Still Running: Samuel Pyle's chronicled journey to find home

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Part One

By Elliott Pratt


Samuel Pyle wants to be a normal teenager, but he can’t.

He wants to play soccer and run track just like his teammates. He does, but he’s got an edge.

Education is the most important thing to him, but he’s a 19-year-old entering his senior year of high school and he’s got a lot of catching up to do.

He’s often confused, but he’s okay with it because he’s still learning. He won’t tell you he’s confused, or often scared, because he understands it’s all part of the process, and he’s okay with that, too.

“You are made for so much more than all of this.”

He would hear those words through his headphones before every track meet. It’s the lyrics of “Beautiful” by MercyMe, a song his mother dedicated to him back when his lifestyle today was a dream. He’ll listen to that song before warming up with his teammates, but it’s usually on his own before his run. He’s probably standing by himself watching the competition in his own world, still trying to adjust to the new physical world he lives in today.

He often asks the question: Why me? Then reassures himself that he was made for so much more. 

The Pyle family’s story made local headlines when Francis and Lori Pyle, already parents of three, adopted three children from Sierra Leone: Samuel, Bethany and Drake.

Newspapers, local TV stations and select national media all told this family’s story. Two years since three children from Sierra Leone stepped off a plane in Louisville and were welcomed into a new life and a new family, there are still things Lori and Francis are learning about the newest additions of their now family of eight.

Samuel is the oldest, which means there’s more of his life to piece together. And it isn’t easy.

To understand why he’s still confused, why there are still moments of fear, and why he desires normalcy, you have to hear it straight from Samuel. For the first time, he has to tell his own story.

Life in Sierra Leone


When an election occurs every four years in the United States there are always conflicting and opposing parties. When an election occurs in Sierra Leone, there’s nearly a civil war.

When a child gets sick in the United States, healthcare is immediately available. When a child gets sick in Sierra Leone, healthcare is scarce. Sometimes they die.

When a child is hungry in the United States, food and nourishment is plentiful. When a child is hungry in Sierra Leone, sometimes they stay that way. It’s not promised you’re going to eat, not promised you’ll be treated, and the threat of civil war is just another day.

That’s why Samuel had to leave. That’s why he ran.

He’s seen death, he’s been sick and he’s been hungry.

To understand Samuel, one must first understand Sierra Leone. Or at least try.

A civil war broke out in the country on Africa’s west coast in 1991. Conflict from the neighbors to the south in Liberia spilled across the border. Sierra Leone, led by president Joseph Saidu Momoh, a Major General, deployed troops to the borders to repel incoming Liberian rebel forces. 

The forces, known as the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) were led by Liberian president Charles Taylor. Joining alongside NPFL was the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), led by former Sierra Leone army corporal Foday Sankoh. Together, RUF and NPFL came to overthrow Momoh’s office by seizing towns and villages, beginning this civil war.

Rebels would capture and rape women and children, often forcing them into battle. Rebels left over 50,000 dead and 2.5 million as refugees.

The war ended in 2002, but 13 years later the country still feels and fears those days.

Samuel was born in the middle of it all in 1995. He was six when he witnessed the cold darkness of the war before his very eyes. He cringes and visualizes the scene like it happened yesterday.

“There was this guy, and the rebels caught him and took a knife and chopped him up right in front of me. They cut him from his heels first so he couldn’t walk. He was shouting. The rebels called all of us out and said watch what would happen if we did any other thing (against the rebels), we would be like this guy. They threw the guy into the water and the next morning, we watched his body lying there.”

The war filled the local orphanages to capacity, Samuel and his younger brother and sister being a part of that. 

He could have easily been swallowed into the violent culture of his homeland. It would have been easy for Samuel to become a thief, a child submitted into war.

But he believed he was made for so much more than all of this.

That’s why Samuel had to leave. That’s why he ran.

Samuel said his biological father died when he was maybe seven or eight. He doesn’t know how he died, but that’s not uncommon. Some are killed, some pass away from illness. Some disappear for months and never return. 

“One time I went to church and one person was preaching and he said, ‘Everything that happens you give thanks to God.’ I’m like, ‘Why should I thank God for taking the life of my father?’ God wanted me to be strong. During that time I didn’t know much. The only thing I cared about was get food, eat and the orphanage. Later on I always believed God was going to do something different.”

