Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, May 19, 2017

Dorvil’s happy, tragic journey home to Chattanooga

There’s a thread running through the life of Cathy Dorvil that’s unlike any of the others. In a tapestry of mostly vibrant colors, it stands out and can be easily seen among the shifting hues and intertwining patterns that represent the paths she has walked.

It is a single, unchanging strand that transforms everything around it and gives her strength. That thread is grace.

It first appeared when Dorvil was growing up within the urban sprawl of Los Angeles, which she remembers as being close to things she loved to do. “It was 30 minutes from the mountains, 30 minutes from the beaches and there were state parks everywhere.”

And it continues today for the Chattanooga lawyer and single mother who is raising three adopted Haitian teenage girls.

Even at a tender age, Dorvil already was stretching her gaze to what lay beyond her grasp. By the time she was a teenager, a sense of purpose had been forged within her heart: She wanted to work with children with disabilities.

“I started volunteering with the Special Olympics when I was 12. I also volunteered at summer camps for kids with disabilities,” she says. “That’s where my heart was. I liked kids and I worked well with them.”

Kids liked Dorvil, too, who describes her younger self as being a genuine Valley Girl who was fluent in the lingo of the day.

“It wasn’t as bad as they portrayed on television, but that was me,” she recalls, laughter bursting out of her like a ray of sunshine that has pierced a cloud.

Dorvil’s mother, Susan Speraw, saw something taking shape in her daughter and nurtured it. After meeting with an occupational therapist, she suggested Dorvil do likewise. The encounter led to Dorvil spending a summer volunteering at a children’s hospital in LA.

It was as though a light was illuminating her path.

“At age 14, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life,” she adds.

Dorvil never wavered from this course, and upon graduating from high school made her way to the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, which offered an exceptional occupational therapy program.

While Dorvil was attending classes and having the Valley Girl wrung out of her by the grunge culture of the Pacific Northwest, her mother, who had become a child psychologist, was offered a job at T.C. Thompson’s Children’s Hospital in Chattanooga. When Dorvil learned her parents were moving to Signal Mountain, she thought they had lost their minds.

“The only thing I knew about Chattanooga was that it was far away from my friends in LA,” she recalls.

Dorvil became acquainted with Chattanooga during her Christmas vacations and summer breaks from school. Her mother, ever supportive of her ambitions, introduced her to Donna Bourdon, who was director of rehabilitation at Erlanger at the time. This led to a job as a tech in the hospital’s occupation and physical therapy departments, where Dorvil worked when she was home from school.

Slowly, the Scenic City grew on Dorvil.

“I liked Chattanooga,” she says. “It wasn’t what it is today, but it was starting to come around.”

By the time Dorvil graduated from Puget Sound, she had set her sights abroad. Desperate to see the world but wanting to do the work she’d been trained to do, she was open to any opportunity that matched her aspirations.

Haiti bound

As fate would have it, Dorvil’s mother was friends with a physician who had volunteered at a school in Haiti for kids with disabilities. This person put Dorvil in touch with the person who ran the program - Peter Cunningham, the founder of Pazapa, which means “step by step” in Creole.

Dorvil drove from LA, where she was living with her brother, to Cunningham’s home in California. As they spoke about her volunteering with Pazapa, Cunningham suggested a two-year stint in Haiti. By the end of the visit, Dorvil’s spirit was already on a plane to the Caribbean.

“Not so fast,” her parents said. While mom and dad were excited about the adventure, they were less than enthusiastic about the so-called travel arrangements.

“Peter wasn’t big on details. He basically said, ‘Fly to Haiti, find a bus, take it to Jacmel and ask for Jane Macrae, the woman running the program,’” Dorvil remembers. “At the age of 21, that didn’t bother me.”

Dorvil’s parents were especially concerned about their daughter being unable to communicate with them once she arrived. So, once again, Dorvil’s mother worked her networking magic and learned that Mitch Mutter, then a cardiologist at Erlanger, was taking a group of volunteers to Haiti at around the same time. He offered to allow Dorvil to tag along, and to Susan’s relief, even said he would drive her to Jacmel and drop her off at Pazapa.

During the trip, Mutter spoke with Dorvil about his desire to start a program for malnourished kids in Haiti. At the time, Dorvil thought the idea was outlandish, but she had not yet been touched by the poverty-stricken nature of the developing country or the kind and hopeful hearts of its people. Instead, she focused her thoughts on the task at hand.

Dorvil wound up staying in Haiti for two and a-half years before returning to the U.S. to further her education. While in Haiti, she’d become interested in population services for people with disabilities in third world countries. Specifically, Dorvil wanted to explore opportunities in public health.

Her desire was to have a bigger impact than she was having with individual children.

Dorvil’s first step was the Harvard School of Public Health, and the next was Bangladesh for a master’s thesis. The project involved designing a protocol that would enable Save the Children to train teachers how to incorporate children with disabilities into their classrooms.

Dorvil also worked with the organization to incorporate disability-awareness activities into its regular programming.

