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When many people think of an orphanage, they often envision babies and toddlers. I used to be one of those people, until I began working full time with orphaned children in China. On my many trips there, I began meeting and falling in love with the older children who have grown up in institutions, many who never had any true chance of finding a permanent home. Their faces and stories are in my heart now and forever, and sadly many of my memories of these great kids involve tears. Tears from Jenny, who broke down on her 14th birthday when she realized that she had aged out of the adoption system without being chosen. The final realization that she would never know what it meant to have a mom or dad caused her to fall into a deep depression. Tears from Lily, a 17 year old girl whom I had given my jacket after she admired it. When she refused to accept it initially, I put my hand on her shoulder and said, “But of course you have to take it because you are like family to me.” And it was at that one word, “family”, that this normally stoic young lady broke down and sobbed uncontrollably, as it is the one word that she had never truly known.
By far, however, the most emotional moment of my time in China came one night when I was able to meet with a group of older orphaned teens who I had watched grow up over a five year period. Every time I would visit their orphanage, I would enjoy getting to know each of them more. They all seemed so close, such good friends, and they always had smiles for me when I arrived. That night, however, was a night when all of the kids finally let their guard down with me. It was a night of real conversation and sharing about what it means to grow up an orphan, and towards the end of the evening we were all in tears. After most of the kids had left to go back to the orphanage, one of the older boys stayed to talk with me privately. I am hesitant to even write of it now, because it was such a deeply personal and emotionally raw conversation, and I do not want to break his confidence. I will write, however, that he told me that growing up without a mother or father “hurts more than death.” Children aren’t supposed to raise themselves. They are not supposed to grow up alone, which I know sounds impossible when you are growing up in a crowded orphanage. The reality though, is that hundreds of thousands of orphaned children feel utterly and completely ALONE. I held this incredible and wonderful teen in my arms as he sobbed about how much he wanted a mom, and I can’t think of it now without pain.
Why was I given the opportunity to be born into a family who could take care of me, while millions of children are born into situations that are so sad and filled with hurt that many people don’t even want to hear their stories? I have struggled with that question for years with no answers. But I do know that all of us who have been blessed to know what a family really is should make every effort possible to help those who live abandoned and as orphans. If not us, then who? Nothing changes the life of a child more than a family. Every child on this earth deserves at least one person in their life to say, “YOU are essential.” To all of the older orphaned children around the world who have aged out of the possibility of ever finding a family, I send my heartfelt prayers. You are not forgotten. We must keep working together to put programs into place to give as many children as possible the chance at a hope filled future.
Jenny and Lily didn’t have An Answer. Be The Answer for them and other children by telling a child how much you love them and how important they are in your life.