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  • Last Christmas my friend James was swept off his feet by a little girl. Her name is Schnookie and she is 2 ½ years old. He just posted on facebook some pictures of them apparently having a ball. Their unquestionable connection and fun inspired me to paint them together.

    Schnookie’s resolute, sunny smile belies the tragedy that closed the first chapter of her young life. She was born in Haiti. On Tuesday, January 12, 2010, at 4:53 in the afternoon her world shook and shattered.

    A 7.0 earthquake destroyed her home, family and community. She was one of the 3 million people affected by it. Either one or both of her parents were among the initially believed 316,000 people killed. There was no one in her immediate or extended family that could take care of her.

    Abandoned at less than one-year-old, Schnookie was on her way to becoming a tragic statistic. As of May 31, 2011, USAID unpublished report put the number of still displaced Haiti earthquake victims was at 895,000.

    But little Schnookie had luck on her side. A young woman, a girlfriend to my friend James’ buddy, adopted her. It took a year to get her out of Haiti and into her new home in Germany. She arrived to Berlin traumatized, unable to understand either English or German. But she was welcome, wanted and loved into a new circle of friends. Owning nothing in her name, she still brought a gift: she was helping them to become a family.

    What a difference a year makes. Looking at Schnookie today, she is a sunny, bright, lively child. She charms everyone around her and holds on tight to the people who enter her world, even the most unexpected ones.

    Seeing James with her was a revelation to me. He is an old friend, one time my boss at Pee Wee’s Playhouse, my colleague and lifelong inspiration. Yet in all the time we have known each other, I never saw him as vulnerable and open as he was with little Schnookie.

    James is single and gay, a workaholic, and one of the most driven people I know. He started as a cancer cell researcher, and later reinvented himself as a very successful fine artist, designer, teacher, moviemaker, producer and entrepreneur.

    Looking at James & Schnookie together made me think of the families we build. We don't choose the people we share blood bonds with, but we can select the people we share our lives with.

    Circles of friends have become our families of choice. They are there with and for us every day, often more reliable, loving and giving than our own blood kin. They are black and white, straight and gay, young and old, rich and poor, married, divorced, single, with benefits and all in between.

    Once we expand the traditional idea of family, we are blessed with the unexpected wonder we bestow on one another, and surprised by the things we universally share regardless of our diverse backgrounds and choices.

    We learn how to connect beyond our narrow blood tribe and not judge others by the color of their skin, or their circumstance, but by the content of their character. We reach out and give love and second chances to strangers, like little Schnookie, because they are just like our friends’ friends.

    One Big Human Family. And that’s how it should be.
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