Love and Minerals. Spoon Foundation cofounders (from left) Mishelle Rudzinski ’88 (holding Bakha) and Cindy Kaplan (holding Jadyn).

Love and Minerals. Spoon Foundation cofounders (from left) Mishelle Rudzinski ’88 (holding Bakha) and Cindy Kaplan (holding Jadyn).

Lovin’ Spoonful

Mishelle Rudzinski ’88 set out to help one child. She wound up helping thousands.

By David Volk | June 1, 2012

As improbable as it sounds, it all started with a canine search-and-rescue mission gone wrong. Mishelle Rudzinski ’88 was working as a speech pathologist in Portland and sometimes volunteered for rescue missions because her dog, Juji, was driven by its nose and found all sorts of odd things. She and Juji were trekking through a forest looking for a missing person when she jumped over a creek and landed wrong on her ankle. As a result, she was laid up with lots of free time when she happened to spot an urgent message on a listserv for cerebral palsy about a young orphan with CP who was about to be transferred to a facility for adults if no one adopted her.

Although she wasn’t sure how she felt about motherhood, Mishelle replied immediately, and soon found herself being interviewed to find out if she qualified to adopt Bakha, a four-year-old girl from Kazakhstan.

When a video arrived a few days later, Mishelle was sobered by what she saw. The little girl could barely walk or talk. Kazakh doctors blamed cerebral palsy. Doctors at Shriners Hospital claimed muscular dystrophy. Both agreed that her condition was progressive. Even Mishelle could see clear evidence of deterioration as she watched footage of the girl at different ages.

“She was going downhill. She looked worse and worse each year,” says Mishelle, who signed a document acknowledging that Bakha might not live to the age of 18. 

She also noticed something many doctors missed when she and her brother first met Bakha in person in 2006. “When I looked down at her it was obvious that her bones were bowed, which is a signature of rickets.” Of course, it also helped that a rheumatologist who saw the video suggested it as a possibility. 

At first, the diagnosis of rickets brought little relief; Mishelle feared it was another condition to worry about on top of the girl’s existing diagnoses. 

Once Bakha made it to the States, however, she was treated for rickets and responded immediately. Within eight weeks she went from walking painfully with her back hunched over to standing up straight and running effortlessly. Now 11 years old, Bakha enjoys normal posture and a full range of motion, and shows no sign of either cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy.

The experience left an indelible impression on Mishelle. “[Rickets] is something so simply treatable,” she says. “It doesn’t take expensive medication to prevent it. She was just malnourished. She was well cared for, she just slipped through the cracks.” 

Mishelle soon learned she was not alone. A neighbor, Cindy Kaplan, had adopted a boy named Jadyn from Kazakhstan at the same time, who was misdiagnosed due to severe malnourishment. He, too, made enormous progress when his diet improved. She and Kaplan talked to other parents who adopted children from Kazakhstan and found out “the problem was even bigger than we thought.”

It’s not a question of neglect, Mishelle says. Kazakhstan has a reputation for treating its orphans well; they just weren’t getting proper nutrition. Temporary malnutrition may seem like a minor issue, but it can make a major difference later in life, contributing to issues from physical growth to emotional development to attention span.

How to begin? Their initial inclination was to ship vitamins to Kazakhstan, but they soon realized that stockpiling minerals wouldn’t address the underlying problem. Before she knew it, Mishelle once again found herself about to plunge headlong into an undertaking even bigger than parenthood: international aid.

Five years later, the Spoon Foundation, which Mishelle cofounded with Kaplan, has an annual budget of $550,000, feeds 1,800 children in 25 orphanages in Kazakhstan, and is poised to expand into other countries.

The secret to its success lies in its approach. Instead of sending in experts who impose changes, Spoon prefers to find local partners who can build relationships. From there the organization studies the orphanages, assesses their practices, and helps implement change. 

In Kazakhstan, for example, Spoon performed a study of the feeding, nutrition, and development of around 200 children between the ages of six months and three years in eight orphanages. Then it created menus to feature the nutrients the children lacked and provided vitamins and mineral supplements for a group of randomly chosen children at each facility. Finally, it worked with the Kazakh Academy of Nutrition and experts from the University of Minnesota to analyze the results.  

The cooperative effort was so successful that the nation’s deputy minister of health is expected to ask parliament to implement the practices throughout Kazakhstan this year. Before the project began, many Kazakh orphans weren’t getting enough iron because they didn’t get much meat and were fed unfortified animal milk. “Even kids in the States who are breast fed get iron drops,” Mishelle says. 

Thanks to a multiyear grant from the Joint Council on International Services, which advocates for the rights of orphans, Spoon is set to move into China, Vietnam, and Mexico this year.

Spoon’s work continues even after an adopted child comes to the U.S. The organization helps parents understand the unique nutritional needs of international adoptees and children in the foster care system. Although many international adoptees may look healthy enough when they arrive, they may have hidden nutritional issues. If adoptees are put on the same diet as their American peers, for example, they may grow so quickly that they’ll outstrip their body’s stores of crucial vitamins and minerals including iron, folate, iodine, selenium, and zinc.

For her part, Mishelle says she never expected to get involved in international aid. She considers herself more of a logical, careful person, but Reed taught her to be willing to try different things, whether that meant saying yes to a spur-of-the-moment adoption or leaving a stable job with benefits to start her own company as a single parent. As a result, she has her hands full with an 11-year-old daughter, the Spoon Foundation, and, an online business that teaches children with disabilities how to communicate with others. In fact, the whole experience has been so rewarding that she is now in the process of adopting a three-year-old from China who is visually impaired and showing potential signs of malnutrition. You might say she has an appetite for altruism.

Find out more about the Spoon Foundation.

Tags: Alumni, Service