We arrive at Tommy’s orphanage bright and early and I fumble in my wallet for the taxi fare.
We chat quietly on the black couch in the now-familiar foyer while we wait for the director to make her appearance as planned. There is a sober sort of anticipation hanging about us.
As the director walks toward our group, we stand to greet her, and our eyes meet in understanding of the significance of what we’re about to do. I fight down the emotion that rises within. The time has finally come.
I trail along behind the rest of the group as we emerge from the tiny elevator onto the top floor, hands clasped behind my back. As we enter the ward, I brace myself for an overpowering bad odor, but instead…the savory smell of chicken soup. No trace of any stench. None.
The first room we enter on the top floor undoes me.
There he is, a very small boy whose face is as familiar to me as the face of any of my children. We are told that he is seventeen years old, and the realization sweeps over me that here is yet another beloved child whose chance at freedom and family is nearly gone. Gone, but for the briefest glimpse of the merest glimmer of hope…
And there they are, two new nurses who were hired to care for the children on the top floor. Each woman is interacting with a child. As I scan their faces, it is immediately apparent to me which one is the Christian foster mother. I look into her crinkling, kindly, peaceful, competent face and she looks back at me. Her eyes are radiant with life and meaning. We manage to communicate using no words at all, underneath the conversation that flows all around us.
But the group moves off to the next room and I again trail slowly behind them, soaking it in, hoping not to miss any detail.
As I enter the room, my therapist friend has already lifted a tiny girl from her seat. It is “B,” a girl whose name has been on the side of our family’s refrigerator for months, as her file was sent back to her government first once, then twice.
My friend places her gently in my arms, explaining that she wants to check her back for scoliosis.
I can hardly see her face through the welling tears. ”B” is not a photo on a refrigerator. She is real, a living, breathing, moving little survivor girl. I cuddle her close with an overwhelming awareness of how very, very rejected she has been, by her parents first, then by her caregivers, and then by the thousands of people in our country who have seen her on blogs and waiting lists. She is a soft and cuddly non-demanding dependent baby, despite her age, and will almost certainly always be a baby. Here is a child for a family who loves babies. A special family who will accept and value “B” for who she is and rejoice in the privilege of bringing her into the tender embrace of their family and showering her with all the love that she has obviously not received. A family who will see her as God sees her and love her as God loves her. And the world should marvel at such a sight, because God’s kind of love defies all the cold logic that hardened human hearts can muster.
As I walk away from “B,” I raise my eyes to the faces of the caregivers. These are not new nurses who were hired with donated funds. These caregivers have been here long-term. They look directly into my eyes with hostile challenge.
It’s better if I play naive American lady and pretend I don’t notice the angry stares.
“More new nurses,” goes automatically onto my prayer list.
We move slowly from child to child, the physical therapist from the US with thirty years’ experience assessing each child, asking questions, working on positioning them in better ways in their cribs, jotting down notes on the needs she notices.
We keep walking. We walk through every room of the top floor that holds children.
I see child after child I already know and love.
There are children who have remained off the grid.
Some of them have parents who have not released them for adoption. The director is trying passionately to give these parents vision and strengthen their courage to keep and raise their own children.
Some of the children are caught in one legal tangle or another.
Some of the children have already aged out of any hope for adoption. They must be adopted by the age of sixteen in order to be adopted by US parents, and their chances of being adopted by families in other countries is very low. They will spend the rest of their lives in state care, unless…
We pause in a connecting room to discuss this with the director. I sense that now is the time to communicate my passion for other older children like Tommy.
What can be done to identify the children in this orphanage who are most at risk of aging out and make them available for adoption before it’s too late? They may not have much of a chance to receive families, humanly speaking, but if they aren’t made available for adoption, they have zero chance!
And what of the children who are past the legal age for adoption? What can be done for them?
I don’t tell the director about last night, and the gut-wrenching sobs that my friend and I barely held in until we reached our hotel room. Right before the end of our visit with Tommy, we had met a tiny child and then learned it was too late for her. At the same time, we learned that the toddler-sized girl with the extra chromosome in Tommy’s class, a girl I have prayed would be listed for adoption, has already aged out.
Oh God! Oh God! I can’t bear this. Have mercy.
He broke into my sobs and put a sudden thought in my head. I dried my tears, searched furiously for their name and email address from last summer, and typed.
“C, a serious request…”
“I don’t know how to say this, so I’m just going to ask you straight.
