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.
I flashed my big American smile as normal when the team arrived on campus that morning. I’m sure no one could tell how anxious I was as I slowly sipped hot water with the directors and dismissed the team of American volunteers to the various rooms where they were serving.
I had long been preparing for this trip, more so than any other trip before. We had been going into this particular orphanage for a couple years already. We had a long-term vision for supporting the caregivers and, therefore, the children who they cared for. We knew the best way to do that was to build relationships first. And, we had. We entered in, gave a lot of thumbs ups, patted a lot of shoulders, enjoyed many a cup of hot water and even more selfies. Then, we entered in again and again after that. Our hope was that we were now at a different place than we were on Day 1 of Trip 1. We didn’t want to be seen as foreign experts who came in and told them how to do their jobs better; we wanted to be seen as helpful appreciators. If that were all we did, it would be enough. But, if we could give them more, I wanted to give it.
I had pitched the idea to the directors months ahead of time — a caregiver training in the form of several workshops. The American volunteers would help care for the children so a few leaders, a few foster parents, and a few ayis from each age group of children could be included. I’d need their permission though to have our cameras out from the start because the training would involve video footage that the volunteers would take during the week. I’m not sure what they thought of the idea initially, but I knew they trusted me and that it must have seemed like a good idea to some decision maker because I got a yes.
For months, I studied curriculum developed by the Fred Rogers Center called Simple Interactions, was mentored by the man who championed its development, created a PowerPoint presentation for each workshop, dreamed up ice-breaker games, and copied handouts.
While I prepared to lead the workshops, the team was tasked with capturing the videos I’d be using. Simply using their smartphones, they had the job of capturing on video developmental interactions between caregivers and children, simple interactions, that we’d watch together in the workshops with the goal of magnifying good things already happening there so that that good would grow.
I knew this place. I knew the staff. Yet, a little voice in my head whispered: What if I can’t find the good? I can do all the prep and make all the copies, but it all depends on those videos. What if we don’t catch the good we need? When I shared the whisper with my mentor, he replied: “There is always good to be found. Just take out your phones and start recording.”
And so, we did. It was going well until one of the directors casually mentioned that the afternoon workshops I had thought were going to be on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday were now going to be one several-hour-long workshop on Tuesday instead… the next day.
We’d only have one day of videos. I have three PowerPoints and lots of plans. How in the world will this work?
In my smoke-scented hotel room that night, I chose several video clips from hundreds saved on 15 different phones, clips that showed connection between a caregiver and a child. I took slides from the three PowerPoints I had spent so much time overthinking and put them together to make an all-new one, inserting the video clips from earlier that day. It wasn’t what I had envisioned, but it would be enough.
Now, here I was Tuesday morning, sipping my hot water, casually making plans for the time before the workshop that afternoon. There were several children in the kindergarten class being adopted and some who would be available for adoption soon. Before the workshop, I’d go there to take some pictures and notes to give anxiously awaiting families and encourage the teacher while I did.
When I entered, I saw a girl I had seen on earlier trips. She was memorable; she had no legs.
Despite her stature matching those of her students, she was no child; she was a young woman who had grown up in that place as an orphan herself. While her childhood friends and roommates left and never returned, she remained until she grew out of becoming a daughter on paper.
Now, she was no longer a child there, she was a caregiver, a lao shi, a teacher. I found myself completely focused on her rather than the children I was there to observe. Sitting in a tiny plastic chair on the perimeter of the room, I grabbed my phone…
I had not only captured something good; I had captured something remarkably beautiful.
When her verbal prompts weren’t enough, she literally came alongside her student, covering his small frame with her own. In that posture, she guided him so that the hand that was not able on its own was now able. She then let go, showing him he could do it now.
You are a clever boy. You can do it.
And, he did.
Like this, lao shi? Did I get it right?
She smiled, nodded, encouraged him along, gently erasing little mistakes so that he could try again, prompting him with quiet words and her eyes so that he would not forget the last little details, giving him all the time he needed rather than what was convenient, quieting the other children waiting for him so he could finish well, so that in the end he’d experience success with no shame… and smile.
That afternoon, the small group I anticipated for the workshop filled a conference room. Every well-dressed administrator sat in the front backed by rows of leaders backed by still more rows of foster mothers with working staff in matching pink sweatshirts filling the spaces left in the back. Despite the starts and stops inherent to speaking with a translator, they seemed engaged, taking photos with their phones of the images on the big screen and my slides featuring words in both English and Chinese about the importance of relationship.
They responded to each point and each little video. A few brave souls stood to speak in response when I asked them what was happening in the videos and sought to magnify the good. But, it was her video, the video taken only hours earlier that I had no plans of getting, that made the biggest impact that day.
I saw her cover her mouth and hide when she saw herself on the screen. The girls sitting in the back beside her literally lifted her up so that she could be seen. In a room full of her superiors, she shared why she thought I had chosen this simple interaction, her simple interaction, to show to everyone there. How I wish I had a video of this moment as she became tall and humbly articulated how she just wanted her student to feel like he could do it.
I smiled so big that my cheeks hurt and clapped my hands out of sheer joy like a child. I praised her for giving him exactly what he needed and teaching him something in a simple interaction that is infinitely more important than vowels on a chalkboard. Those who filled the room either looked intently upon her blushing face or scribbled notes of some sort into notebooks before them.
And, in that moment, she felt no shame, and she smiled knowing she did it.
There is always good to be found. And, perhaps the greatest good can be found when you put aside the search and simply see.