UVa's Joanne Boyle loves new life

Joanne Boyle's dream of adopting a child from Africa was more than half a decade in the making. The dream finally came true when she brought her daughter Ngoty home on Dec. 23. Courtesy of Joanne Boyle

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- After five tumultuous years that included 14 trips to western Africa, where expectations would rise only to fall again, Joanne Boyle learned that it takes a village, literally, to adopt a child from Senegal.

Lawyers, political leaders, family friends from Senegal's capital city (Dakar), a Richmond pastor, athletic director Craig Littlepage and several kindhearted Senegalese locals all played a role in fulfilling a dream the University of Virginia women's basketball coach envisioned for more than 30 years.

Two days before Christmas, the emotional odyssey ended when Boyle returned to Charlottesville with her daughter Ngoty (EN-GO-tee), a soon-to-be 3-year-old awestruck by new surroundings that differ substantially from the filthy orphanage where she grew up in sub-Saharan Africa.

While Boyle refers often to Ngoty as "a joyful child and a light," it is Boyle herself who radiates with the happiness of a new mother eager to experience all the wonders that parenthood brings.

"It's surreal," says Boyle, watching an animated Ngoty alternating between singing the A-B-Cs with her stuffed Elmo and dancing to the Beyoncé song she cued up on her mother's cell phone. "She's here, and I'm not in Africa. It's just amazing to see her walking around my house.

"She's really here."

The 3-foot tall Ngoty, pastel barrettes holding her cornrows in place, livens up any space she inhabits. Virginia forward Sarah Beth Barnette calls her the most beautiful child she has laid eyes on. Boyle's mother, Joan, sums up Ngoty as a ham, sharing a story about her granddaughter climbing on top of the kitchen counter dancing to "If you like it, you should of put a ring on it," while insisting Grandma join her. Ngoty marvels at the washing machine, the shrillness of the basketball buzzer and the chilly temperatures she had never experienced. Despite her sense of wonder, she rarely strays far from "Mama Joanne," who is completely smitten with Ngoty's gregarious personality and is able to communicate with her daughter easily despite the language barrier.

"Want some peanuts? Share some peanuts?" Boyle asks. Ngoty jumps up and down, gingerly removing them one by one from a plastic container, but not into sharing at the moment.

Bureaucracy complete, the real work will begin now for Boyle: mothering her new daughter while resurrecting a Cavaliers basketball program that hasn't advanced to the NCAA tournament since 2010. This much is certain: Don't underestimate what the 51-year-old Boyle can do, whether it's overcoming a brain aneurysm as she did 13 years ago, navigating the international red tape that turned a routine adoption into an emotional roller coaster, or returning Virginia to national prominence.

"I know in my heart of hearts what I'm supposed to do," says Boyle, who refers to her faith often and the people that God put in place to make Ngoty's new life possible. "I don't have a time frame for what I'm doing all the time, but I know what I'm supposed to do."

The long road home

For more than half a decade, that has meant doing whatever it takes to adopt a child from Africa. At 17, Boyle became fascinated with that continent and its culture, and her empathy for the poor had her serious about the Peace Corps before she found coaching to be a better fit.

The former California Golden Bears coach began pursuing the idea of adoption shortly after taking her Cal team to Tunisia and Senegal in 2008. When Boyle took the job at Virginia in 2011, she was upfront with Littlepage about the process, and he promised his full support. What Boyle didn't factor in at first were new regulations and safeguards, implemented later that year, about international adoptions. All international adoptions were temporarily suspended.

Boyle had completed enough paperwork to fill a good-sized box and believed her adoption would still proceed since the government had said only new adoptions would be halted. Instead, she was told her paperwork was lost.

"That was heart-wrenching," says Joan Boyle, who has relocated temporarily from Raleigh, North Carolina, to ease the transition for her daughter. "I feared each time she went over, something would happen, but she was determined. Once she came through those doors right before Christmas, it was a joy. You finally believe it when you see it."

What initially started as adopting a child evolved into being a mother to Ngoty, who was born to a young mother sometime between Feb. 13 and Feb. 15, 2012, and abandoned at an orphanage in Tambacounda in eastern Senegal, some 250 miles away from Dakar. Ngoty was 1 month old when Boyle opened the email with her photo. She held her for the first time at 6 months.

"When I met her, I knew I was supposed to be with her, and I couldn't walk away from that, no matter how long the process was going to be," Boyle says. "It's like any mother with her child, whether it's biological or not. You're going to fight for them and do anything for them."

All signs pointed to a homecoming two Christmases ago, when Boyle was assured by a judge that she needed only an affidavit from the lawyer confirming that he'd filled out the lost documentation.

"It doesn't work like it does here, though," Boyle says. "Him having to do that would make him look bad. He wouldn't do it. I wasn't even able to meet with him because culturally they wouldn't allow it.

"That was the low point, when I realized I had to leave her there."

Boyle returned to Charlottesville without 8-month-old Ngoty and sat alone in the nursery she had so meticulously decorated with a crib she adored. She cried buckets.

"I left the room like it was for a really long time, hoping I could use that crib," she says. "I finally took it all down and put it all away. I still have the crib. I want it to be hers someday."

Boyle turned to her faith for support, finding fellowship at a small Richmond ministry run by pastor William Washington, whom she consulted regularly for consolation. She had always been cognizant of living her life according to Philippians 4:6-7, which urges prayer over anxiety.

