Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A HERO AMONG US..The Tale of A Young Boy

Well, we made the long journey home and I took yesterday to gather myself before I threw out another blog post. After a solid 24 hours of travel I was greeted by my family at the airport, where if you know my sister, you know that she has to get pictures of everything....seems to run in the fam :)

Our hearts were so torn over having to return to normal life in America while leaving 3 out of our group behind in Sierra Leone. There were many conversations on the way home about how our hearts are now changed by what we experienced on this trip of a lifetime. We set out on what we thought was a simple task of showing up in a country and helping to move some orphans to a new facility. Well.........boy did we get more than we bargained for.

I am going to attempt to allow you to step into our wild adventure by catching a glimpse of some of our moments that really are too much to try to explain without just showing you. The events took place as if it was all a movie. Soooo....since I am known for capturing moments....that is exactly what I did on this trip. I went to Sierra Leone with the intent of partnering up with The Raining Season in order to document the lives of these children. I wanted to help capture their personalities through my lens in order to help them get sponsorship or adopted, once the ban is lifted off of Sierra Leone, as far as adoptions are concerned. This is my passion and yet I had no idea that I would end up documenting our daily lives as God would have us expose corruption within the walls of that country. But I quickly learned that as I documented our daily lives and all that God was bringing to the surface, I was documenting miracles taking place right before me. If we put ourselves out there for God to use us, there is literally no telling what can happen and I hope to be able to express in words some of the miracles that took place on this trip. Many of you have wanted if you are up for a post that is more like a novel....then get comfortable and read on.

The above picture was taken just a few hours before 7 out of 10 of us headed back to America with troubled hearts because our task was not complete.

We all had specific things on this trip that we thought we were showing up to do. I can say that not one of us accomplished what we thought we would. We quickly learned that God had other plans in mind....These were plans that none of us ever could have imagined in our wildest dreams. Just go and make yourself a willing vessel to be used by God and watch and see how He shows up.

Allow me to show you.....

Most of us met up in the Nashville airport. There were several of us who did not know hardly anyone in our group of 10 women. We literally met in the airport, introduced ourselves, and headed out on our two week adventure.

Let me tell you that I could not have hand picked a better group to spend two weeks with. It truly is amazing how we all have the same passion for the orphan yet different gifts and talents. You put them all together and you have an awesome group to bond and make life long friendships with as well as accomplish things that you never could have done alone.

We took off on our journey with 30 something bags filled with donations for the new center that we were so excited to open. Getting them all on and off the planes and through customs was interesting to say the least.

Not to mention catching the train and throwing them all on before the doors closed.

Then.......getting them on the helicopter once we land in Sierra Leone that carries us over the canal and into the city of Freetown.

Then....loading them into the cars to get all 10 of us and our bags to our hotel. Whoo!! Talk about Planes, Trains, and Automobiles!!

But we arrived to find some of the most precious, little , amazing people waiting for us. I can't even explain our first day with the kids. They were just so hungry for love and attention. It weighs so heavily on your heart. You are kind of left with not knowing what to do with such a tremendous need. We quickly realized that their conditions were not healthy, which made us all the more anxious and excited about getting them moved to a place where they would have all their needs met.

We met new friends that each of us bonded with.

Our journey was beginning as planned. We showed up at this center full of children that we thought we would immediately be able to help.

The children stole our hearts

Some of us were making life long relationships during those first few days and we didn't even know it.

Some of the children told us a little about themselves but most of them just let us love on them and talk to them. They all were so precious. They would ask us questions about America and you would see their little minds just dreaming.

There was one little boy in particular that would later open our hearts and our eyes in ways we never could have imagined. This boy, on that first day, just seemed friendly and sweet like all the rest of the kids. We found that certain children attached themselves to certain members of our group and made a special connection. This boy seemed to have a special connection with Lori from our group of women who showed up to help on this mission. What we didnt' realize was that we had a hero among us. There was so much bravery inside this young boy that had not been unleashed and it was just busting to get out. He was a young boy that had not had the privilege of having a childhood. He sits at the door of manhood, yet still has the heart of a child that he never got to be. He was a simple boy.....a simple boy named Sam. How could we ever have known what lay before us all?? How could he?

We quickly realized that our plans for this center meant nothing. Things quickly started to go in other directions and we became discouraged, wondering why we didn't have the children by now. We literally went to bed one night not knowing what the next day would bring. We had no plans at all because our plans had been tossed out the window. It had been several days since we had been to the center and things were not looking good.

We awoke the next morning to Erica busting through the door, scaring us all half to death out of our deep sleeps. She was screaming at Lori, "Lori, Lori, get up....Sam is here!! Sam is out by the gate!" She saw Sam outside, completely out of the blue, and he had asked to see Lori. Well, since things had not been going well at this center, she immediately thought something was wrong with all the children and could not imagine what in the world Sam was doing at our hotel or how he even got there. It scared her to death, which she in turn, scared us all to death.

