We are so quick to fill in the blanks, aren’t we? We get one part of a story, and we use our imagination to complete the rest.
But it’s too simplistic to do that with the care of orphaned children halfway around the world… to see an image and create a tragic narrative, hear a testimony and judge an entire community, read an account of a single incident and make assumptions about an entire system.
We want to have eyes to see the good.
And there is most definitely good to be found. So this month we are sharing stories that exemplify the good. The lovely. The things that remind us that there is always hope.
Join us this month as we share stories of love in the unlikeliest of places.
On April 7, 2015, a tiny, frail, terrified baby girl arrived at the orphanage. She was estimated to be a year old, but she weighed only 10 pounds.
She was completely shut down.
She watched people carefully, but she never smiled, and her affect was always flat. Except for crying. She cried a lot. But she quickly learned in the orphanage that crying served no purpose. No one paid much attention to her. She was rarely touched or held. She spent her days lying in a cold, metal crib with only her fingers and toes to play with. She spent hours moving her thumb in front of her face.
Several weeks later, a team from Lifeline Children’s Services visited the orphanage. This particular orphanage is known for being an incredibly difficult place. There are very limited resources, and there is a serious lack of attention for the children living there.
The team from Lifeline saw this baby girl, and they immediately knew that she was not doing well. Her eyes searched them as they held her, and they could tell that there was life behind her eyes. But they described her as “the baby with the saddest eyes” they’d ever seen.
The orphanage staff told them that this baby girl was unable to smile. She wasn’t eating well. She very rarely even moved.
One Lifeline team member held this baby for several hours during the visit. The woman smiled at the baby and talked to her. The baby watched her, her little eyes glistening with tears, but she never responded to any interaction. Except she clung in desperation to the woman’s shirt.
When it was time for the team to leave, someone else had to take the baby to put her back in the crib. The woman couldn’t bring herself to be the one to leave the baby in the metal crib.
As the team left the orphanage that day, the baby girl was heavy on all of their hearts, and they knew that something needed to be done quickly for her. It didn’t appear that she was going to survive much longer in her current condition. She was physically deteriorating, and her little spirit was broken.
About a year earlier, Lifeline had opened a new foster center, City of Grace, near this orphanage in southern China. At this foster center, 13 children were given a safe place to live where they receive love, attention, nutritious food, and individualized care. The nannies at the center are trained in how to connect to these children and how to help them develop.
The team from Lifeline knew that this baby’s best chance for survival was to move from the orphanage to the foster center where she could get more attention. They prayed that this baby would be able to hold on at the orphanage for a few more weeks, as another child would be leaving to meet her forever family; then it would be her turn to move to the foster center.
On May 21, 2015 this baby, my Elena Hope, was given another chance at life.
As she was picked up from the orphanage and taken to the foster center, the orphanage director told the foster center director, “This child cannot smile. If you are ever able to get a smile from her, please let us know.”
When Elena arrived at the foster center, she was very malnourished, sick, developmentally delayed, and withdrawn. The staff at the foster center knew that they needed to act quickly and that they needed to take drastic measures to reach her before it was too late.
For days, someone stayed right by her side around the clock. She was never left alone. She was held and rocked and talked to. She was patiently fed. She was given toys to play with.
Because of the nannies constant presence at her side, she was learning that she was safe and loved. And very slowly, she started to come back to life. Little by little, her guard came down, and the nannies started to see hints of a smile.
Then one day, she gave them a full smile. They found that she was not only fully capable of smiling, she had a very adorable smile! In the orphanage, she just had nothing to smile about. The nannies gave Elena the nickname “redeemed eyes” because of her transformation during her first few weeks at the foster center.
And she continued to thrive at the foster center. She gained weight as she started eating nutritious food on a consistent basis. She learned to sit on her own, and then she started crawling and trying to pull to stand.
Due to her early malnutrition, she had (and still has) very low muscle tone. But the nannies worked diligently to help her develop.
They encouraged her to climb and crawl, bounced her on balls, and played games to try to get her to move.
They took her outside and pushed her on swings and let her explore the grass.
They took her to a pool and let her splash in the water.
They took her to an indoor play area and helped her on slides and let her play in a ball pit.
They gave her art materials and let her finger paint and color and play with play dough.
They sang songs, did music time, and played with whistles and tambourines.
They took her on outings to the grocery store.
They decorated a room with balloons and streamers, bought her a cake, and celebrated her 2nd birthday in grand fashion!
And I know all of these things because they documented Elena’s adventures with pictures which they then gave to me when we met in China.
It’s clear from looking at all the pictures that my girl was so loved by her nannies at the foster center. And you can see how her spirit was reignited through their devoted care and attention.
In the 10 months since she has become my daughter, I continue to see evidences of the love they poured into Elena. Her “gotcha day” and the rest of our time in China was nothing short of traumatic.
She was clearly very attached to her nannies at the foster center, and leaving them was yet another terrifying experience for her. She grieved the loss of her nannies terribly, and for several days, we saw that depressed, sad eyed baby return. It was heartbreaking.
Our guide in China spoke to the director of Elena’s foster home many times, and the director even spoke to Elena on the phone several times to try to help ease her transition. At one point, she told me, “Please don’t give up on her. She will come around, and she will love you. And when she learns to trust you and love you, she will love you fiercely! That’s the kind of girl Elena is.”
And how right she was! After our difficult start, Elena has blossomed into a very sweet, sensitive, compassionate, happy, loyal little girl. There’s no doubt in my mind that she’s now very attached to her forever family.
Elena gives the best hugs and kisses, and she says “Lulou” (I love you) many times a day. She knows how to love and be loved because of the love and care she received from the nannies at the foster center.
I’m fairly sure that Elena’s physical life was saved by being moved to the foster center. And I’m 100% sure that the nannies at the foster center set her broken little heart on the path to being healed!
We are forever grateful for the opportunity Elena had to live at the foster center and for the way it changed her life!
– guest post by Wynne