“I’m in Tommy’s city right now, and wondering whether you are still open to adopting a child who has been severely neglected, up to the age of 18…”
“Because there are children here in Tommy’s orphanage who are past the age that they are available to be adopted by Americans, C. They are between the ages of 16 and 18 years old. By all human logic, they would not even have survived the treatment they received for so long, let alone receive the gift of a family who is not in America. But God’s logic isn’t our logic, so I had to ask. Precious children with beautiful smiles when they are spoken to and loved on and our hearts are breaking for them as we hear that they are over 16…”
“One little girl, no bigger than a very thin three year old, is seventeen and has the sweetest soul. She loved being touched. She grasped a toy and liked the interaction about the toy—not necessarily the toy—she liked the interaction over the toy. She smiled and smiled with her beautiful face and eyes and tried to talk. She has cerebral palsy and severe scoliosis, worse than Tommy’s. Her range of motion in her legs is good.”
That conversation continued, and has moved in an incredible, unforeseen direction. I cannot tell you more, but I can ask you to pray. Please ask for great things from our great and mighty God.
The director takes time to explain the legal side of these issues. Not for the first or last time this week, I have the surreal experience of hearing my own conclusions come out of her mouth.
The ideal option for children with special needs is for their birth parents to take them home and love them and care for them. I tell her that I am aware of the very small but growing number of parents in her country who are doing just this, and of those who are helping provide some of the support and resources that are so lacking, just as they were in our country not very long ago.
Since the ideal is already long since out of reach for most of the children with special needs in Tommy’s orphanage, their best hope is to be adopted.
She says that paid foster care would be third in line, but the problem in her country is that foster families don’t want to take children with special needs.
The fourth option, she says, is to move groups of the children to smaller orphanage settings. Her opinion of that option goes something like this. A small institution is just another version of a large institution, and children don’t belong in institutions.
I do tell the director about the little glimmer of hope we had just glimpsed for the children under her care who are between the ages of sixteen and eighteen. These children are not typical sixteen and eighteen-year-olds. They have been so damaged by the treatment they have endured all their lives that they are very tiny, developmentally delayed, dependent, and have developed various socially-unacceptable orphanage behaviors. None of them are bigger than a four or five year old, and most will always be like babies or toddlers.
We keep walking.
We leave the top floor and without a word, we move to the next. Walking, walking, through every room that holds children, stopping for every child we meet who has special needs. My friend’s practiced eye sees what I would miss. ”What is this child’s diagnosis?” she asks, and nods her head when her guess is correct. She lingers to make suggestions and take notes.
We walk through the next room and the next room and the next floor and the next wing and the next room, and so on and on, until we have been all throughout Tommy’s orphanage. The desire of my heart, granted.
We observe many empty beds and learn that every child who is able to be out of bed is out of bed. I miss seeing some of the children I know because they are being moved about somewhere else in this gargantuan concrete building. They are not spending all day in their beds.
I exclaim over the many children who will be going home this year. “Oh, I’m friends with the mommy who’s adopting this little one!” I tell them that their daddies and mommies love them and are coming to get them by and by. Two of the children I see have only four more days until their families break them out of here forever.
We learn that two years ago, five children with special needs were adopted from Tommy’s orphanage. Last year, there were twenty. So far, there are over two dozen more children with special needs going home this year who I know of, and this is only January. I begin to get the picture that the end goal is within sight. Oh God, finish the good work You have begun here!
Three extremely fragile children wring the grieving tears from my heart. I plead with God to take them where they will finally be without suffering and be able to know that they are loved. None of the three would long survive the trauma of travel. One of them is “H,” known to some of you. We have prayed for him for months, and now I am weeping over his tiny, laboring form. Oh, God, his home is with You. Please have mercy on him and carry him home.
A child is placed in my arms and his name is spoken to me. I know this squeezable bundle with the extra chromosome! Oh precious boy, your daddy and mommy are finding it painfully hard to wait for you!
A tiny girl responds to me with a most beautiful smile and giggle. I want her to see my smile and not my tears of joy at the privilege of meeting her in person. Later, I write to her mama, “She will change your life.”
The mama of one small boy is eager to hear how severe his contractures are. Will he be able to sit in a car seat? How can he be transported?
I smile a quavery smile at another miniature older girl whose adoption has been mired by one delay after another. I tell her that her mama is doing all she can to bring her home quickly!
Child after child after child.
I catch sight of a small boy who is on his country’s adoption list but whose file has been sent back. It is incredible to me that “O” has not received a family. He is adorable, younger and doing well, with mild special needs, the type of waiting child who is usually chosen quickly. I look at him and wonder as I have wondered many times before, “Why hasn’t he been chosen?”
And then my friend glances into a small, narrow room, and says, “Look who I see.”
I look. And my heart skips a beat.
He is unbelievably teeny tiny, just skin and bones.
I know immediately that nearly 100% of people in this whole world WOULD NOT WANT THIS BOY, and give up trying to hide my tears.
