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Local woman's pre-adoptive child is China quake victim

Last summer, occupational therapist Tonja Gilmore of Lunenburg held her 6-year-old pre-adoptive daughter, Agi Motok, in her lap on her second visit to the remote, predominantly Tibetan city of Yushu, China. The Munsel School, in which this photograph was taken, was flattened a devastating earthquake on Wednesday, April 14. Agi Motok was severely injured and, fortunately, airlifted 500 miles to a hospital for treatment. (Courtesy photo) (click for larger version)
April 21, 2010
LUNENBURG, Vt. — Tonja Gilmore was nearly giddy with happiness on Saturday morning when she arrived for her interview, an envelope full of treasured photographs in hand.

Only 10 minutes earlier she had learned through an intermediary's telephone call the joyful news that her six-year-old pre-adoptive daughter is expected live.

For three days Ms. Gilmore had believed that Agi Motok, her six-year-old ethnic Tibetan pre-adoptive daughter who was badly injured and unconscious for a time in Wednesday's early morning earthquake would not survive.

The 6.9-magnitude quake devastated the remote, predominantly Tibetan city of Yushu, China — or Jyekundo, as the Tibetans still call it. The city is in the high country, three miles above sea level. Five of the 35 students who lived at the Munsel School were killed. Agi Moto's parents, the school's house parents, all survived, however. The city's official death toll totaled nearly 1,150 on Saturday afternoon, according to Sunday's "New York Times."

Miraculously, Agi Motok, was airlifted to a hospital in Chengdu to be treated, accompanied by her injured father, one of her mother's two husbands who are brothers.

Agi Motok is the youngest of her mother's 10 children. Her parents all urged Ms. Gilmore to adopt their daughter so that the youngster could have a brighter future than would be possible in the highlands where most of their tribe live as nomadic yak herders. The little girl's parents embraced Ms. Gilmore, draped coral and turquoise "mother's necklaces" around her neck, and declared that she was now Agi Motok's mother, she recalled happily.

"We're definitely bonded," said Ms. Gilmore, who maintains a private practice as an independent occupational therapist working primarily with Vermont schools.

On both of her trips, she traveled to the four tribal high villages as a volunteer medical coordinator to help assess medical needs and develop sustainable projects that would bring in money for the tribe.

Ms. Gilmore also helped to support the now-destroyed boarding school where the tribe sent its brightest youngsters to study the Chinese language and culture, as well as the traditional Tibetan language and ways. The next step would have been to introduce English as a third language.

Now she is eager to help raise money to rebuild the Munsel School, which accepted its first 15 village children in August 2007. The reason for establishing a boarding school, Ms. Gilmore said, is that without at least some members of the tribe becoming literate in both Chinese and Tibetan and mastering basic math skills, their economic survival will become more and more difficult.

But first the students must survive. At the moment, she explained, they, like nearly everyone in the city of about 100,000 where up to 90 percent of the dwellings have collapsed, have only the clothes on their back and little or no food, except ramen noodles. "They're living on the cold ground," she lamented, "and scrounging for plastic sheeting, even though Chinese soldiers have been rushed in to help with truckloads of food, supplies, and equipment.

"I feel frantic to help them yet at the same time helpless," Ms. Gilmore said. "Some of those I met on my two trips have been confirmed as dead — and there likely are many more who are now in jeopardy. I'm anxious to go back and help, but know I can't go until my planned — and already paid-for — six-week trip that starts in early July," she said. "I have a sense of great sadness, even without knowing which faces I won't be seeing any more.

"But I must keep myself together so can help raise funds and be of help," Ms. Gilmore said.

She asks that those who would like to help the schoolchildren and to help rebuild their school to send tax-deductable donations to the Pema Karpo Meditation Center at www.pemakarpo.org, specifying that the dollars are for earthquake relief.

In the past, local health food stores have donated some 200 pounds of vitamins and supplements, and Fuller's Sugarhouse donated maple candies for the children to enjoy, Ms. Gilmore said. "I'm so thankful for these donations, and, of course, the need is much greater now," she said.

Ms. Gilmore noted that she has lived in a number of cultures and enjoys and easily adapts to new ways of doing things. Raised on an Indian reservation in South Dakota where her physician father served as a gynecologist, she earned her first degree in occupational therapy at Tuskegee University, a historically black college in Macon County, Ala., and her second at Brigham Young University, operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Provo, Utah.

Martin Lord Osman
Varney Smith
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