Lucy Diers, a daughter of Kuemper Catholic High School alums Doug and Jen Diers, leads her Pella first-grade class in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Lucy Diers, a daughter of Kuemper Catholic High School alums Doug and Jen Diers, leads her Pella first-grade class in the Pledge of Allegiance.
December 24, 2013



Pella

Lucy Diers raises her 6-year-old right hand and places it over her heart.

A continent-sized smile leaps off her face, fills the school room.

Lucy's in front of her classmates, near the white board, and the American flag. It's time. First things first in Heather La Hue's class. So Lucy begins leading.

"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America ..."

Ten feet away, Kris Van Wyk's eyes redden, soon revealing tears this grandmotherly teacher's associate doesn't pretend to hide.

These tears, you see, are happy ones, knowing ones.

"I still see her sitting on that beach," Van Wyk says, her voice cracking with emotion. "And I thank God that family rescued her."

"One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice ..."

Lucy Diers' journey to the first-grade class at Pella's Madison Elementary School, where the windows reveal rolls of serene Iowa farmland, started in apocalyptic Sierra Leone, a war-torn western African nation of 5.6 million people in which, according U.S. government intelligence, 2 million people have been displaced in the civil unrest of the last dozen years. The nation's average life expectancy is 57, one of the lowest in the world.

Before Lucy was a Diers, a daughter of 1989 Kuemper Catholic High School alums, Doug and Jen Diers, now living in Pella, she was a nameless orphan, one her birth family discarded in Sierra Leone on a North Atlantic Ocean beach like a spent soda can or a sand-scarred towel.

To her biological relatives in Sierra Leone, known for slave trading and exploitative diamond-mine work, leaving Lucy wasn't so much an act of abandonment as it was an exorcism. Lucy frightened her own flesh and blood.

Lucy Diers is afflicted with cerebral palsy. It's mild, as the disease goes, but Lucy's walking and talking are labored.

"She was considered a curse," Doug Diers says. "Those are the stories we've heard. I've been told other kids would toss food at her."

The police officers who found Lucy on the Sierra Leone beach named her (Lucinda - for reasons only they know) and took her to an orphanage in Freetown, the coastal capital city.

The efforts to keep Lucy alive at first were passing, casual at best.

"She had parasites coming out of her head," Doug Diers says. "When you travel there you see what bad shape the kids are in, the country is in."

Jen Diers has vivid memories of Sierra Leone as well.

"It's completely common to see kids naked or almost naked, just foraging on the road," she says.

At one of at least three orphanages in Sierra Leone where Lucy spent time, the staff forced her to stand in a corner. They threw food at her.

But not everyone in Lucy's life was unkind.

Volunteers with The Covering, a Freetown orphan center operated by the Christian-based non-profit The Raining Season, found Lucy inspiring.

She didn't have a known birthday. So a staff member picked the date of her birth for official records.

Tomorrow, the Diers, a family of six, along with a raft of uncles and aunts and grandparents with Carroll ties, celebrate Christmas.

It's also Lucy's birthday.

This Christmas girl turns 7.



The Kuemper Connection

Doug and Jen Diers' Kuemper classmate, Tina (Mayer) Schmidt, and her husband, Paul, of St. Cloud, Minn., adopted three children from Sierra Leone and co-founded The Raining Season (therainingseason.org).

Sierra Leone has two seasons, one dry, the other raining. Because the latter is much worse, Schmidt says, the organization is so named. Its mission is to provide basics like food and housing, but also to promote small-business development and provide resources for families interested in adopting children from Sierra Leone.

In establishing The Raining Season, Tina Schmidt met Lucy at a challenged orphanage. It took 18 months to move Lucy to The Raining Season.

"It was Lucy and the state she was in in 2009 that just drove me," Schmidt says. "You just can't understand. There were so many kids like Lucy."

She remembers first seeing Lucy sitting alone on a cement slab.

"She was extremely weak and unable to act or correspond with anyone," Schmidt says.

Matters worsened before Schmidt could rescue Lucy, who almost died, bugs emerging from her scalp.

But Lucy lived long enough for Schmidt to make the winning personal appeals to Sierra Leone government officials, to get this little girl to The Raining Season.

"She wasn't smiling much when we met her," Schmidt says. "But there was something in her eyes you just couldn't get away from."

At The Raining Season, program development specialist Cari Logan, a Minnesota-educated American, gave Lucy her birth date.

"It's just the celebration of a birth and what Christ and the birthday represent," Schmidt says. "She's just like joy. You can't ever be sad around her."

Through her sister, Anne Collison of Carroll, Jen Diers learned about Schmidt's work with The Raining Season. Schmidt had been blogging about it. Anne reached out to Jen - "You have to see what she's doing."

