As a tall and athletic 13-year-old black girl growing up in Rotterdam, Devan Diabate couldn't help but be conspicuous. She felt very uncomfortable, and stepping on a basketball court only made things worse.
'I was 6-feet tall, and while I was one of the few African Americans at Schalmont Middle School, I didn't know how to do a layup," said Diabate, who as Devan Lucas Hunt went on to play three seasons of varsity basketball at Schenectady High as well as four more years of Division I ball at Temple University in Philadelphia. "I didn't want to play basketball, and I felt like some of the people at Schalmont weren't nice. I felt like I stood out, in a bad way. I felt intimidated."
Fortunately, Diabate's story got a lot better. She found some great mentors at Schalmont that began developing her athleticism and a love for basketball, and then she moved to Schenectady High as a freshman when her family relocated to the city. She became a three-sport standout, also excelling in volleyball and the shot put, and was also successful academically, well enough in fact that Temple University never balked at her grades while recruiting her.
Left: Devan is flanked by her adopted sisters Heather Cashen, left, and Melissa Flanagan. Right: Devan with her husband, Moussa, and their 12-year-old son, James.
These days she's a happily-married mother of a 12-year-old son named James, and also has two stepchildren belonging to her husband from a previous marriage. Life got a little bit too busy to fulfill dreams of becoming a physician, but with a master's degree in microbiology from Thomas Jefferson University, Diabate has a high profile position with Siemens Healthineers, a medical technology company in Cary, North Carolina. Her success, she says, is easily explained. She never wanted to disappoint the two people she refers to as her parents, Bill and Donna Hunt. A white couple both now deceased, Donna Hunt was a nurse at St. Clare's Hospital and her husband an electrician when they took young Devan, then just a baby, into their Rotterdam home.
"I'm nothing special, or if I am it's because of the grace of God," said Diabate. "I will always be forever grateful to my parents who fought really hard to keep me. They saw something in me that I didn't see myself. I knew my parents sacrificed a lot for me, and I didn't want that sacrifice to be in vain."
While her birth mother lived in Schenectady, Diabate became a Rotterdam resident at a very young age. Donna Hunt, already in Schenectady County’s foster care system and working at St. Clare’s, made a few phone calls and at the end of her shift one day decided to take Devan home with her.
"I'm not quite sure if it was three weeks or three months, but my sister Melissa remembers when we came home that day she ran up to my mom, who was carrying this little bundle, and said, 'oh, we got a puppy?'" said Diabate. "My mom was like, 'no, we got a baby sister instead.' Then, 13 years later I was still there when the state finally decided they could become my legal guardians. But I was one of the first interracial guardianships so they were never able to officially adopt me."
Official or not, there was no doubt Devan was part of the family. Bill and Donna Hunt proved that when Devan was 8 after her birth mother took her to Florida to meet her father. She went willingly, but her heart was still in Schenectady County.
"My biological mother took me out of the state when my parents were petitioning to adopt me, and she thought maybe I could live with my father in Florida," said Diabate. "I had met him once during the whole 13 years, and during that time it was tough going back and forth. It was hard being in an unstable home. I'd be in Rotterdam during the week and in Schenectady on the weekends. My biological mother thought if she took me away to Florida that would get rid of my foster parents. But they came all the way down to get me and take me back home, for which I am eternally grateful."
With her legal status cleared up, Diabate started to feel a bit more comfortable in her own skin. She discovered that basketball could be fun, and with the help of Domenic Tebano and others at Schalmont she began tapping into her wealth of athletic ability.
"I noticed her height right away, and while she wasn't really coordinated yet, you could tell she was a great athlete," said Tebano, a Rotterdam resident whose daughter, Annalisa, was a standout high school player at Holy Names and went on to play at Iona University. "I don't think she had ever touched a basketball, but she worked hard, paid attention and was a quick learner. I liked her right away. She was a great kid and I just felt like she was going to go far."
By the time Diabate showed up at Schenectady High as a freshman two years later, she was ready to perform at a high level. She played freshman and junior varsity basketball in ninth grade, and in her final three years was a varsity performer in hoop, vollleyball and track and field.
"You could tell Devan had so much raw potential, and it was a pleasure to watch her play and watch her keep on getting better and better," said Craig Brown, the Schenectady High School principal during Diabate's time there. "But she was also a terrific young lady who turned into a wonderful person despite all the turmoil she went through in her life. She had all these wonderful physical attributes, and you didn't have to worry about her in the classroom. She was a joy to be around."
