Rescue gives New Diana senior new life, parents
April 19, 2017 at 7:03 a.m.
Updated April 19, 2017 at 7:03 a.m.
Amber Chandler raised herself from age 8, growing up in Costa Rica without a father and with a mother who came home drunk, with strange men or sometimes not at all.
So when Mitch and Peggy Chandler found the then-10-year-old girl alone at her home at the top of a mountain and offered her a better life, she took a chance.
On Tuesday morning in front of her adoptive parents, teachers and friends at New Diana High School, Amber signed an $84,000 scholarship to attend Schreiner University in Kerrville and compete with the school's woman's shooting team.
It's something Amber said her 10-year-old self could never have imagined.
"When (Mitch) said, 'You don't have to live like this anymore,' that's when I said OK," Amber said of the day the Chandlers found her in Costa Rica. "I knew I was taking off with two strangers, but anything was better than where I was, for sure.
"That little girl ... didn't know what was going to happen that night," Amber said. "There was no way she could be dreaming that she'd be going to college to go shoot in Texas."
New Diana High School Principal Jenifer Politi stood in the school library Tuesday morning with Amber and praised the senior's dedication. Her champion belt buckles and medals, from area school shooting competitions, sat next to a giant cake.
Amber's FFA coach, Johnny Willeford, said she was one of the easiest students he's taught since the school's shooting program started seven years ago.
"She's been a fantastic young lady to teach, and I wish I had a whole lot more of her," he said.
But it was Amber's father who talked to anyone in the library who would listen Tuesday about how proud he was of his daughter, who's now planning to become a veterinarian. She had come a long way from where he found her that night in Costa Rica.
"It's a really good day," he told the crowd.
Mitch Chandler first learned about his future daughter by accident.
He and his wife, who have no other children, had retired to Costa Rica before starting their own business in the country.
He was at a restaurant when a woman "in dire straits" was thrown outside.
The woman was Amber's birth mother.
While looking through the woman's purse to find someone who could help her, Chandler found a photo of a young girl.
"He called me and he told me about her mother," Peggy Chandler said. "He told me, 'I found a picture in her wallet of a little girl, and I think she might be in trouble.' 'Well,' I said, 'put her in the truck and try to get her home.'"
Mitch Chandler said God led them to Amber's home; the Chandlers didn't have an address or phone number to start a search. Instead, they called taxi companies and friends to try to find out who the girl was and eventually found her in another town.
Costa Rica's child protective services department gave the Chandlers emergency custody the night they found Amber and then temporary full-time custody after that.
In all, Amber spent two years and nine months living with the Chandlers before they were allowed to officially adopt her.
The day after Christmas in 2010, they moved back to East Texas.
"We wanted her to be around grandparents, aunts and uncles now that she had some, so it was inevitable that we'd come home," Peggy Chandler said.
Amber said it was an adjustment to have her new parents around.
"It was very difficult at first, specifically with my dad because I didn't have one growing up, and the only image that I had of a man was bad," she said. "So we've had to work through some things and get adjusted to each other for sure, but we've definitely gone a long way.
"With my mom, once I left my real mom, and my mom now… she basically just kind of filled in a void except it was 1,000 times better. She wasn't drunk, she wasn't coming in at 4 o'clock in the morning, she wasn't having sex with five different men each week."
Mitch was eager for Amber to learn how to shoot and hunt, like he did growing up. But Amber had grown up in a culture that viewed such things as cruel, so she didn't take an interest at first.
It wasn't until she discovered she enjoyed being outside that she first felt like she wanted to shoot.
"Once I figured out what nature was and how everything around me was just amazing, that's when I said 'OK, this isn't too bad. That looks pretty fun,' " Amber said.
Mitch, who stayed behind in Costa Rica for a year for the business, flew back to Texas and took his daughter hunting when she finally asked.
"I'll never forget when she shot a deer that morning," he said. "We high-fived and hugged and her adrenaline was pumping. She was shaking, but she was happy and smiling and laughing and stuff."
The Chandlers said finding Amber was divine intervention.
Amber, who grew up in a heavily Catholic country, didn't believe in God and said she didn't want anything to do with church. That is, until the night before the Chandlers found her. Amber had been waiting — and wishing — for her mother to come home again.
"I got down on my knees that night and started crying and said, 'God, I don't know if you exist or if you're even out there or if you're even listening to me, but I need help,'" Amber said. "The very next night, two angels show up at my door."