On Christmas Eve 2005, Pierre Manga saw a blonde woman in the Walgreens near Henry Clay High School. She was waiting to fill her breast cancer medication prescription. Recognizing her from school soccer games, Pierre wished the woman "Merry Christmas."
He smiled at her, but Paula Hollis remembers that this young man looked sadder and more tired than any 16-year-old she had ever known.
She would not meet him again until Thanksgiving of the next year.
Then he would become, in short order, her oldest son.
Pierre Manga was left in charge of his two younger brothers in August 2003. He was 14. Two years earlier, the family had fled when rebels invaded their hometown of Bunia in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their home had been robbed, their mother threatened. Their father was away at the time. The boys and their mother had made it to a Catholic mission nearby, where they had been secreted away.
The compound needed water. Their mother, Christine Yoheli Lumumba, went to find it. As she left, she told Pierre, "Take care of your brothers."
Two months earlier, his twin brother, Jacob, had left on a school bus and, later, they were told he was pulled off the bus by rebels and killed. This was the Congo, where the rebels killed who they wanted when they wanted.
Now, she too had disappeared, seemingly forever.
Kirsten, Hollis' daughter, knew Pierre. Both were varsity soccer players at Henry Clay. Kirsten could see that he needed help. She heard he had a twin brother who was killed in the Congo. But she didn't know how to approach him, she says.
On Christmas Eve 2006, the Hollis family invited the boys to church, then back to their condo off Lakeshore Drive. They played board games. Kirsten and Ashley, Hollis' married daughter, both refused to open presents that day because they had none for their guests.
Given gift cards by a church group, the boys asked the woman they now called "Ms. Paula" to help them shop. They chose discount clothiers and bought underwear and socks. These children were not like children Hollis knew.
Pierre was 17. Kirsten had told her mother that he was carrying the burden of his whole family on his shoulders. He was behind in school. He worked 30 hours a week at a Kentucky Fried Chicken. He would feed his brothers — Philip was 14, John was 12 — when he was finished late at night. And, Kirsten said, none of the boys' shoes fit.
Hollis, a single parent, sat Pierre down and made him tell her what he needed.
She told him to quit his job. She would feed them, do their laundry. She went to the high school and talked to teachers about what the boys needed from them.
At first, says Hollis, Pierre was wary.
He wasn't accustomed to putting down his burdens in that way, but he explains, "I was very tired."
After his mother had not returned from fetching water in 2003, Pierre was captured by rebels. They put a machete into a fire, then pressed it into his legs in an effort to make him join them. They kept that up for three weeks before one of the men, who had known his father, helped him escape back to his brothers. Threatened by approaching gunmen, he again fled with the boys across 150 miles of jungle. They went days without food.
He got them to a bereft orphanage in the city of Beni, where their father eventually found them.
Jonathan Lumumba had been trying to find his children since 2001. Granted refugee status by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and through special arrangements with the Red Cross, the family was reunited in Kenya; then they made their way to the United States in 2005.
Hollis fed John and he gained a foot in height. She let the boys sleep over and, when they had nightmares, come talk even if it was the middle of the night.
Over and over again, Hollis prayed with them for the return of their mother and brother.
Over and over again, she would tell them: "I'm going to take care of you until your mom gets here."
The very first time John spoke about his mother, Hollis was making him a hamburger. She asked John to get some cheese out of the refrigerator. He stood there with the door open and said "fromage," the French word for "cheese."
"My mother taught French," he said. "I miss my mom."
In May 2008, the boys moved in full-time with Hollis. Lumumba signed co-guardianship papers with her so that she could, with his consent, make decisions about their lives.
"I saw her heart," Lumumba says. "When I came here, I came to give my children better. I found someone who could push them."
"She does everything a mother does," says Philip, describing Hollis.
She stays with them when they are sick. She embarrasses them appropriately — once when Philip was on the soccer field, she yelled at him, in Swahili, no less, until he had to tell her to stop. She asks them incessantly if they are wearing enough warm clothing. She has negotiated better terms for university scholarships. She makes sure parents are going to be at parties they say they're going to. She tells them girls are evil. (Just as she told her girls that all boys are evil, she notes.) She has been known, she says, to Google "jock itch" so she can tell them how to treat it.
Sometime, no one remembers when, the boys started calling her their "white mom" or their "American mom."
Their favorite name remains, however, "Ms. Paula."
Tim Bernardi, varsity soccer coach at Henry Clay High School, says what happened when Hollis fell in love with the Manga boys "defies words. She became their friend, their mother, their father, their everything to lean on in terms of need."
And what Hollis didn't cover, Kirsten and the Henry Clay soccer team family did. Once, when Hollis told the boys she couldn't afford indoor soccer shoes, Kirsten called a local doctor who had kids on the team and explained that the boys needed shoes and asked, could he pay for them? He did.