Diabate wasn't a big scorer, but her defense and rebounding kept the Patriots in most games, and her skills on the volleyball court helped Schenectady claim its only Section II, Class A title in that sport in 1995. Mary Ozarowski was the varsity coach in both sports.
"We didn't beat Maginn or Catholic Central, but we were right there with them and Devan was a big part of that," said Ozarowski. "In volleyball she helped us win the Big 10 and the sectional championship. She always came to practice with a smile, and it was difficult for me to know all that she was dealing with because she was pretty private about it. But she was the nicest kid you could ever meet, and I got to know her parents a little bit when she was being recruited by Division I schools. They were at all of her games, and they were very nice and sincere people."
Steve Lemon, Diabete's social studies teacher at Schenectady, was also a big fan.
"If I had a class full of Devans that would be wonderful," said Lemon, still a teacher at the school. "She was an absolute sweetheart, and I also worked the basketball games and watched her play. She was a hard worker. She always tried hard on the court and in the classroom. She was just a great kid."
Along with Temple, Diabate was recruited by about a dozen schools, including the University of Vermont, Duquesne and George Mason.
"I had never really been away from my parents, but I liked Philadelphia and it was far enough away for me to be independent," remembered Diabate, who stopped growing when she reached 6-foot-2. "No matter what I ended up doing after college, I thought Philly would be a be a good place to try anything."
Diabate wasn't a regular starter on the Temple team, but she was a contributor, and she continued to play basketball in recreational leagues up until five years ago. She graduated from Temple in 2000 with a degree in biology, and then spent 2002-2005 at Thomas Jefferson University, also in Philadelphia, earning her master's in science, microbiology and infection control.
"My time at Temple were some of the best years of my life," said Diabate. "Along with being a student-athlete I learned how to advocate for myself and work really hard. I wanted to be a physician, and while that didn't happen, I did get to do some genetic research that was published while I was getting my master's. I had a pretty good job after I graduated from Temple, but I wanted to do more than sit in a lab and manufacture drugs, and that's why I went to Thomas Jefferson. I always really liked science. I took my science book on all my basketball trips."
Diabate only moved to Fuquay Varina, North Carolina, a little more than a year ago to take a new position with Siemens. Her professional title is Global Application Technical Trainer. When she's not working she's helping her son develop some new-found interest in basketball. She also finds time to keep in touch with her three sisters. Melissa Flanagan of Saratoga Springs and Heather Cashen of Toledo, Ohio were the birth daughters of Bill and Donna Hunt, and Sherry Hunt, now a nurse in Troy, was a Fresh Air child who spent several summers with the Hunts.
While Devan was too young to remember that first trip home from St. Clare's to Rotterdam, her sister Melissa, 11 at the time, does.
"I was pretty familiar with black kids because my parents had taken in Fresh Air kids before Devan came home with us," said Flanagan. "It was not a big deal at all. I remember I got to take care of her hair so I was happy. And she always was a really, really good kid."
Along with staying close to her sisters, Diabate does check in with her birth mother from time to time, and also has a brother that she maintains contact with.
"My mother had some issues but we still have a relationship," said Diabate. "The Bible calls for me to honor and respect her so I do, and I'm still very close to my biological brother, Derick. I had it good compared to my biological siblings. I was in a great place."
Diabate doesn't even like to think about where she might be without Donna and Bill Hunt.
"They chose to keep me," she said. "They didn't get any money from the state when they wanted to be my legal guardians. They didn't spoil me with things. They just loved me and they believed in me. I will always be grateful."
Adoption by the numbers
Here are 10 facts and figures about adoption, legal guardianship and foster parenting.
1. Adoptive parents are typically in their 30s to mid 40s.
2. Adoptive children are completely in the care of their adoptive adults.
3. A legal guardian has rightful control and can make decisions on behalf of the child, but the child will also maintain a legal connection with his or her birth parents.
4. Legal guardianship is a more permanent solution than foster care.
5. Three years is the average wait for a child in foster care to be adopted.
6. 117,000 children in the U.S. are waiting in foster care homes for an adoptive family.
7. 20,000 children age out of the foster care system every year with no family or permanent home.
8. 5,000 children were adopted by their forever families during the 18th annual National Adoption Day in 2017.
9. 70,000 is the total number of children National Adoption Day has helped move from foster care to a forever family since its inception in 2000.
10. Aside from county social services, people in the greater Capital Region can adopt children through the foster care departments of Catholic Charities, Northern Rivers (Parsons Child and Family Center in Albany and Northeast Parent and Child Society in Schenectady) and Berkshire Children and Families in Hadley, Massachusetts.