Sunday, January 10, 2016

Thank You to a Ninth Grade Bully

My ninth grade yearbook photo
Dear Bill,

You might not remember me; we met so long ago. But what a difference you made in my life! I was the new girl in your class when we both were in ninth grade. At 14, I worried about making friends in a small school where almost everyone else had been together since kindergarten.

Though I shyly yearned to fit in, I had to sit next to you in class. You taunted me―many times daily―"Everybody hates you!" and sneered almost as often, "Becky, you're so ugly!" You never tired of this material, and the gusto with which you heaped on abuse seemed boundless. You made every single school day a hopeless referendum on my personal value, or so I thought. My reaction was silly, but you know how impressionable young teenagers can be.

It probably looked as if I was taking it, but inside I seethed, and from the bottom of my heart I despised you and your loathsome little school. For nearly 20 years afterward, I never breathed a word about how you'd tormented me. I cared nothing about protecting your reputation; I just couldn't shake the fear that what you'd said was a reflection of me. But deep into my thirties, I finally grasped that your words reflected you alone.

Why the bullying of a cruel misfit would have outweighed the positive messages from my family, I can't say. But your pitiless persecution left me feeling unworthy, unloved, and unneeded. I escaped you and your school after ninth grade, but your sadistic insults haunted me. I worked endlessly to achieve, to show my worthiness. I hated mirrors for years, slumped my shoulders, and studied the floor as I walked to my classes.
But things got better.

My kids―from Guatemala, China, and Russia―are a rare gift.
Somewhere along the way, I learned about orphans in other countries, kids who truly had no one to love or value them. After what you did to me, their pain resonated so viscerally with me that I wanted to comfort them as soon as I was in a position to do so. And I did: I've adopted five children, and have a sixth on the way. My children are a gift from God, but that I ever came to want them was a gift from you.

For all the kids it thrilled me to find adoptive families for, it
was this girl whose adoption meant the world to me.
Later, I began to help orphans from Russia―with some of them, the mean teenaged version of you would surely have had a field day!  These poor kids were alone, friendless. They lived in cold orphanages, suffered at the hands of some of their caretakers and peers, and―just like me―felt worthless, and that no one cared. Before Russia closed to American adoption, I helped 80 of these kids find families―my all-time favorite was a beaten-down girl someone dubbed a "crushed little blossom." How my heart sang when she went home to be cherished by the family I found for her! I poured my heart into this work, because of what you taught me. I would gladly have done it forever.

In Russia, with some of the precious kids I tried to help
Once Russia shut down, I had spare time, so I adopted an eight-year-old girl from China; she is blind, but the light of my life. This remarkably winsome child tells me often that before us, not once, not ever, did anyone tell her that she was special. So I remind her of her preciousness every day. And her blindness has been such a minor issue that we are adopting another blind daughter. Adoption agencies say that blind children are among the most difficult to place, and you definitely drilled into me a compassion for the underdog!

What lies have others told poor Jon?
Despite my joy, though, I do have sadness. Several days ago, I saw another child from China. I can't open every email message I receive about waiting orphans; it would overwhelm me to face all that I can't do. But the subject line "Nine-year-old Jon wants a family so badly!" grabbed me, and I had to look. Coincidentally, I found the boy was blind. But his caretakers said he has "sunshine in his mind," which reminds me so much of my daughter, who no one had noticed was unbelievably special.

It was Jon's video that really seized my heart and wouldn't let go. That little boy, desperate for a family, was folding his blanket meticulously, then wiping a table with such urgency, that I understood him instantly. Surely made to feel insignificant because of his disability, he doesn't feel worthy, so he performs in hope of demonstrating his value. After all these years away from you, it's still easy for me to recognize, and it burned a hole in my heart. I wanted that boy for my son, and I wanted to make him know he has value, no matter what other people in his life might tell him.

Jon, age 9, on the blanket he
worked so hard to fold
But after prayer and reflection, it appears that with five children already, one of them blind, and another blind child on her way, I am stretched thin. And homeschooling keeps me busy; I could never entrust my kids to a formal school, after spending a year with you in one. As badly as my heart aches to bring Jon home, and help him heal from all the lies he's been told, I worry I just can't do it right now. So I pray that  someone else will find this little treasure, and protect him from the people who'd make him feel like a nothing. If I can't adopt him myself, I will look for someone who can.

