough. And then he met Brandon Stanton.

On October 29 at roughly 6:30 p.m. EST, the "Let's Bring Richard Home" page was launched on the crowd-funding site Indiegogo. What happened next stunned everyone. Except perhaps Stanton.

Indiegogo is an international crowd-funding platform that has raised millions of dollars for campaigns worldwide. Campaigns range from $35,000 for a skate park to $7,500 to send video games to deployed soldiers. Users are charged either 4% or 9% of funds raised, depending on whether or not they reach their goal.

Stanton created the Indiegogo page for the Watkinses then posted it to the Humans of New York Facebook page, which has more than 1.6 million fans. The post was shared more than 12,000 times. A second post, updating fans about the fundraiser's progress, received an additional 3,400 shares and thousands of comments.

"Are you watching this?" Stanton asked Duane over the phone about an hour after the page went live.

"No, I'm working," Duane replied.

"It was crazy," Kristen said. She was also at work but had access to her iPad. "I'm not rendered speechless very often. But I was speechless. I couldn't stop hitting 'refresh.' "

Neither could her mother, who was watching on her own iPad.

Judging from the comments on the site and Facebook, they were definitely not alone.

In less than 90 minutes, the $26,000 goal had been met. Indiegogo says it was one of the fastest-funded campaigns in its history, raising money from thousands of people from 41 countries.

But even after the goal was met, people continued to contribute. And comment. And by the end of the campaign, contributions totaled more than $83,000 to bring Richard home, and for their children's education. The majority were made in $10 increments.

"We were just kind of shell-shocked," Duane said.

Which brings us back to the parking lot at Target where Kristen sat, crying, when what had happened hit her.

"All these strangers around the world felt compelled to give us money to help us do this. I just lost it. I just really realized the compassion and the love. We stayed up until 2 a.m. trying to read every comment."

What the Watkinses really hope, however, is that this has created a "tipping point" of sorts for anyone considering adoption -- especially adoption of older children.

When they explained the fundraiser to Chaltu, she appeared to take it in stride. People helping other people, "It all seemed very normal to her," Kristen said.

The Watkinses say they now have many decisions to make, including how much of Richard's journey to share with those who helped make his adoption possible. Advice has ranged from saying nothing at all to posting every update.

"It takes compassion to fill another person's loss with something positive," Duane said. "The word 'kindness' shortchanges it. It's deeper than that. It became less about money and more about what was happening. People wanted to be a part of a compassionate movement."

Contact the reporter at Dorrine.Mendoza@turner.com.

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