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It wasn't all fun and Games

CHRIS ERSKINE

After a horrible tragedy, a Canadian woman picked up the pieces by becoming the guardian of her five nieces and nephews and sharing the Olympic experience with them.

March 07, 2010|Chris Erskine

This is the story that won't go away a week after the Winter Games ended. It is horrific. It is inspiring. It involves the anguished wails of children and one of the most drastic U-turns a life ever saw.

If you think Joannie Rochette's heart broke in Vancouver, wait till you hear the tale of Karla Green, 34, who in an instant lost a sister but gained five grieving kids.

Here's the hellish part, the part that makes you shake your head over a needlessly awful event. Days before the Olympics began, Green's sister and brother-in-law were killed by an alleged drunk driver 10 blocks from their Alberta home, leaving behind four daughters and a son, ages 4 to 14.

It was 5 a.m. when Aunt Karla got the news. In hours, the registered nurse would leave behind her job and her condo for Red Deer, a small river city of 90,000 that is anything but Vancouver. In a move pre-arranged by her sister a year before, Karla would become the children's legal guardian. In ways legal documents never reveal, their guardian angel.

Karla knew instantly Red Deer was where the kids belonged -- in their own beds, their old schools, surrounded by the pals and playgrounds they loved.

Not that any of this was seamless. Though caring for people is her life's work, Karla didn't have kids of her own. She soon learned that her nieces and nephew had a million activities. There were financial concerns to deal with. Amid it all, there were enough emotions to stump a priest.

So here's the unbelievable part, the moment where an ordinary someone looks tragedy in the face and shrugs. You think about it now and wonder where she got the strength, or if you could ever be half as strong.

Because one day, Karla Green got an inspiration, perhaps divine. Amid all the crud life had suddenly tossed her way, Karla decided that she would take her orphaned brood through one of the most incredible stretches of grief counseling you'd ever imagine -- the Winter Games, 700 miles away.

Adjustments on the fly

The parents, Krista and Brad Howe, had both been engineers in Red Deer. They volunteered for everything -- sat on school committees, organized company curling teams, set up weekend outings.

"They were such good parents," Karla explains. "Took the kids everywhereit was always about the experience."

Karla, meanwhile, had a different life, that of a young single living in Vancouver -- filled with friends, dinners, adventure. She loved to travel, and before becoming a nurse had worked as a tour guide and scuba instructor. Recently, she went back to school for her master's degree in nursing. Lately, life was settling down. She thought about having kids one day -- but that day was not here.

With Karla's help, Krista and Brad had planned for a year on how they would take the kids to the Olympics, part of Brad's insistence on exposing them to new experiences. They managed to get tickets to ski events at Cypress Mountain, and while Karla watched the kids, some curling events for Mom and Dad. They planned on how they would squeeze eight people into Karla's tiny Vancouver condo.

"It was a really scary decision," Karla says, explaining her call to go ahead with the trip. "My goal for these kids was to gain some security, and that as dark as things were to show them that somehow life would go on."

So Karla went to work.

With the help of the Vancouver Olympics organizing committee, she managed to trade the curling tickets for speedskating. Then someone managed to come up with tickets to a men's hockey game: Russia versus the Czech Republic.

WestJet pitched in with the changes in itinerary.

It would be the first plane trip for the four younger kids -- Mom had wanted it to be a surprise. So they were stunned when they arrived at the airport; the kids just assumed they would be driving.

The trip was going just as Karla had hoped, lifting the heavy gloom from the children's shoulders, changing the backdrop of their lives.

But as their plane rose in the sky, Molly, 6, looked out at the clouds and wondered: "Are we closer to heaven now?"

Are we closer, she wondered, to Mom and Dad?

Everything hoped for

The trip went great, though. While everyone was at events, Karla's friends would come in to tidy up her place, or leave crayons and coloring books.

As the oldest, MacKenzie helped corral her siblings and keep them moving. She and her Aunt Karla had always been close, and they needed each other now more than ever.

The kids were soon caught up in the spirited way Canadians were reacting to the Games. It had become a milestone moment for their country, a chance for uncommon pride. As the games went on, the momentum grew. It was everything their parents had hoped for: a life experience, a grand adventure.

"I think coming here was important," Karla told the Vancouver Sun when it was over. "I wasn't sure how the kids would respond. But the children have been very amazing."

Real world concerns

They are all back in Red Deer now. On Monday, MacKenzie had her braces off. On Friday, Molly turned 7.

Grandma is still there, helping keep the house in order. Sandra Green raised six children herself, so she is no novice at this sort of thing.

But there is more than just the daily chores. There's an effort to get the children counseling. There are financial concerns, as they sort out the life insurance policies, the outstanding bills.

"I don't think anybody ever expects to die together," Karla notes.

She even fears for her own finances. From what Karla hears, the government may not approve her unemployment request, which allows for benefits during maternity leaves and other life changes, but not the odd upheaval she is now going though.

A trust fund has been set up for the children, who don't really worry about such things. They worry only abut keeping their same friends, attending the same school, sleeping in the same beds, being together for breakfast.

Their Aunt Karla is taking care of that.

Boy, is she ever.

chris.erskine@latimes.com

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