My ability to talk about this, then to appreciate your role, has been 30 years in the making. You never meant your heartless words to help anyone, but God turned them into good―good for me, and good for others. I have the most amazing children any mother could ever hope for. And I am living a blessing-drenched life focused on helping kids who believe that each day that goes by without a family is a hopeless referendum on their value.
I know what that feels like, and it changed my life.
For that, Bill, I say thank you.

Update: Jon has since been adopted by a loving family, and is thriving in his new home.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Waiting for Wings

I didn't even remember this photo, or realize how perfect it was for Perry, until after he was gone.

Perry tells the story "Beautiful Rooster" at the
Ambassador of Hope opening ceremony.

At first glance, he seemed to have so much going against him that he could have been forgiven for feeling defeated; instead, Perry, 10, smiled easily and stayed positive despite the cerebral palsy which put him in a wheelchair, and left him in an orphanage. Nearly three years removed from my last trip to Moscow with the Russian Orphan Lighthouse Project, I'd come 5,000 miles further east as an "Ambassador of Hope" to meet him in Beijing.
Perry, front and second from right, with others kids from his
orphanage, ready to sign a song. The video of their
performance is below.

China runs on ritual; accordingly, our orphanage-sponsored visit commenced with opening ceremonies. Most of the kids bounced around the room before the start, but Perry and three other children in wheelchairs sat quietly. They seemed practiced in patience, as if waiting like afterthoughts was their birthright.
Later, Perry performed to a little song about gratitude making life worthwhile. Quick with thanks for every kindness, he lived those lyrics. But equally, he seized thoughtful opportunities to give. He made me a bracelet, intent on stringing each bead in exacting order; carried my bag in his lap as I pushed his wheelchair; and eagerly shared his candy with his friend and me.
Our second day together, we went to the Beijing Zoo. Our group―an army of Chinese orphans with various special needs, Americans visitors, and orphanage chaperones―was conspicuous, and drew endless curious stares. Yet few people seemed to notice Perry when he sought room to see the animals, and too often he was kept at a distance. Once, by pointing urgently to a pacing lion, he "asked" me to move him closer. As I pushed him toward the other children who'd gathered, a caretaker stopped us for a photo. Perry smiled cooperatively until the lady finished; when she was done, she waved us on, so he missed getting near the lion. But he stayed smiley. He enjoyed the elephants and monkeys, and posed by the zoo's pride, their giant pandas. But he was enthralled with the peacock, whose tail was beauty itself. And those wings! Even in a Chinese zoo, the peacock seemed free. 

Perry, with the panda far in the background
Perry must have been unusually sheltered. Everyday occurrences―things most people might never notice―appeared new to him, awe-inducing experiences to be soaked up and savored. It rained one morning as we were leaving the hotel. As I pushed him toward the bus, he looked up, mouth wide in wonder, and joyfully outstretched his arms as if receiving a gift. A well-intentioned caretaker rushed an umbrella over him. Though she meant well, her kindness seemed misspent. Someone knowledgeable said later that his orphanage kept its kids close, and guessed that, prior to our visit, Perry had never once left its grounds in the three or so years he'd been there.

I'd under-appreciated the Americans with Disabilities Act until I spent time in China with a child in a wheelchair. Public toilets are generally squatties, ramps infrequent, and doorways narrow. Everywhere we turned, we were forced to navigate barriers thoughtlessly erected by a culture which preferred that disabled people stay invisible. Thursday afternoon, we ate pizza at a restaurant whose only restrooms were on the second floor. There was no elevator, and Perry's caretakers couldn't carry him up the steps. Without other options, they gave him an empty water bottle to use in a corner. The dehumanizing indignities I saw him endure repeatedly―wearing a weary smile―broke my heart. I confided in another traveler how Perry's ceaseless degradation troubled me. Surely he was used to it, she replied, supposing I'd be comforted at a humiliation so commonplace it had rendered him numb.
Even small things, like tasting samples in a grocery store, were
new and special to Perry.