"We wrote a check, and honestly, I, at that point, thought it was it," Jen Diers says.

But Diers quickly got more involved, traveling to Sierra Leone in February 2010. Her husband followed with their son, Luke.

The Diers family met Lucy. And they knew. God had placed a daughter, a sister, in their life's path.

In May 2011, just days after her father, Chuck Malm of Breda, died at age 65, Jen Diers brought Lucy home to Iowa on a medical visa. This past January, the Dierses officially adopted Lucy into their family, which includes three other children: Kobe, 14, a high school freshman; Luke, 12, a seventh-grader; and Faith, 11, a fifth-grader.

The family has started the paperwork for Lucy's American citizenship.

"It's totally changed our lives, what we think, what we do, how we spend our money," Doug Diers says. "It's not about having stuff, buying new cars, although that stuff is fun."



A Day With Lucy

Cinnamon rolls and trampolines are fun, too.

And both were part of a whirlwind school-day morning with the Dierses in Pella, where the family lives in a cozy historic home just a skip from Central College. Jen Diers, 43, is a professor in the education department. She's an expert in child and adolescent classroom behavior - and learning "exceptionality."

She's risen early to prepare cinnamon rolls for the kids. Lucy had scrambled eggs as well.

Before school, Lucy went to, well, school.

Her older sister, Faith, plans to be a teacher. Faith has the basement set up as a play school, with several little desks. The school has one teacher - Faith - and one very devoted student - Lucy.

There is an occasion when the girls switch roles, Faith says.

"She gets to be the teacher when we play 'show and tell,' " Faith says.

The girls soon move from the basement school outside to a trampoline - one with a basketball hoop. Doug, 42, the founder of Pella-based Shoot-It Basketball Academy, starred for Kuemper before moving on to Morningside College in Sioux City where he played shooting guard.

The girls bounced and bounced as Doug talked about basketball with his son Kobe (who, yes, is named after Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers icon).

Lucy interrupted the basketball talk with that big smile, pressed right against the protective netting that keeps kids from flying off the trampoline.

Doug Diers didn't expect his daughter to be jumping when he met her in Africa.

"We didn't know if she'd be in a wheelchair or a walker," he says.

Besides the trampoline there are other games and sports under way at the Diers home. Lucy is at the center of the action.

"There are always basketballs or footballs," Doug Diers says. "She gets her physical therapy from her brothers."

A van arrives in the Dierses driveway to take Lucy to school.

At Madison Elementary, Van Wyk is waiting. When it comes to The Book of Lucy, the teacher's associate, the girl's loving shadow, can quote chapter and verse. Actually, the first sight of the two in the school - hand-in-hand - is in the library, where Lucy is looking for a good read.

"She tends to go toward books with princesses," Van Wyk says.

Kris and Lucy find their way down the hall to Mrs. La Hue's class. They learn that lunch this day features whole-grain pepperoni pizza.

La Hue goes through the days of the week and livens her kids up with a ditty, "Stretch, stretch, my sleepy eyes."

"She does a very nice job of incorporating Lucy into the group," Van Wyk says.

Today, "Miss Lucy," as La Hue is fond of calling her charge, leads show-and-tell with a device that aids her speech. Lucy types into a electronic tablet and it speaks for her, with a computer-ish accent that bears a striking similarity to Hal from "2001: A Space Odyssey."

"I have a hamster named Steve," Lucy says.

She's smiling as the computer talks.

The kids laugh. Lucy laughs harder.

"I have a bird named Jack," Lucy tells the class.

La Hue works diligently to help the kids in the classroom learn to treat each other as a family.

"We talk about how a family is supposed to encourage and help each other," La Hue says. "I think this climate helps them accept everyone in the room. They know that Lucy might need help writing her numbers and another child might need help tying his shoes or need some extra help with his reading. It's OK. I think if they learn to help others at a young age, they will be accepting toward others that are different as they get older."

Van Wyk credits Lucy's sister, Faith, with much of her improvement in learning. In speech-therapy class this day Lucy learns words the start with a P - pear - and ones that begin with an F - fence.

"I think Faith has a calling," Van Wyk says of the 11-year-old with teaching aspirations.



A real princess

Lucy Diers beams and waves to the audience.

She's just earned the People's Choice Award in the fourth annual Dreams Made True pageant on this July Saturday at Carroll High School. The more than 300 people in attendance filled her vote bucket with the most dollars, fives, tens and twenties, fundraising for the powerfully empowering event for girls and young women with special needs.

It wasn't that long ago that nobody would have listened to Lucy Diers had she yelled all day.

But here she is, Princess Lucinda. With a tiara, no less.

And there's no beach in sight.