It might seem lucky that Cristian Johnston met his wife while on a trip to Peru, although that’s not quite the beginning or the end of the story.
This fairytale of sorts begins with Cristian growing up in an orphanage in Peru and then being adopted by Kathy Houlihan and her husband, Daniel Johnston, a couple from Corfu. It was when Cristian, 26, went back to visit that same orphanage that he first reconnected with the house mother who cared for him as a baby.
And then he met her daughter, Rosita. They fell in love and got married, and now have a son, Iker. The story unfolds into a full circle, as Cristian decided to give back to his roots by helping out financially and through hands-on labor.
Consider it luck or fate or happenstance, he has immense gratitude for what he’s been given by his adopted parents and his life ever since.
“It’s a night and day difference. It’s quite a privilege to see my life — I had two very different possibilities,” Cristian said during an interview with The Batavian. “It’s very eye-opening from where I stand.”
His mom added that there’s a lot of poverty in Peru, which has an estimated population of 33.5 million people. And whether despite that fact, or because of it, she was drawn to the country, its culture and its struggles. Peru's boundaries are with Colombia to the northeast and Brazil to the east, and they traverse lower ranges or tropical forests, whereas the borders with Bolivia to the southeast, Chile to the south, and Ecuador to the northwest run across the high Andes mountains.
A South American adoption
Houlihan first traveled to the South American locale in 1978 as an exchange student after graduating from high school. So when she and her husband were thinking of adopting, she thought Peru would be a good place to look. After all, Houlihan speaks Spanish fluently, she was familiar with the geography and some of the country’s challenges. The orphanage where Cristian lived until 4 years old housed 80 kids aged birth to 18.
The adoption process was mundane — lots of paperwork and documentation — and lengthy. It took about two years for Cristian to meet his new home in Western New York. Albeit an awkward start, that process forged a family.
“We were all excited,” Houlihan said. “We were also so scared. What if he doesn’t like us?”
She had read most every book on adoption to learn the ins and outs of the process and what should and shouldn’t be done. Houlihan doesn’t recommend that to other prospective adopters; it just heightened the couple’s anxiety.
When they met Cristian, it was a bit tense, she said. They brought him back to their hotel room and showed him toys they’d brought — he loosened up and their nervousness eased.
Still, they had six more weeks in Peru as part of the process. And then, Cristian finally met his new family, home, neighborhood and community. A young man of few words, he didn’t dwell on life in the past, but on all that he hopes to accomplish moving forward.
A trip of reconnection
It was in 2018 when a friend asked if Houlihan wanted to visit Peru, and Cristian said he wanted to go back and check out his humble beginnings. They went to the orphanage, where his caretaker, Hermelinda, was still caring for children.
“It was overwhelming,” he said. “It was a lot to take in.”
His memory is scarce, the cafeteria and smell of food seemed somewhat familiar, but there was nothing on the emotional side, he said. After years of being away, he stood face-to-face with the very woman who nurtured him as an orphaned boy.
“Twenty years later, she was there. She told me about how her daughter helped take care of me,” he said.
He went back to the United States and worked to save money for a return visit, this time for eight months. It was just a “personal drive to want to get back,” he said. He helped out with plumbing, and landscaping — creating a large flower garden near the orphanage — revamping a defunct bakery, painting, purchasing new equipment and repairing what could be salvaged, buying uniforms for the children and assisting where he could.
Meeting his future
It was during this trip that he fell for Rosita. They got married in 2019 and she eventually moved to the U.S. with Cristian. Both of them had a goal to help the orphanage, and Cristian talked to his mom about doing more.
“Seeing the happiness of the youth,” he said, as Houlihan added that “they looked up to him as a brother.”
The family also established a nonprofit in 2019, Peru Outreach Project, to raise money for various needs at the orphanage. They have come a long way — building a medical clinic, assembling first aid boxes, buying Christmas presents and new playground equipment for the kids, and establishing a sewing workshop for residents to make their own towels, curtains and clothing repairs.
“They really loved the care and support,” he said. “I got to see some of the needs. (Fulfilling them) felt very rewarding; it was a satisfaction to see what I’m doing has meaning, to give them what I had. It can give them a sight that this isn’t forever.”
In 2005, the Houlihan Johnston clan grew again with the adoption of Gabriel. Meanwhile, Cristian’s work didn’t go unnoticed. A local television network was going to air a show about the orphanage’s anniversary, and Christian was there doing his work as usual. His story ended up being part of the show, and it was aired throughout Peru.
His birth family saw the show and knew it was their Cristian. He ended up meeting his birth parents and extended family.
“I didn’t hold anything negative against them,” he said. “Internally, I was very emotional.”
Their cause has continued to grow. In February, they began to rent a home — which needed much TLC of a renovated kitchen, new electric system, repainting and gardens — to house up to six Amazonian women on a path to a better life. The women go to nursing school so they can have a lucrative future careers.
While there, the occupants will learn how to grow their own produce, cook, and use management skills. They otherwise would be living in the village with no educational or career opportunities, and end up “married and having kids” as their life’s work, Houlihan said.
“This is an opportunity for her to get out and see a different perspective,” Houlihan said. “She can be self-reflective ... and give back to her family.”
The Outreach has invested some $30,000 so far, with an ongoing $2,000 monthly rent payment for the house. There is a 10-member board with officers -- Cristian is president -- and a website to learn more. The organization is largely funded by grants from the Buffalo Quaker community and a Mennonite church in Pennsylvania, plus donations from churches and individuals. Another goal is to take more volunteers with them to Peru.
“We do eventually want to focus on … safety, security and love, and for them to envision that they can become self-sufficient,” Houlihan said.
Houlihan and Cristian are available for presentations to any group upon request. Contact them at [email protected] or at P.O. Box 234, East Pembroke, NY, 14056.
Top Photo: Kathy Houlihan, Rosita, Iker and Cristian Johnston talk about their mission to assist the Aldea Infantil Virgen del Pilar orphanage in San Martin, Peru at Coffee Press in Batavia, by Joanne Beck; submitted photos of the orphanage, a sewing workshop, female nursing students studying, new playground equipment, and Cristian with his son, all in Peru; and photo above of Cristian with his son, by Joanne Beck.