“That way, Save the Children could improve the lives of children with disabilities at a population level rather than individually,” Dorvil adds. “My goal was to eventually reach Africa.”

A phone call from Mutter, however, steered Dorvil back to Haiti. Mutter had started his program, the Children’s Nutrition Program of Haiti, in Leogane, and he wanted Dorvil to be his country director.

“It wasn’t Africa, but he was giving me and another woman free rein to design and implement the program however we saw fit. It was too good to pass up,” Dorvil says.

The other woman was Kathryn Bolles, who, like Mutter, lived in Chattanooga. Together, they implemented Ti Fwaye, a program designed in Vietnam.

“Instead of handing out food, we’d go into a community, find poor mothers with healthy children, figure out what they were doing and then teach those things to others in the community,” Dorvil explains. “We used local women to find and teach those mothers. It was stopping malnutrition in its tracks.”

Although Dorvil was seeing her efforts produce fruit on a broader scale, as she had desired, she never lost sight of the individuals the program helped. While reversing the tide of malnutrition was important, she always remembered that change took place “step by step,” as the Creole meaning of Pazapa suggested. For this reason, one of her most cherished memories of Haiti involves just one of the mothers the program helped and her children.

“When we were getting started, we came across a little boy, Watson, who was severely underweight. He was cute, but his mom was young and didn’t know how to take care of him. So, we put them in the program,” Dorvil recalls.

“Five years later, there’s a knock on my door. When I opened it, the mother was standing there with Watson, who had a round tummy and was wearing his kindergarten uniform. She also had another child with her that was chubby and doing well.

“It was this awesome moment when I realized what we were doing had worked for someone.”

Dorvil eventually became interim executive director of the CNP, which put her in charge of managing the board in Chattanooga. Through her interactions with physicians and other people in the city, she began to feel more of a connection to the Scenic City.

But something in addition to Dorvil’s work was keeping her in Haiti – a husband.

Standing her ground

Joseph Dorvil was a native Haitian and a kindred spirit. Like Dorvil, he was devoted to opening doors for people, not boxes of supplies. His work as the administrator of the University of Notre Dame’s Lymphatic Filariasis elimination program in Leogane allowed him to do just that. The two met while working on their respective programs at Hospital St. Croix.

Dorvil’s memory of what attracted her to Joseph is as clear and bright as a new morning. “He had an incredible passion for his country, endless energy and an amazing smile,” Dorvil says, her face beaming.

“He was ambitious in the way I was. We both were willing to kill ourselves to make things better.”

Dorvil met her future husband in 2003, and they were married the following year.

Then tragedy struck. Joseph’s dream of making Haiti a place where its children would want to stay instead of a place from which they tried to escape was cut short when he was shot and killed by gang members outside the city.

The country had become a violent place after the exile of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, with his followers stirring up trouble wherever there was a pot in which to boil it, and Joseph had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In this dark moment, the thread of grace that runs through Dorvil’s life became more luminous. Instead of leaving the country and her work, she stood her ground.

“How could I leave? I had hired those women. They were my people,” Dorvil explains. “There was no way I was going to quit. That situation wasn’t about me.”

Joseph’s body was swallowed up by the wilds in which his life was taken. Dorvil held a memorial service but never recovered his remains, despite the best efforts of the Haitian police, who were sympathetic but overwhelmed with similar cases.

She didn’t even know precisely what had happened until a year later, when a witness met her at a guest house under the cover night and shared the details.

Although Dorvil remained steadfast in her resolution to help the Haitian people, the incident had a profound effect on her outlook.

As President Rene Duval took the reins of the country and the political situation cooled, Dorvil began to try to re-envision her life. Would she stay in Haiti? Would she pursue public health work in another country? Or would she return to the U.S.?

Through this process, an idea crystallized in her mind. Partly through the tragedy of Joseph’s death, she had become interested in human rights. She wanted to learn specifically what those rights were and how she could advocate for them. In order to do that, she needed a new platform, the law.

“The people who killed my husband had no respect for life, and they had no respect for life because the world had rejected them,” Dorvil points out. “They were living in the worst slum in the Western Hemisphere. When you have a population of people whose lives are never respected, how can you expect them to respect the lives of others? S

“So, I went to law school with the intention of working in human rights.”

Little did Dorvil know something with more impact than the law was about to change her life yet again.

The Law vs. family

Empowered by a fresh surge of idealism, Dorvil began taking classes at the University of Miami School of Law. After her first year, she accepted an internship with an international human rights organization in Haiti. The experience did not match her expectations.

“It was more politically biased than I would want it to be,” she says. “I have a hard time saying everyone from one political party is good and everyone from another political party is bad. So I came back realizing this was not what I wanted to do.”

Upon her return, Dorvil also became the legal guardian of three Haitian girls who were 3, 4 and 6 years old at the time: Brithny, Melinda and Meola, respectively. Their dad was a friend from Haiti, and the situation had developed from her helping out as needed to her taking them in.

