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Jan. 20, 2021

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From Congo to Camas to college

Nine years after adoption, standout athlete looks back on his journey as he prepares for life’s next chapter

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
5 Photos
Camas’ Jacques Badolato-Birdsell celebrates his team’s win over Bothell in the Class 4A state championship game on Dec. 7, 2019, in Tacoma.
Camas’ Jacques Badolato-Birdsell celebrates his team’s win over Bothell in the Class 4A state championship game on Dec. 7, 2019, in Tacoma. (The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

CAMAS — This is how many know Jacques Badolato-Birdsell: a Camas High School standout in football, wrestling and track and field who set two single-season school records in 2019 playing running back in the Papermakers’ undefeated football season.

Who can forget the last football game he played? Last December’s Class 4A state championship win over Bothell — rushing for 207 yards and scoring three touchdowns — still brings a smile to his face in a memory-filled season.

It is not, however, the only world he knows.

Long before the senior’s rise in football that led to multiple college scholarship offers, Jacques Vambel Ilunga lived in a Congolese orphanage. He’d never heard of American football; he played the world’s version of football barefoot using a ball held together by tape.

Surrounded by other orphaned children in Kinshasa, the capital city of Democratic Republic of Congo, a young and malnourished Jacques walked to school on unpaved roads littered with potholes, fetched untreated water in buckets and shared a twin bunk bed with other boys.

His world now is flooded by love in Camas.

This week marks Jacques’ 10th Christmas as the adopted son of Rod Birdsell and Dina Badolato, and brother of Poonam, a 2014 Mountain View High graduate. Christmas in Congo isn’t like Christmas in the United States, he said.

11 Photos
Jacques Badolato-Birdsell, left, and childhood friend Glody work on a puzzle in a hotel room in Kinshasa, Congo, before boarding a flight to the United States.
From Congo to Camas Photo Gallery

Christmas in Camas is better.

“Christmas is a great time to connect with family and loved ones and show your appreciation and be grateful for what you have,” said Jacques, a University of Nevada football commit.

And Jacques is, and always will be, grateful.

Beginnings in Africa

Kinshasa, considered one of the world’s most dangerous cities, is deeply abundant in impoverishment. From 1996 to 2003, Congo was ravaged by the First and Second Congo Wars that resulted in 5 million deaths.

Jacques’ memories of home are vivid.

“There was always violence every day,” said Jacques, now 17. “There’s zones you can’t be in. Certain areas at certain times, you had to leave. There’s people who don’t want you, and you’d put yourself at risk.”

It is estimated that there are more than 4 million orphaned and unwanted children in Congo. Jacques used to be one. He doesn’t know why he and four siblings were taken from their family home and placed at a Catholic-run orphanage in Kinshasa. Jacques estimated he was 6 when it happened.

No explanation. No hugs goodbye. He didn’t know what being unwanted or unloved meant.

“I was too young to know what that feeling was,” he said.

Life wasn’t easy at the orphanage, with two adults taking care of more than 40 children. They were separated by gender for sleeping arrangements — sometimes up to four children per bunk bed. The one meal per day often consisted of Congolese staples: rice, beans, chicken. They also received a breakfast-type bar for their long walks to school. Jacques didn’t enjoy the bar, but it was better than the alternative.

“You just had to eat it,” he said, “because you’re hungry.”

What kept Jacques’ powering through every day, he said, were the orphanage’s younger children. He became a leader by example, and he took responsibility to protect those from being bullied and harassed. Fights happened often.

“All those kids looked up to me,” he said. “It felt like a burden that I had to carry and show them how it’s done.”

A nearby dirt soccer field became a place of bliss. So did a swing set where children could take turns playing.

A half a world away, Dina Badolato found her son.

Call to adopt

There was something about the orphan’s face Badolato couldn’t forget staring at her computer. The wide smile. The dark brown eyes. A little boy who deserved a chance.

Dina Badolato and her husband, Rod Birdsell, have now been married 18 years. Badolato teaches sixth-grade humanities at Covington Middle School, and Birdsell works in multimedia sales at The Columbian.

Badolato’s journey of adopting children began in the mid-1990s when she and her husband from a previous marriage expanded their family by way of international adoption. They welcomed daughter Poonam, from India, in 1996.

She wanted to expand her family again. Birdsell, a stepfather at the time, came around to the idea.

“Now after the fact,” he said, “it’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.”

Badolato worked with a Utah-based adoption agency. She sought children from countries with the highest need. Jacques’ face showed up in her email one day — not once, but twice. Jacques sat available for adoption for three years. Her second inquiry on the child proved successful.