On their soccer shoes, in tribute, they usually write "Mama" on one side, "Ms. Paula" on the other.
Pierre walked into the Hollis house on Thursday, kissed all the Hollis women and opened the refrigerator to see what he could eat. Kirsten had baked cookies for them and brought them from Louisville where she goes to college. Everybody talked at once.
What they shared from the start: A deep belief in God and in each other.
They remembered how the first time they were over at the house, the Manga boys and the Hollis girls traded information about their cultures. Kirsten remembers telling the boys that all she knew about Africa she learned from The Lion King and Madagascar. They screamed with laughter.
The first song they all sang in the car: Cotton Eye Joe. They talked about that time they told Ms. Paula that Kirsten was "sitting on babies" when she told them she was babysitting. And the time Philip told the doctor he was from Yugoslavia and Kirsten had to fix it.
These days, Kirsten watches over Philip's Facebook page for any signs he's going bad. She dropped in recently on Pierre at the Galt House to see if she approved of his date. Pierre made it to a frat party she was attending for the same reason. They call each other "brother" and "sister." They argue accordingly.
It was not that long ago that the Manga boys would bring their African friends over so that Ms. Paula, Kirsten and Ashley could explain America to them.
To ask the questions you couldn't ask anyone else. Questions like, "Do all American homes have pianos?"
"I lost friends over this," says Hollis. "They'd say things like, 'How could you let your home be taken over by those kids?'"
It wasn't just those kids. In the summer, Hollis realized that the African refugee children who lived nearby were not eating breakfast or lunch because of the lack of school-subsidized meals. So she placed a cooler on her porch filled with Capri Suns and waters. Alongside it, breakfast bars and snacks.
She calls it her "porch ministry." Any child can wander over any time for food.
It is why Lumumba, a minister, now calls her "mother to all African children."
That and because she, with the help of area churches who answer her call, is the go-to gal for many African needs in the neighborhood, from college funding to baby clothing to heat.
Hollis doesn't think the loss of friends is so much racial as socioeconomic bias. Not that racism doesn't pop up, for example, when the family dines out or at a soccer game.
"Who's your son?" someone will ask.
"That one," Hollis will say, pointing, she says, to the darkest child on the field.
"Which one?" they ask, incredulous.
"Yes, that one."
The daughter of a Greenup County sheriff, Hollis says the boys have new extended family now in Kentucky and North Carolina who have opened their arms very wide.
The day she went for water in August 2003, Christine was taken by Hema militia to be killed. She was recognized by a commander and spared. She explains the rest as "waiting for my life to end."
In March 2007, Lumumba heard that Christine's name was on a Red Cross list of refugees in Kenya. In November 2007, she was seen alive. Word was sent to Kentucky Refugee Ministries. It would take time and paperwork but she was on her way to them.
On Feb. 9, Lumumba asked Hollis to present his children to their mother when she was to step off the plane from Kenya.
The last time Christine had seen John, he was 8. Philip was 11. Pierre was 14.
John, 15, is now 6-foot-1. He is a sophomore at Henry Clay. Philip, 17, is a senior and has just earned a scholarship to the University of Evansville where he will play soccer. Pierre, now 21, is on scholarship, playing soccer for Transylvania University, working on an international politics degree.
Hollis did drive the boys to the airport. She stopped the car when Philip said he was going to throw up and prayed with him to comfort him. She bought the roses the boys gave their mother when Christine finally got off the escalator.
But Ms. Paula stood back a bit when the official presentation time came. They could present themselves. She had taught them that much.
"How I missed you," Hollis says to Christine. "Many nights, I prayed, 'Please God, bring her to us.'"
Hollis has made duplicates of every picture she has ever taken of the boys so Christine can relive what she has missed.
Hollis explains how she made the boys repeatedly tell her stories about their mother, to keep her alive in their hearts.
She explains to Christine that she has always insisted they keep their Africanness.
"If they can't remember it," Hollis says of Africa, "they can't go back and change it."
The boys are in the process of slowly moving things from Hollis' to their parents' apartment. It is still not clear how the living arrangements are going to work. Christine has been here less than two weeks.
"God bless you abundantly, my sister," says Christine. "You gave my children a mother's warmth. You covered them with your shade."
The women now are sisters, they say. Christine is eager to begin helping Hollis with her work with the African community here. Hollis could use the help.
Pierre Manga says Ms. Paula "gave me my life. I had almost lost my teenage years."
His faith had been challenged. But not his will. He would have died for his brothers, he said.
There is no way he can thank Ms. Paula but "to love her forever," he says, "and beyond."