“It never occurred to me to say no because I was in law school. It needed to be done,” she says.

The responsibility of caring for three young girls and Dorvil’s disappointment following her internship culminated in an existential crisis. She unloaded on one of the deans of the law school who was a strong advocate of pro bono work.

“She recommended I consider working for a large law firm,” Dorvil says. “The idea was horrifying to me because I had come from the world of nonprofits and still had a save-the-world mentality, but she convinced me to give it a shot because large law firms often have the resources to do major pro bono work.”

Eager to find a position that would allow her to reconcile her altruistic drive with her need to take care of three tiny human beings, Dorvil started interviewing law firms on campus. She was surprised when she found one she liked: Hogan Lovells, an international firm co-headquartered in London and Washington, D.C.   

“I wanted to use my health background, and I liked the litigation work I had done in law school, and Hogan offered both,” Dorvil says. “They also placed a huge emphasis on pro bono work, which was important to me.”

Dorvil was able to do a considerable amount of pro bono work while at Hogan, including rewriting public health laws for the country of Liberia and representing girls who had been victims of human trafficking.

Dorvil also did a lot of health and business related work. It was different from what she had imagined doing when she decided to become a lawyer, but she liked it. “I enjoyed the intellectual challenge of practicing law,” she adds. “I also felt like I hadn’t given up anything that was important to me because I was able to do pro bono work.”

In 2011, Dorvil adopted Meola, Melinda and Brithny, becoming the legal mother of three growing girls.

The weight of being a busy attorney and a single parent was mounting, though. Dorvil’s father, Dan Speraw, would fly to Florida to help when his daughter had depositions and trials, but he couldn’t be there all the time.

In early 2015, Dorvil told her parents she wanted to move to Chattanooga. She knew the city and many of its people and says she believed it would be a good place for a new start.

To begin the process, she sent her resume to Mike St. Charles, managing partner at Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel and a family friend from when her parents were living in Signal Mountain. (They had since moved to Knoxville.)

St. Charles had observed Dorvil personally and professionally for many years, and says  she had a rare combination of intelligence and an ability to deal productively with people that would benefit the firm and its clients.

He also knew Dorvil was a kindhearted person who would go to great lengths to help others.

“Cathy babysat for our children. We had three boys, two of whom had health problems, with one having significant health issues that were intimidating to many. She was more than willing to help, which included learning certain medical procedures in case our child needed assistance,” St. Charles recalls.

“Cathy’s level of compassion, calmness and willingness to tackle a situation from which many others would shy away was impressive. She was willing to put herself in a stressful situation to help others. And she did it with humility.

“Cathy demonstrated these same traits in the management of her Haitian ministry. The way she handled the death of her husband only increased my admiration. Under those horrible circumstances, she did not wallow in self pity but dealt with the tragedy with unbelievable grace.”

After Dorvil accepted a position with the health care practice group at Chambliss, she and her parents reconvened in Signal Mountain. They live there today, a block away from each other in one of the town’s winding neighborhoods.

“Signal Mountain is a great place to raise kids. We know our neighbors, we live on the best street and there are terrific schools and tons of activities for young people. It’s perfect,” Dorvil points out.

Dorvil’s daughters are now 16, 14 and 13 and very active. Having grandparents nearby helps tremendously, she adds.

“It’s nice to not have to be in two places at once. When I’m at work, I’m at work, and when I’m home, I’m at home,” Dorvil says. “I can’t take the things I’m dealing with at home to work because I’d get nothing done, and when I leave work, my kids need my attention.

“They’re adolescent girls. They need to tell me about the drama taking place at school, and I need to be the voice of reason that helps them deal it. I need to be present when I’m home.”

Dorvil is just as single-minded when she’s at Chambliss, St. Charles says.

“Cathy has unusually strong analytical skills and is very objective. She assesses complex facts and legal issues quickly and accurately and welcomes challenges. Combine that with her understanding of and compassion for people, and you have a unique lawyer,” he adds.

“She truly wants to help people; it’s not about her or the law firm, it’s about helping others, clients included, attain their goals.”

Although Dorvil is now focused on raising her daughters rather than saving the world, she still serves on the boards of Pazapa and CNP. She’s also on the board of Chambliss Center for Children.

Between her work, family and board obligations, Dorvil has no room in her schedule for the things she might do if she had the time, including hiking, kayaking and spending time with a special someone. “I haven’t figured out how to work, be a mom and do everything else I do – and date,” she admits

But that’s okay, Dorvil adds with another smile, because her passion lies with her daughters.

“When I was 14, I was dead set on a career helping children with disabilities. As I ventured down that path, life evolved and new opportunities emerged that allowed me to impact people’s lives in different ways. Joseph’s death prompted a huge divergence from the path I had set for myself, and then I unexpectedly, became a mother to three girls overnight, but I just went with it.

“Whether I’m helping clients who are in a bind, being a foster parent, or serving on a board, I have continued to make choices that build on my past experiences and maintain my original intent to help those who are vulnerable.”