"That's the first part of the Scripture, but I had to learn to live through the second part," she says. "The peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus."

Boyle made repeated visits to Tambacounda -- a South African Airways flight from Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C., direct to Dakar, followed by a nine-hour drive across barren desert terrain. Her driver each time was Pape Ousmane Diatta, a nephew of friends from Dakar.

"I would stay awake for maybe the first two hours and sleep for three and then we'd be halfway there," she says. "It's reckless because they have no speed limit over there and there's one road. Sometimes I'd wake up and we'd be going 160 kilometers [per hour, about 100 mph] and I'd scream, 'Pape! Slow down!' I'd pray the whole time, 'God, just get us there.'"

The orphanage that was home to Ngoty -- and still is for about 25 other children, newborns to age 9 -- didn't have toys, minus the basketball and soccer balls provided by Doyle, or a bathroom. Clothes are washed in buckets. The children eat once a day, grabbing fistfuls of boiled rice from a fly-infested bowl in the center of a long table. Mosquito nets surround cribs where babies sleep two to a bed. Older children sleep sideways, four to five on a flimsy mattress. Shared clothes are in cubbies, orange and blue Cavaliers T-shirts among the garb.

"I've been there with a parasite; I've been there with a staph infection," Boyle says. "I've been there when 'Goty had raging fevers. I've been there when the kids had nothing to eat."

Through Skype and frequent visits, Boyle developed a bond with Ngoty despite speaking only a handful of words from her native language, Wolof. Meanwhile, others continued to work on her behalf. She had her own lawyer in Senegal. A U.S. aid worker living in the village became an ally. By June 2014, Boyle was awarded custody by an empathetic judge who played college basketball himself at the University of Dakar. As her guardian, Boyle could take Ngoty with her.

"But it had to be in Senegal," Boyle says.

Ngoty went to live with Diatta and his family, but bringing her home to Boyle's four-bedroom condo and the little's girl's two-toned purple-and-gray bedroom filled with stuffed animals awaited another hurdle -- getting a passport and visa. Boyle planned to be absent from the Virginia sidelines for only one game when she returned to Senegal in early December. Instead, she missed three, unable to easily obtain either because Ngoty did not have a birth certificate.

"She had no identity," Boyle says. "Even children in orphanages have birth certificates, but she had no paperwork. Nothing."

Her lawyer helped with specifics for the child, whose name now reads Ngoty Ngoty -- without a true last name it was easiest to use the same name twice -- on her birth certificate. The last obstacle was the visa, but when Boyle arrived at the U.S. embassy in Dakar, she was told she had to apply online. The earliest appointment was Jan. 5, which would mean Boyle would miss Virginia's holiday tournament and ACC opener.

"I couldn't wait that long; I wasn't going to do that to Craig and this program," she says. Desperate, she phoned Littlepage, who made a call to the embassy, and ultimately she received an emergency appointment.

Visa in hand, mother and daughter boarded a plane for home on Dec. 23.

Completing the journey

"She's mine. She's mine," says Boyle, whose basketball office reflects that with Ngoty's pink and purple jacket lying in one corner and Ngoty scurrying about John Paul Jones Arena during an off day for the team, uninhibited by the adults who revel in the happy ending.

"More raisins?" Boyle asks when Ngoty gallops by. Ngoty shakes her head and hands over an apple juice bottle with a princess cap to Boyle, who realizes the seal hasn't been broken.

"That's what's wrong with the juice," Boyle laughs. "I guess I have a lot to learn."

Ngoty's transition has been easier than Boyle anticipated. She sleeps well at night, loves to play in a warm bathtub and already has the game in her blood. Boyle returned home to find her playing basketball in the kitchen, shrieking repeatedly the new word she had learned: "That would be "defense!"

"She picked that up from practice, I think," Joan Doyle says. "I'm trying to get her to say, 'Let's go, Hoos!' But she just looks at me funny."

Boyle plans to enroll Ngoty in a half-day school and find a nanny who's flexible enough handle to the Cavaliers' upcoming schedule, which includes plane trips to Miami, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh. Boyle's attention is back to basketball and finishing the job Littlepage hired her to do when she signed a five-year contract for a base salary of $700,000.

"I've had success earlier other places," says Boyle, who assisted on the Duke team that was an NCAA runner-up before she took over at Cal, leading the Bears to their first-ever Sweet 16. "I think God brought me here for a reason, and my purpose has always been to build programs. I don't see why that would change."

Boyle admits to feeling "consistently guilty" about her time away from the team, but Littlepage never wavered in his support. Boyle kept her players informed but did not let her personal trials interfere professionally, Barnette says.

"We know how difficult this has been on her and she shared that, but if she hadn't shared it, we wouldn't be able to tell," Barnette says. "We can definitely tell Coach B is relieved, though. It's like a weight has been lifted."

Scooping up Ngoty, Boyle swings her about, prompting her with "Bisou? Bisou? Bisou?" -- the French word for kiss. Ngoty lets out a belly laugh, and their eyes lock.

Preschool graduations, birthday parties, even return trips to Senegal to give back to the orphanage all await these two, and Boyle won't let any of it pass her by. Five hours of sleep, she insists, will be enough for now.

"I just have a full life now," she says slowly before adding, "I just have an absolute full life. I know there's so much more coming.

"I always knew I was going to be her mom, and if I had to, I'd go to Africa to do it at some point. But I always felt she was supposed to be here."

Finally, she is.