Published: Friday, November 2, 2012 at 7:04 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, November 3, 2012 at 8:22 a.m.
Haripal Swendsen was rescued from the bottom of a well in rural India, brought to the United States by Mother Teresa and adopted by a Healdsburg family.
He was confined to a wheelchair his entire life and suffered strokes, but received a diploma from Healdsburg High School and wore an Uncle Sam costume in the town's Future Farmers of America parade.
“This little boy came from across the world to live with us,” said his adoptive mother, Marlene Swendsen. “He enriched our lives and hopefully, we enriched his.”
Swendsen, who struggled with numerous ailments, died Oct. 24. He was 31.
He was born in India in a rural village that had no lights, running water or schools. At three years old, he contracted measles, had a stroke and went into convulsions, said his adoptive father, Mark Swendsen.
Thinking the boy was possessed, his parents threw him down a well, breaking his bones and leaving him for dead, his father said.
His cries were heard by nuns from a nearby convent, who at first thought they were hearing a kitten. They pulled him out and took him to an orphanage in Delhi, where he spent the next few years.
Mother Teresa became involved and was granted permission from the Reagan Administration to bring him to America, his Healdsburg family said. She traveled with him to San Francisco using tickets donated by the airlines.
The Noble Peace Prize winner contacted the Swendsens, who previously had adopted a baby with Down's Syndrome. She asked them to care for Haripal on a temporary basis, so he could see what a normal life was like, but later encouraged them to adopt him permanently.
Mark Swendsen said the tiny woman was persuasive and had an aura of “almost supernatural power” they couldn't resist.
“You don't say no to Mother Teresa,” Marlene Swendsen said.
When he arrived in Healdsburg, Haripal was about 10 years old. He was mostly paralyzed and ate with his fingers from a wooden cup.
The family welcomed him, teaching him English and getting him things to improve his life such as an electric wheelchair.
“It was quite a leap,” the father said. “He needed an awful lot of care.”
He attended special education classes at Healdsburg High, passed out class notices and rolled across the stage at graduation time.
“Other kids treated him so well,” Mark Swendsen said. “It was very touching.”
He had a small frame and never weighed much more than 50 pounds, his father said.
Despite continued health problems, Haripal had a sunny outlook, always smiling and never complaining, his mother said.
“He was the only kid who never talked back,” his mother said. “And he suffered his whole life. He was very courageous.”
She said he died in her arms as he was being driven to a doctor.
In addition to his adoptive parents, Haripal is survived by Swendsen siblings Mark Swendsen of Campbell, Tressa Bowles of Rohnert Park, Lani Gullotta of Sonoma, Damien Swendsen of San Jose, Heather Swendsen of Clearlake, Heavenly Swendsen of Campbell, Ryan Swendsen of San Francisco; Ali Swendsen of Mountain View and Rose Swendsen of Columbus, Ohio.
A funeral Mass will be 2 p.m. Sunday at St. John's Catholic Church in Healdsburg. A reception will follow at the Swendsen home.
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