We all have people in our lives whom we feel as if we’ve known since they day they were born – essential pieces of our lives. That’s true if you’re the parent who actually brought them into this world. Yet some mothers and daughters get a late start on that special bond.
Kim Bartling and Brittany Cornejo’s bond is unmistakable. Like all great family stories, it starts with a fated meeting. Only this one isn’t like most “how we met” stories.
“I went to Belize because my father was dying of cancer, and just was working a lot at the University, and needed a break to kind of figure out what my next act was going to be with my life,” Bartling said. “So I went to Belize on the recommendation of a friend, and met Brittany.”
While volunteering at a school, Bartling saw in Brittany what she calls a hunger “for knowing what was out there beyond the island.” So she made a deal: if Brittany got good grades, Bartling would try to bring her to the US for a year. Brittany did it, and came to study at O’Gorman for a year before returning to Belize. Back home, Brittany’s life spiraled downward after she was held back in school.
“I just got very depressed, because of school and family problems, and friends, and I just decided to stay home,” Brittany said.
“Her description was that she would go to school and she could hear the teacher speaking, but she just got smaller and smaller and pretty soon no one could see her anymore,” Bartling said. “And so she quit school. I think, I’ve said, that I think it’s probably one of the most articulate descriptions of depression I’ve ever heard in my life.”
Bartling had to do something.
“It just became clear that I couldn’t leave her there,” Bartling said. “She’s my daughter, for all intents and purposes, she’s been my daughter, I think, really that God intended her to be my daughter, since she’s been 11, and I had to bring her home.”
Bartling spent three months making arrangements to bring Brittany back to Sioux Falls. It wasn’t easy- she says it was like “The Amazing Race meets House of Cards.” Brittany is now back in Sioux Falls and a student at Sioux Falls Christian High School. Brittany already recognizes what she means to Bartling.
“Well I have been like, that extra piece, that, extra puzzle that she was looking for, and she just loves when I’m here, because I keep her company, and I’m like, well I am her only daughter, because she has two sons,” Brittany said.
Hearing Brittany describe it for the first time, Bartling is visibly moved.
“I think she probably was pretty, was probably pretty accurate. Wow…” Bartling said.
Bartling didn’t technically adopt Brittany. Still –
“She’s my mother,” Brittany said.
“I guess I’m just the next mom,” Bartling said. “I mean we all have lots of moms in our world, right, as we go by; we have biological mothers, but we have moms and fathers that come in all the way around. I’m just, I’m the one right now. Someday she’ll be somebody else’s.”
For now, she cherishes their time together knowing the end of Brittany’s visa means more arrangements if she is to remain here. There are no guarantees.
“She fills a piece of my heart that when my dad died, I mean, that’s always going to be there,” Bartling said. “But it’s not as big. I, she gives me, there’s a purpose, that comes with that.”
Their lives fit together like two pieces of a puzzle.
“She’s worth every penny, and every minute, and every little piece of love that I give her, I get back so much,” Bartling said.
“She’s happy to have me here, ‘cause she never had a daughter before,” Brittany said.
Like mother, like daughter.
Brittany’s isn’t the only life that’s been touched in Belize by Bartling. Bartling connects logistical—and financial—dots for other kids still living there. If you’d like to learn more about the work that she does with children in Belize, she’s an open book- she suggests just looking her up on Facebook. Or you can reach out to Dan Santella, and he can put you in touch with her. His email address is at the top of this story. If you’d like to contribute financially to Brittany’s education, visit her GoFundMe page set up for that.