Perry's intelligence was evident, even with the language barrier, so it shocked me to learn he'd never gone to school. A Chinese lady on staff with an American adoption agency told me that since public schools seldom have facilities for students with special needs, they often receive no education. So Perry, who had a knack for reproducing designs he saw on paper, and told me that our president was Obama, could read only a few Mandarin characters, a deficiency not many Chinese seemed to find remarkable.

In China, orphans become unadoptable on their 14th birthdays. If Perry did not find a family, the same lady said, he would leave the orphanage soon after for an adult institution, where he would stay forever. People much older than he would live there, too, and potential for abuse would be rampant. At best, he might learn a handcraft to do day in, day out. He'd have no education, no future, no chance at self-betterment, no hope for escape. Hidden from sight, he'd be far from the collective mind of a society scarcely bothered by niceties like wheelchair accessibility or education for the disabled. It was already awful; then she froze me with the words "human farm."
Our last evening together, I interviewed him, wondering if his optimism was genuine, or if he had some premonition of what the Chinese lady had prophesied. We asked a question, standard for orphans I'd advocated for: what career would he pursue? But as soon as we asked, I felt so cruel. It was grievously apparent he'd never been encouraged to believe in a future for himself at all. How could he fathom an answer? He could not even fathom the question.

Perry smiled almost all the time.
For all his cheeriness, this endearing boy finally teared up when asked if he wanted a family. He told me he'd "try [his] best to be in a family," and that he hoped to warm the hearts of the parents who might adopt him. He sighed deeply when I asked what he would do to change the world. Eventually he said he'd help his parents, but added he never dreamed he could change the world. Having been assured beforehand by the agency that nothing was off limits, I asked the question that exposed his soul: what was life like in a wheelchair? Looking down, he softly shared his fondest wish: to be active himself, and to have wings to fly.
Perry is everything wonderful that orphan blurbs tritely bandy about: kind-hearted, intelligent, helpful, smiley. But those descriptors shed little light on a soul who has consciously made the best of a situation so heartrending―so beneath his abilities―because it is the only choice he sees. So he smiles through gut-wrenching indignities; through lack of education; and through marginalization by a culture which assumes he has little to live for, and nothing to offer. He can keep the smiles coming, until he mentions the family he yearns for. And those wings!
Is there a family with wings to spare? Perry aches to fly.
Perry's file is currently on China's shared list, meaning that interested families may adopt him through any Hague-accredited child placing agency they wish. World Association for Children and Parents (WACAP,, an agency we have worked with and loved three times, offers a $4,000 grant for Perry's adoption, based on funds availability, to families meeting income eligibility requirements. A $5,000 grant toward Perry's adoption is being offered by a church, good friends of Too Special, L.L.C., to be disbursed shortly before travel. The church grant is offered to Christian families only, and requires a simple application and approval process. Altogether, up to $9,000 in grant money is available for Perry's adoption. For more information on Perry, or to learn about the grants available for this specific child, please contact Becky De Nooy at (616) 245-3216. 

Sunday, November 22, 2015

From Russia to China...With Love

Thirteen precious orphans, plus one child who traveled
with us, on our November 2010 Lighthouse Project
trip to Moscow. Six of these children were adopted
by our families. But one of these souls was never
able to join his waiting family due to the 2012 tensions
between the United States and Russia. Russia has
not reopened to American adoption.
(Photo by David LaRocque)

I expected to stay with it forever. The Russian Orphan Lighthouse Project had been my life for six years, though I'd volunteered for longer. It stoked a passion for Russia, brought me there 14 times, gifted me a son and a daughter, and allowed me to find adoptive families for 80 older orphans. Any list of the joys I found with Lighthouse would include some of my life's most fulfilling moments.

Love of Russia could not blind me to its idiosyncracies, though. Russia never stopped feeling untamed, like a roller coaster just barely skimming its tracks. The country was touchy about everything adoption-related, yet I never imagined our program would end as it did, crushing a million tender dreams in the process.