“I knew in my heart that he was the one,” she said. “I knew we were supposed to have him.”

Between 2010 and 2013, U.S. adoptions from Congo rose 645 percent, according to the U.S. Department of State, before the African country imposed a moratorium on exit visas to children being adopted by foreign parents. It was lifted in 2016.

Jacques was fortunate never to be in legal limbo. A 10-month grueling process of tears and holdups was finalized in 2011 when Badolato traveled to Kinshasa to meet her son for the first time. For months, the family sent gifts and clothes, and spoke to Jacques by telephone. He knew he was headed to the United States when he excitedly greeted “maman” — French for mom — at the orphanage’s main entrance.

“He came running and threw his arms around me,” Badolato said. “That was pretty awesome.”

More good news followed. Jacques’ younger twin siblings, Marcus and Vicky, also became adopted by a Medford, Ore., couple.

Badolato and Birdsell chose not to change their son’s first name; however, they added to it: Jacques Vambel Ilunga Badolato-Birdsell. They also chose a new birthdate for his Washington birth certificate of June 24, 2003. The month and day is when Dina first met Jacques in-person, and since Jacques didn’t have a Congolese medical records or birth certificate, medical specialists locally estimated he was 8 years old at the time of adoption.

The American culture adjustment was a swift one for Jacques. Not even a language barrier could stop the family from an instant bond. Jacques spoke no English; his native languages are French and Lingala. He entered third grade in the fall of 2011 at Fircrest Elementary, the elementary home-base for Evergreen Public Schools’ Newcomer Program. The long-standing program assists non-English speaking immigrant students as they adjust to new surroundings and provides a smooth transition into their neighborhood school, according to the district.

Jacques enrolled at Camas schools as a seventh grader at Skyridge Middle School.

By that time, Jacques’ athleticism shined brightly.

Instant athleticism

Birdsell taught his son to ride a bike, then immediately saw how athletically gifted his son was.

Playing pick-up soccer at a nearby school, Jacques showcased skilled tricks and fired off shots into the back of a goal.

“When I got home,” Birdsell said, “I told Dina, ‘This little kid is an athlete.’ ”

Soccer, though, gave way to America’s football. The father is a big college football fan, and often took Jacques to Husky Stadium for University of Washington home football games.

He got hooked on football. The couple agreed to let their son play eighth-grade football at Skyridge. Jacques held them to that promise.

“I had them sign a piece of paper, and I kept it,” the teen said.

Jacques’ soccer footwork made for a good football transition. Especially playing defense at cornerback, he said. For a kid who used to be afraid to be tackled — and make tackles — he now plows defenders over and bursts through holes created by the offensive line with force and speed. Now up to 205 pounds, Jacques said he believes he was born to play football. He’s found a silver lining waiting for a delayed senior season because of the ongoing coronavirus concerns. The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association has scheduled football to kick off in March.

“It’s been pretty hard, but we can all work on ourselves football-wise and personal-wise with family,” he said. “And remember why you play the sport you love; it gives you a better appreciation.”

Last fall, Jacques was named to The Columbian’s All-Region football team after rushing for 1,602 yards and scoring 29 touchdowns — both of which are Camas school records, said Camas head coach Jon Eagle.

Those statistics don’t surprise longtime friend and teammate Jake Blair, Camas’ starting quarterback. He points to Jacques’ work ethic as a reason why.

“It was expected for him to put those kinds of numbers up,” Blair said. “We think he’s the best running back in the state. The state championship game is what really made him come out.”

College football programs took notice, too. Jacques committed to the University of Nevada on Oct. 30, and plans to major in business.

Eagle, Camas’ head coach, has coached football for 38 years. He said what makes Jacques unique is a certain determination and relentlessness of achieving goals that not everyone has.

“A lot of kids are really good about telling you what their goals are,” the coach said, “but it’s quite a different thing with kids who follow through and do the necessary things that will get them to where they want to be.

“His work ethic is really unmatched.”

Jacques’ parents call their son a fighter filled with resiliency shown every day. Their children by way of international adoption are the light of their lives, they say. Jacques believes his life has been shaped this way for a purpose, and knows it is special to have a family like Rod, Dina and Poonam.

And another family, too: the Camas community.

“You can come from anywhere and do what you want, regardless of what you’ve faced,” Jacques said. “Anything is possible if you put your mind to it.

“I could’ve been all over the world,” he added. “Camas will always be in my heart regardless of where I go.”

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