A Serendipitous Reunion

Through social media and the movie “Lion,” Holt adoptee Phillip Sais reunites with the woman who escorted him from India to his family in the U.S. when he was just 19 months old. 

Phillip and Char during a visit to the Holt headquarters office in Eugene, Oregon, July 2017.

It was the day after New Years when a mysterious Facebook message appeared on Phillip Sais’ phone.

“I was just sitting around doing my usual thing, thinking about classes or what do I have to do for work, and I get this message on my phone,” recalls the 20-year-old college student. “It’s like, ‘Phillip … you have grown up to be such a lovely young man, you know, since I saw you at 19 months old.’”

Immediately, Phillip sprung to action. There was only one person to call.

“Mom,” he said when she picked up, “who was the person who brought me from India?’”

______

For Char Woodworth, it all started with the movie “Lion.”

“It’s a boy from India who gets lost,” she says, sitting in the Holt office in Eugene, Oregon on a day in late July. “He had a mom, but he got lost, and ended up a thousand miles away from his house and was adopted because they couldn’t understand what he was saying when they asked him where he lived.”

Walking out of the movie, Char turned to her husband. “I have to find Phillip,” she told him. “I have to make sure he’s okay.”

Char kept an album of photos from when she escorted 19-month-old Phillip home to his family in Arkansas.

Almost two decades had passed since she last saw the boy who she had carried in her arms all the way from Pune, India to Ozark, Arkansas — delivering him safely to his adoptive family in the U.S. But through the years, she never forgot his big brown eyes and chipmunk cheeks. She never forgot him singing to her on their long plane ride home.

“I have a photo album that I look at,” says Char, a warm and stylish woman who for 13 years served as chair of the Holt gala in Portland. Over many years, Char networked in the Portland business community to collect donations for Holt auctions — donations that would ultimately raise thousands of dollars for the orphaned and vulnerable children Holt serves.

But only once in all those years did she serve as a “Holt escort” — a once vital, but now extinct role in the international adoption process. These days, country programs require families to travel to bring their child home. But back then, various Holt staff members, board members and trusted partners would take on the awesome responsibility of accompanying children home to their families in the U.S.

For Char, this one-time experience serving as a Holt escort left an indelible impression.

“I look at that beautiful face and remember the trip and remember him singing to me on the way to Arkansas,” she says. “Adorable child.”

As Char says these words, Phillip sits beside her — now a young man with a slight southern accent and a laid-back, charming personality. He seems to redden a little as Char describes him as a little boy. But clearly, he is just as thrilled to have reconnected with Char as Char is to have reconnected with him.

Char didn’t take many photos of herself with Phillip — “I guess because he was in my lap the whole time,” she says — but she does have this one from when they first got to know each other in the care center. Phillip sits in her lap, facing her.

“I was scared because I was like, this person knows way too much about me,” Phillip says of his initial reaction to Char’s message, emphatically drawing out the word way. “But it turned out to be an awesome experience.”

When Char decided to reach out to Phillip, she knew how to get ahold of his mom. They still lived in the same small town, with the same unusual last name. But she wanted to connect directly with Phillip.

“I knew that he was a young man at this time so I wanted to find him rather than his parents,” she says. “And so I just Googled and there he was!”

“Facebook, man!” Phillip interjects, laughing. “I didn’t know the person who had brought me over. You know, I never really inquired about it until Char reached out to me, which was really cool.”

“You gave me my sweet tooth!” Phillip jokes of Char, who gave him an Oreo cookie on the plane ride to the U.S.

Over the following months, Char and Phillip began to learn more about each other. Char shared some of the photos she had of 19-month-old Phillip — including one of him sitting on an airplane tray table with chocolate in the corners of his mouth, an Oreo cookie in his hand.

“You gave me my sweet tooth!” Phillip jokes as Char describes the photo, which became part of an album that she gave to Phillip’s mom after their journey ended in Arkansas.

“His mother has a duplicate album — I have one and I gave her one,” Char says.

But not until Char reached out to him did Phillip take a closer look at the photos in the album.  “I had seen maybe one photo, but with the album Char gave me, it was just a bunch of new stuff to see,” he says.

Over three or four months, Phillip and Char messaged back and forth, and as Char learned more about Phillip’s interests, she felt a sense of serendipity that they had reconnected at this time in his life.

“He was a music major,” she says. “That really intrigued me because I have a whole family of professional musicians, and I thought what a great networking experience that might be for him.”

Although a bit apprehensive, Char felt like she had gotten to know Phillip well enough by now to invite him out to meet her family in Portland. Phillip also felt a bit unsure about this new relationship in his life, but he decided to go for it — coordinating time off from his summer job playing at a piano bar in Fayetteville to visit Char in July.

Phillip in the arms of a caregiver at his care center in Pune, India, Holt’s long-time partner BSSK.

With flights booked, Char got to work planning their week together. She coordinated a time for Phillip to take a piano lesson from her nephew, professional pianist Michael Allen Harrison, and to meet her son Andrew, who is a professional vocal coach and performer. During the week, Phillip would play his clarinet with Andrew and other musicians at a jam session, and also take part in a gig at a club with Andrew’s band. At Ten Grands on the Green, a classical music concert featuring ten grand pianos, Char would introduce Phillip to all of the performers — many of whom consider Char an honorary aunt.

“I know a lot of these musicians because they’ve played with my nephew. And half of them call me Aunt Char! So I can call on people,” she says. “When I saw that [Phillip] was a music major, I just felt like this was meant to be.”

Finally meeting in person, Char and Phillip quickly bonded. They watched movies set in India, including “Lion,” which Phillip had never seen. They talked about Phillip’s desire to travel to India and learn more about his past. They went to see Neil Diamond on his 50th anniversary tour.

“I play at a piano bar so I know some Neil Diamond,” Phillip says, acknowledging with a smile that most 20-year-olds are less familiar with the musical icon.

And they talked a lot about music.

Phillip at home in Arkansas, playing with a toy Char gave him.

“He knows so much music, so many different genres,” Char says approvingly. “And I don’t think he’s so focused on one that he doesn’t appreciate another.”

Grateful for the role Char played in his adoption journey, Phillip also feels gratitude for the role she is playing now — giving him an opportunity to meet so many professional musicians. “That is a big deal to me because number one,” he says, “it’s connections. And number two, it’s learning from the greats.”

But for both Char and Phillip, the trip is about more than just a shared love of music.

“This is definitely a connection that not many other people have, and so I’m definitely gonna’ keep it,” Phillip says, smiling at Char, who has now fully embraced him into her large family.

“I feel like we’re related,” she says, adding that her family is also thrilled about Phillip becoming an extended member of the Woodworth clan.

The feeling is clearly mutual.

“Even if it’s just like calling or just like texting once or twice a month, I want to keep this,” Phillip says. “It’s special… And I really wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Robin Munro | Managing Editor

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