He is so cheerful, so active, holding on to his caregiver’s hands and pulling ahead to walk. He is more delayed than photos of him portray. I have to fight back deep sobs as I squat down next to “C” and take his hands in mine. I feel the helpless feeling of loving him and wondering whether anyone else will ever love him enough to make him their son. I know that there are some other mothers who would love him too were they right there as I was, looking into his face. But I’m here and they aren’t. How can I possibly convey the reality of this very tiny, very much alive miracle boy to people who have never been here, have never seen what I have seen, who will read “C’s” medical file and be scared away by the words? Those words, no matter what they are, do not make up the essence of this little fighter boy!
My heart cannot bear this unspeakable searing pain. Potential parents have already looked at “B’s” file and “C’s” file and not chosen them or been rejected as potential parents by the government in “B” and “C’s” country. Their files have been sent back to their government not once, but twice. I cling to what I know about the character of God to give me hope for them. Other children with more delays have been chosen and taken home! God can and has changed people’s hearts so they see as He sees and love as He loves. He can do this for these two children. The family or families who adopt “B” and “C” will be this kind of special, not because they are going to be such difficult children, but honestly, because of the widespread hardness of heart that is repelled by children like “B” and “C.”
And Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, what you have done for the least of these My brothers you have done to Me.” Our hearts have been repelled by Him, we have rejected Him, sent His file back over and over, told Him He’s not good enough to fit into the lives we have chosen for ourselves.
My friends, the lives of these precious ones are of infinitely more value than the excuses we make for not welcoming them into our families.
On the last elevator ride, I thank the director. ”It was more than I could have asked for.” We say our goodbyes, emotionally spent.
But the day’s events are not half over.
We decide to skip lunch in favor of fitting in a trip to a children’s shoe store. We snack on the nutrition bars we packed in our bags that morning while we wait for an orphanage driver and teacher (called a pedagogue) to accompany us.
These salesladies grow more and more animated at our mission, and eventually lock the door to further customers and bring us all orange juice. The lady on the right has a grandmother who is the baba for one of the children I know in Tommy’s orphanage.
[Yes, I've ditched the crutches and go gingerly limping along on my ankle, doing my best to inconspicuously protect it from further injury, but it's very swollen and hurts pretty much. Despite my fond hopes, it seems not to be God's idea for me to be inconspicuous this week.]
My therapist friend takes most of the photos, so they don’t accurately reflect the reality that she was the decision maker for which boots are best for each child.
We don’t buy the most expensive, nor do we buy the cheapest. We choose good quality shoes that will best suit the individual needs of each child.
I pinch myself to see whether this is for real or whether I’m at home in my bed dreaming a fairy tale.
Each bag is marked with a child’s name. The manager is called and decides to give us a 15% discount.
It’s really true! We’re really in Tommy’s city…
…buying new, warm boots for over two dozen children in Tommy’s orphanage.
It’s nearly time to take Tommy for his visa photo, so we leave the pedagogue to choose the children’s winter coats and go back to the orphanage for Tommy.
We climb into the orphanage vehicle that was purchased with donated funds after the previous orphanage transport died.
Maggie holds Tommy for his visa photo. According to the rules, only the child must show in the photo, he must be looking at the camera, and his mouth must be closed. Maggie tells me her opinion of these rules, having translated for several families who have adopted children with Down syndrome.
Yes, that is a hot pink scarf. It clashed with the pastel pinks and yellows on his hat. Cute, huh?
I had been braced for some disapproval on Tommy’s part at all these proceedings, but he was unflappable.
We arrive back at the orphanage in time for Tommy’s afternoon snack. Once again, the caregiver has dressed him in a nice boy outfit rather than in layers of shabby orphanage pajamas.
And back to the little therapy room for some playtime.
We had been told that if any of the boots or shoes did not fit the children properly, they could be returned and replaced.
I try Tommy’s new shoes carefully on his tiny, deformed feet as he watches with obvious interest and approbation.
The shoes will provide some appropriate support for him during his time in the walker.
This young man…
…of the joy of life.
My friend wanted to capture a shot of the proud and privileged wheelchair mom.
Until we learn what the doctors recommend for Tommy’s scoliosis (possibly body bracing), his safest, most comfortable and pain-free resting position is on his back.
Mr. Sticky Fingers snatches Maggie’s camera case and makes up a little game to play with it by placing it back where he found it and using the cord to pull it back down. He wants to do this over and over and each time responds with peals of giggles.
The director comes in to say goodbye before heading home, and stays for an enlightening conversation with Maggie, which she translates for us later. We take this opportunity to snap some treasured photos of this lovely woman with Tommy, then with Tommy and me.
Tommy’s baba meets with us once more so I can put The Bag into her safekeeping, to be used for his favorite items until we return to take him home.
Maggie has already transliterated the captions in Tommy’s photo album, and his baba promises to show him the photos often, naming each person as she goes.
Yet another better-than-dream come true…
We say goodbye to Tommy and take our famished selves to our favorite eating spot. My friend and I are in such a profoundly exhausted emotional state that we tacitly agree on a mutual brain rest for the evening.
Tomorrow is our last morning here…