Sam was fighting for his life much like every other orphan in the area. Even in the seclusion of an orphanage, a child’s best interests aren’t always priority. 

So he ran.


Run to refuge


Enter Lori Pyle into Samuel’s life. Or as Lori will tell you, Samuel entered hers.

Visiting on a mission trip with her daughter McKenna to deliver blankets to an orphanage in Septemeber 2009, Lori’s mission was to help children with disabilities better communicate. She’s a speech pathologist at Oldham County Middle School and a married mother of three.

“My husband said do not go over there thinking we are going to adopt because we’re not,” Lori said. “I was being obedient. I was legitimately not trying to get attached to the babies because they’re so precious and they want you so much, at least the ones who aren’t afraid of the white people.”

There’s human trafficking in Sierra Leone, most commonly children for labor and sexual exploitations. The “white people” were rumored around town to be the ones taking the children. Often enough, children at the orphanage were instructed not to speak to white people.

“They talk about child trafficking over there but they traffic their own children,” Lori said.

Samuel believes he almost fell victim to trafficking when he was about 10 years old. In one of the many instances when he would stay with friends, close family, or even on the streets out in the village, he would fetch firewood for a woman every Saturday.

“I would put it on my head for more than six miles walking to her house just on Saturdays,” Samuel said. “It happens within the country. They took some boys to the diamond area to dig diamonds in different places. Some people kind of took kids and sold them to go work for them, which when I was little, I think that’s what the lady was doing to me.

“There were some other boys at the orphanage and sometimes we wouldn’t see them anymore. We would ask where they were and they would tell us they were taken to the village. One of the boys went to the diamonds and he escaped and came back. But he didn’t go back to the orphanage. He was on the streets and he said they wanted to kill him.”

Lori had interacted with Samuel and the rest of the orphanage children by handing out candy and playing basketball.

“They had never seen a girl playing basketball, especially against boys,” Lori said. “We just created that bond with them and that’s when he ran away to come find me.”

Samuel woke up at 4:30 a.m. one day to search for Lori. He left the orphanage and got on a poda poda (bus) to head toward The Family Kingdom Resort, where he learned through a friend at the orphanage that’s where the women were staying. It’s a two-hour car ride from the orphanage to Family Kingdom, which sits on the northeast edge of the capital city Freetown on a peninsula on the outermost western edge of the country. 

At this time, Samuel was 13 years old. He had never been in the city, and definitely never to Family Kingdom. That’s a family resort. No reason for an orphan to wander to these outskirts unless, of course, he was seeking his family. 

Four hours after leaving the orphanage and blindly finding his way to Family Kingdom, Samuel found Lori at the hotel. She brought him in, fed him, clothed him and listened to his story.

“I think they didn’t feel safe there,” Lori said. “Whatever it was, it was enough that would cause him to run away to say things are not good here. Samuel ran away and came and said, ‘Things are not good. I want to go to school. We’re not eating.’ Things were not good for his brother and sister.

“They weren’t doing any of the things they said they were doing. They didn’t have clean water. At one point in our trips, we went over and the kids were told they were not allowed to speak to us because we were there to take them with child trafficking. They were scared that’s what we were doing.”

Because of the rumor, the ladies tried to keep a low profile returning Samuel back to the orphanage. If Samuel was seen dropped off at the orphanage gates by a van full of white women, well, that wouldn’t have been good.

Instead they dropped Samuel off in the middle of one of the busiest town squares, and gave him transport money to return to the orphanage on his own. As dangerous as driving all the way to the orphanage would have been, it was scarier for Samuel to be a small boy on his own with a pocketful of money in a place he had never been.

“That was the scariest place,” Samuel said. “It’s really scary for anybody. People who can take money from your pockets...I went to one bathroom and stood there for a very long time. I left and went down the street watching if anybody was tracking me. They will start watching you if they know you have money. 

“I was going to pretend like I knew this place. I started walking and took some money out and got myself a biscuit. I was not really comfortable but I had to pretend.”

Comfort was hard to come by until Lori and Samuel met. The streets were one of the places Samuel sought temporary comfort. He had friends there and could often scrounge up change. But you didn’t dare keep money on you wherever you had to lie down at night. There are no street lights. When it’s dark, the moon is the only light source. Thieves would cut it out of your pockets at night and if you didn’t have money when they found you, well, that wouldn’t have been good either.

