EDITOR'S NOTE: Today we begin a series of profiles honoring the Bitterroot Valley's high school graduates of 2010. In their hands rests the future for us all and in that lies hope. Congratulations to all the graduates.
STEVENSVILLE - "Milly is the happiest person I've ever been around."
It was the simple and to the point description Stevensville High School librarian Gary Brooks offered for graduating senior Miliana Thorson.
Unmistakable for her easy-going smile, energy and confidence, Thorson will say straight up that she has a lot to be happy about.
Sure there is the usual stuff: she has blossomed in school, participating with many of the school community service organizations, played volleyball, done well enough in her advanced placement courses, served as an officer on student council, she plans to become a nurse through the ROTC program at Montana State.
But like few others, this Haitian-born young woman, adopted by the Thorson family at age 7, can share a story about feeling blessed, and why she feels so strongly the need to give something back.
While living at an orphanage, she noticed an American missionary taking a photograph of some other kids. Flashing her best smile, she popped her head into the frame of that image, not knowing that she had just changed the course of her life.
Turns out that photograph ended up with John Wendt of Stevensville, who then showed it to Dave and Tina Thorson.
Tina Thorson recalls the dejection in the faces of the children who were the subject of that picture.
"But here was this bright smiling face poking around the corner into the picture of these other children," Tina Thorson said. "I said, ‘Dave, I think she's the one we're supposed to adopt.'"
Dave Thorson soon left for Haiti to find Miliana.
After finding her, the Thorsons were told they would have to wait to make the adoption. At about that time, in the late 1990s, the Haitian government had decided that it wanted to put a tax on the thousands of Haitian orphans that were being adopted by families in the United States and other countries.
"It's pretty amazing that we got her out," Tina Thorson said. "They kept telling us that ‘you'll never get her out, don't even try.'"
But they did try.
Tina Thorson said even after the paperwork with the adoption agency had gone through, with a change in the Haitian law looming, officials who oversee adoptions and emigration balked at stamping her travel papers.
Tina Thorson said she had some choice words for one official.
"I said "God told me that's our daughter and I don't think you should mess with God,'" Tina Thorson recalled. "And he said ‘OK she's going through.'"
Within hours, the Haitian government had closed the entire adoption system, Tina Thorson said. When it reopened some months later, families looking to adopt children from Haiti were to be hit with a $7,000-8,000 tax.
The amazing good fortune of this chain of events is not lost on Dave and Tina Thorson, who say they knew Miliana was supposed to be their daughter.
Nor is it lost on Miliana herself.
"I was really blessed that my head was popping into that picture and my mom saw me," Miliana Thorson said, smiling.
But combine her good fortune with the fact that she has brothers and sisters living in impoverished and earthquake-ravaged Haiti and you have the ingredients for Miliana Thorson's drive to help people.
With the help of some of her teachers and fellow students, Thorson helped organize Invisifest in April, raising money to help Ugandan children who were victims of their country's civil war.
Karen Nebel, Stevensville High School's counselor, said Thorson's commitment to the event, which also raised funds to send birth kits to new mothers in Haiti, was typical of how she approached the myriad activities she sought out in high school.
"She has a lot of energy and has been involved in a lot of stuff," Nebel said.
Thorson said she couldn't help wanting to help.
And once she finishes college and her military service, she plans to return to Haiti to see about helping some in her native country, where, she said, scenes of devastation have stirred up many emotions.
"I feel bad for my family that I have there and I feel bad for the millions of orphans that don't have what I have," she said. "So I definitely have a feeling that I've got to go to Haiti and give back."
And it might just start with a smile.
Reporter Sepp Jannotta can be reached at 363-3300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.