Dear Artem almost made it home to the
family who would have changed his future.
Every child left behind broke my heart, but
none like Artem. He was such a gentle,
innocent victim of a political situation he
would never even understand.
(Photo by David LaRocque)
A cruel tit-for-tat closed Russia to American adoptive families at the end of 2012. Aiming to punish the United States for the Magnitsky Act―a piece of legislation wholly unrelated to adoption―the Russian government devastated hundreds of orphans who had adoptive families working to bring them home. Eighteen of those children―all older, two HIV-
positive, and two sibling foursomes―were headed to Lighthouse families, moms- and dads-in-waiting who had met and already adored them. It killed us to leave them behind, especially since it seemed so unlikely that they'd be adopted by Russians. In time, some of our kids did find Russian families, so at least they'd be loved. But to the best of our knowledge, few of our lost kids were so blessed.
We brainstormed ideas, then participated in nationwide family-agency-U.S. State Department conference calls which happened frequently at first, then slowed until hope died altogether. It would not have helped our Russian kids, but eventually we began looking to other countries for work. I traveled to Ukraine, and was on the verge of going to another country. Nothing materialized. And though my heart never moved on, my life finally had to.

On my trips to Russia, I'd never actively looked for children to adopt myself, though my eyes were incessantly open. During those years, three kids endeared themselves to me so much that I would have adopted any of them had I been able to arm twist my husband. But as much as his no's grieved me, I realized that the Lighthouse Project was all-consuming, and that by not adopting one orphan, I stayed able to serve many. Then it all dried up anyway, not by my will, but seemingly by Vladimir Putin's.

In September 2013, when expectations for Russia were running on fumes, my friend showed me a photo of a young Chinese girl. Even with unwanted free time on my hands, I still wasn't looking to adopt, hoping Russia might reopen. Further, the child was blind, which terrified me. So I did all I could: just prayed that the Lord would call a family. In mercy He answered―by calling mine. After a maddeningly tortured path, Eliana joined our family in February 2015, through a process so circuitous that its ultimate success scuttled any doubt that she was meant to be ours.

Randy and I meeting Eliana for the first time
Ironically, while battling for Eliana's adoption, I still greatly feared bringing home a blind child. Several parents encouraged me, claiming that their blind children were children first, and that blindness was the least remarkable part of who they were. I hardly dared believe it, but soldiered on out of duty. After her homecoming, though, I became the staunchest of believers; Eliana swiftly and gracefully compelled me to view her as only my daughter. Home nine months now, she has greatly exceeded my most optimistic expectations; her joy, positivity, sweetness, intelligence, and 20/20 heart vision define her so much more accurately than "blind" ever could. Every day since she's been home I've felt thrilled by the gift she is. So much that we are adopting again―another blind girl from China.

Eliana loves to help, and is entirely capable.
As Eliana flourished, my soul began aching for orphans with special needs like hers. Seven weeks ago, the friend who'd showed me my little one forwarded information about a trip to China quite similar to the Lighthouse Project trips I'd run in Russia. With two intensely personal connections to China through my daughters, I already loved the country, so my desire to travel was kindled. My Eliana had opened my eyes to children with special needs, and now I yearned to help them move from orphanages to families. At the beginning of November, I arrived in Beijing to meet Perry, ten, a winsome boy who would make advocacy for him easy once I got home. After our time together, I spent the last days of my trip at a foster home for visually impaired children. Blind children are among the most difficult to place; if only potential adoptive families knew what I know now!

A photo I took as I left my Russian kids' orphanage on
my first trip to Russia, back in 2005. It became the theme
 It poignantly embodied the need I saw in Russia, and
motivated my work there until the country closed to
adoption. I drew immense inspiration from these faces,
 and I pray some joy has come to their lives.
Thus, my Lighthouse Project chapter of life is over. Like closing a spell-binding book of endless surprises, I deeply regret its too-soon ending. But I'll forever treasure the profound joy it brought me in those few years; a billionaire with ten thousand lifetimes would be less blessed. The Lighthouse Project―which was really only about the kids we helped―and those at the end who we couldn't―has already begun shaping this new work in China.

As I say goodbye to Russia and its amazing story, I invite you to come along to meet China's unloved, but lovable, orphans with special needs. I plan to introduce them weekly on this blog, Too Special. I'd be honored if you subscribed and followed the blog at the right sidebar above.

There are more kids we can love and help together, and that journey is just beginning.