“We would dig a hole and cover our money with a stone,” Samuel said. “We would put paper in our pockets. If they come and you don’t have anything, they’re going to beat you up. So when they would take the paper they would think it was money and go with it.”

Unfortunately, life wasn’t much better at the orphanage. There were four rooms at the compound for between 80-100 boys to sleep and one of those rooms was occupied by Jim. Jim was an enforcer in his early 20s, a disciplinarian who worked at the orphanage. In reality, Jim was an abuser. 

“If you don’t come quick to the room to have a spot to lie down it will be taken,” Samuel recalls. “You will just sit down on the wall until the morning. You have to make sure you have a mattress. The older boys get a mattress, the others just lie down on the floor. There would be blankets there, but a person older than you would just take it from you and you’re not going to argue because if you argue, you have to leave your room or get beat there. 

“I was beaten a lot.”

Jim did most of the beating. It was either that or not eat, and there was no guarantee the children would get more than one meal a day anyway. Even if a child’s sponsor sent a package, more often than not, it would go directly to Jim’s room never to be seen. 

And don’t dare ask about it. If you ask, there’s a beating. If you argue, there’s a beating. You want to lie to Jim? There’s another. 

If you’re over 18 and still living in the orphanage and do something to make Jim mad, don’t let the door hit you on the way out of the compound into the street.

If the women of the orphanage didn’t feel like cooking breakfast in the morning, then tough luck. Better go get rotten mangos out of the garbage or beg for leftovers and fresh water on the street during the day. Then there was the mosque next door to the orphanage. Samuel and his friends discovered food at the mosque during prayer. They would often sneak out of the compound early in the morning and pretended they were Muslims just to get something to eat.

“When I think about it now, it’s funny. But I had to dress like a Muslim and I started to learn Arabic and said the prayer,” Samuel said. “The security at the orphanage didn’t get paid for six months, so he quit. There’s no security any more at the gate. So we open the gate really, really lightly without making noise. If we get back and there’s no food for us, then we already got something.”

Even when Jim caught them and they were punished, they would still go back. Being punished for finding food wasn’t right and they knew it, but they had to eat no matter the sacrifice.

Punishments and fighting in general were a common occurrence. You never did fight back if Jim or one of the other workers decided it was merited, no matter how skewed the motive. It almost was an act of entertainment, watching two boys fight until they were tired. 

“I would say, ‘Where is this going to take us,’” Samuel often asked himself. “We’re just going to be here with Jim beating us and not going to school. I’m like, we’re not in good medication because some kids are really sick. When I left, I went to Mom.”

Samuel had enough, so he ran.


‘Go get our kids’


Like many who visit a country full of poverty and barren of hope, Lori was still in Sierra Leone mentally even a few weeks following her return to the states. She had no clue why Samuel was brought into her life, but she couldn’t stop thinking about him.

“I had no intentions of adopting necessarily, but I didn’t know what to do with the feeling I had for him,” Lori said. “I was literally heartbroken to leave him, but couldn’t feel that way because I was never going back to Africa in my mind. That was it, I thought I was done.”

Once the Pyle’s oldest son Malachi heard the story, he was the first to say the word “adopt.” Lori and Francis didn’t say anything else for several weeks.

“I remember it was late in the night. I just sat up in bed and said, ‘Okay. This is what I’m feeling. I cannot get Sam out of my heart,’” Lori recalls telling her husband. “’I don’t expect you to say we should adopt him. I don’t expect you to say we should do anything. I’m just telling you I’m hurting because I love him and I don’t know what to do with that.”

Another few weeks passed.

Francis was on a business trip sitting at a hotel restaurant in Florence, Alabama eating breakfast with a man who was a professed agnostic. He listened to this man’s viewpoints on faith and life. Then, “it was just like God kicked me,” he said.

Lori recalls: “I was at a friend’s birthday party with all the kids and he called me and said, ‘Lori, I think we need to go get our kids.’ I said, ‘I have them all. They’re right here with me.’ He said, ‘No, I mean our kids in Africa.’”

Francis, just like Samuel, lost his own father at an early age. 

“He will say that he knows what Sam felt, that void of a parent,” Lori said. “He thought, ‘I’m going to fill that void,’ and he wouldn’t just rescue him and bring him here but actually be his dad and me actually be his mom.”

That way, Samuel could stop running...


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