When Pastor Ivo told us we'd be going to an orphanage on Tuesday, I was excited. Truly the words orphanage and excited don't belong together in a sentence but that was what I was feeling.
Waking up Tuesday morning I felt a mixture of the aforementioned excitement and quite a bit of trepidation. According to Pastor Ivo this was a 'good' orphanage but I couldn't help but wonder what good signified and how the words good and orphanage could even go together. I spent most of the morning in prayer and chiming in on the conversations going on around me. Conversations about breakfast, ways to bring little ones home with us and what we would be doing that particular Tuesday at the orphanage.
Pulling up to the orphanage my pulse quickened and my palms grew sweaty - this was it! Today I would be able to hug, love and spend time with children who had no family; today these children would know someone loves them. The van door was barely open before little arms were waving in the air for someone to pick them up.
Gabby was the first little love that made it into my arms. Gabby was a slight 3 year old girl who lives at the orphanage with her sister, brother and her mother. Her mother fled to the orphanage from a bad situation and has found respite and safety within the orphanage compound. She now works providing care for the other orphans, cooking and cleaning all while being able to keep her children safe with her. Gabby was one of the lucky children we met.
After a brief meeting with the orphanage director, a few of our team members went to cook while others of us went to tour the orphanage and meet the children. Most of the children were at school but the littlest ones were flitting about; some laughing, some smiling and some not even willing to meet the eyes of the strangers coming to visit. Walking into one of the girls rooms, a little love was laying on the floor. She'd been sick with a fever and was isolated from the other children. But why if she was sick, was she laying on the floor? We'd find out the answer later; despite the ample amount of beds and cribs the littler children all slept on mats on the floor. Despite having rails safety was the given reason. After discussion with Pastor Ivo's wife, Mariolas, it seems that sleeping on a mat on the floor provides less work for the women there.
We met child after child. Recess started at the school and we made our way up to the playground. Orphans that live on the school grounds and children that live with their families both attend this school but it was easily to tell whom lived where. The children that lived with their families were wearing clean uniforms, their hair looked fresh and they were indifferent to the strangers in their midst. The orphans? Their uniforms were either ill-fitting or holey, their hair was mussed and they flocked to the members of our team knowing it meant extra attention, someone to play with and if they were lucky some sweets.
This is when I met Inez, Bersida, Katarina and Carlo... how I loved these little ones. There was no language barrier as they just wanted my attention. We took pictures together on my phone, played a really odd game of dodge ball and spent time coloring. There were also a lot hugs, hand holding and lap sitting. These young children were just starving for a human touch and to be loved. My heart just ached recognizing that while they had a place to sleep, food to eat and were getting an educated they were missing the most fundamental part of life; love.
Making our way back toward the orphanage I encountered little Maria. Two nights prior Pastor Ivo had told me the story of a mother-daughter combination living at the orphanage and one look from Pastor Ivo confirmed this was the little girl he had told me about. Maria and her mother Brenda have been living at the orphanage for all of Maria's life. For the first time in Brenda's life she feels safe and she's mothering Maria the best way she knows. But it's not enough. Brenda still needs a mother herself; she needs someone to love her, tell her how special she is and teach her about Jesus. And Maria, the little love who is described by the orphanage director as the girl who never smiles needs someone to ensure she has someone who loves her enough to make her smile.
All to quickly lunch was served, pinatas were broken and we began to hand out new clothes. Mari, our team leader, met a women who heads up Dresses for Orphans while she was at Summit this past May. They supplied us with 100 dresses and t-shirts to give to the orphans. The look of excitement on each child's face as they were handed a dress (or t-shirt for the boys) was priceless; to have a dress that was new, fit them and was all theirs seemed almost too good to be true. The fact that we had a shirt or dress in each child's side was a gift from God.
After clothes were handed out, it was time to go. Departure was delayed by long goodbyes, extra hugs and last words. Holding Maria one last time, kissing Brenda's forehead and telling her I loved her about broke my heart. The van was loaded, the gates opened, we waved goodbye and pulled away.
And my heart broke. Conversations started around me but I couldn't even grasp the topic as I tried to grasp the fact that we had to leave all of those little loves. I put my head against the seat to hide my tears as I silently cried out to God. How did we let this happen? Why is no one speaking up for these children? Where is the Church amidst this disaster? What can I do?
A gentle hand touched my shoulder and I knew it was Mari. Mari, my fellow high school alum, my sister in Christ and my friend who has a huge heart for the orphans. She too was feeling my paint.
I left part of my heart in that orphanage. With Maria and Brenda. With Bersida, Inez, Katarina, Carlo, Paul, Eduardo, Flora, Patrica. All of those orphans - they are unadoptable. I know because I inquired - if I had my way we'd be working out a plan to get these children into a home right now. Brenda would have a mom and Maria a grandma. But until they're ready to leave, the orphanage will be there home. And it's not really a home - it's just a place to live. A home is a place with a family to love you, to teach you and to always be there for you. A home is where you learn unconditional love, right from wrong and where you belong.
I was excited to visit an orphanage and I'm glad I did. Before I cared about the orphans, prayed for them, advocated for them and wanted to bring them home. But it's different now. Now the 160 million orphans in the world have faces, names.
And I can't forget them. Inez's smile and Brenda's untrusting expression swim through my mind throughout the day. Sometimes I can still feel Maria in my arms when she finally realized she was safe with me or see Katarina praying with Alex.
Each and every orphan is so much more than the sum of the orphan crisis. They're children, babies and young adults that simply need a family, someone to love them and give them a chance.
Now, I just need to figure out what exactly my part is in the orphan crisis. We can't adopt them all and adoption isn't the only answer to the problem. But these little ones, they deserve a solution to the orphan crisis as their future depends on it.