In case you are wondering....the way that Erica busted in on all of us later became something that we kept laughing about so we had them reinact the scene and I captured it then. No, I did not have my camera on deck right out of a deep sleep.....would have been nice, though.

We quickly learned that you just could never predict your days. We would end a day with not knowing what the next one would hold. The next one always left us in a state of awe and wonder at how God works all things together as He does.

I can't tell you how sad it was to see little Sam come to us, completely on his own, to ask us for help. He was so thin and looked as if he hadn't eaten in days. We immediately sat him down and gave him something to eat. He began to tell us of his fears that we would not be back to help him. You see, he saw hope in us, that we would be an answer for all of them. He had not been able to go to school in over 4 years. All he wants in the whole world is to go to school. He says he wants to be a lawyer one day. He overheard the director talk about how she would never give the kids to our new center. He came to us to ask us for help. To ask us to not give up on them. He also told us of the realities that go on at that center and it just broke our hearts. There is neglect and abuse beyond anything we could have imagined. This young boy had gotten together with some of the other older boys and set out to the home of the mother of Erica's adopted daughter. They asked her for the phone number for us but she would not give it to them because she did not know their intentions. They asked her to then give us a message and tell us to come help them. We didn't get that message for many days, after we had already seen Sam. The next day none of the boys had any money and could not get transport so Sam took it upon himself to go to his mother who was very sick and lived nearby. He told those at the center that he was walking over to see his uncle for the day. He got his mother's blessing to go look for help and borrowed money from his uncle to have enough to cover transport as he set out on his journey. Our hotel is about a two hour drive in traffic from the center where he lived. He heard where we were staying and set out to find us. He had enough transport money for one way....and that was our direction. He had no idea what lay before him but he had seen a glimpse of some help and was that desperate enough to set out and make sure that it didn't slip away.

Lori greeted him and gave him comfort as he looked scared, yet so brave to sit and tell us things that i'm sure he had not ever told before about what goes on in his world. Here we were, complete strangers, yet because Lori bonded with him on our first day by just being kind and showing interest and talking and laughing with him, he saw hope in her, he saw God's love in her and he moved mountains to get to it again and not let it slip away.

I can't tell you how incredibly sad it all was. All we knew was that we had to help this young boy as well as all of the children after hearing what they go through. Our eyes had been opened and now we had to act.

Unfortunately in order to give us time to act, and to not let anyone know that Sam had been with us, he chose to return to the center later that day. He is such a brave boy. His two younger siblings remained at that place and he could not bare the thought of leaving them there. We had already been to the center at this point and taken pictures of all of the children with their shirts pulled up in order to get medical assessments on them. We were horrified by what we found.

We immediately set up an appointment with the Minister of Social Welfare to approach him to ask for help with this matter. We took our pictures of the children and set out to get help.

We also met a wonderful nurse that met us there and gave her opinion about the children and what was going on with them. She later went out there with us and confirmed that they were all malnurished and many of them had hernias as a result. She said they were in a horrible state of health and were at risk.

We were all very troubled over all of this new information regarding the children and we felt the burden that lay on our shoulders to find them help.

Our whole group went in and met with the minister who seemed to have compassion for the situation and acted as if he was ready to act.

He learned of all the instances and even heard from Sam himself about everything. He called in Unicef to do a report. After Unicef went to the center they too agreed that the center was not fit for these children and wrote a report to have them moved. The minister told us that the plan was to have the children moved to our center.

So Sam goes back to the awful center, knowing what he knows, and waits for action. We, as well, wait for someone to move, but it never happens. We get very frustrated and we call, and we call, and we go back down to the minister's office only to not be able to see him. We keep getting the run around as to why they are not acting on the situation. They had seen pictures, heard from one of the boys living there, heard from us as eye witnesses, and they had been down there and seen it for themselves.....and yet no one was stepping up for these children. It was just mind boggling.

We then start getting threatening phone calls as well as our driver/friend. They say they are aware that we are involved with this and they make things very uneasy for us. We start hearing about connections that these people have in the government and start putting the puzzle pieces together as to why things are not moving and why it was as if people were protecting this woman that runs this awful center.

We really start worrying about the kids and especially Sam. We had let him out on the road about two miles from the center because he did not want to be seen with us. We never knew if he got back ok or not and it had been several days and still nothing was moving. So we decide to pop in for a surprise visit. Myself and Tina and her two 14 year old daughters were on our way to Emily's village to see her birth family when we had to drive right past that place. So on a whim we decide to pop in there.

We pull in and it was eery. Instead of the children running to us like they had previously done, they run away from us. They looked scared of us. BUT, I saw Sam as soon as we pulled in and my heart was at rest. I was so relieved to see him and know that he was ok. We later learned that they had threatened the children and told them that if we ever showed up and if any of them speak to us then they would be beaten. I walked up and snapped a few pics of the kids as I walked through. Sam just had a slight relieved look on his face with a small grin. You could tell he was relieved to see us. I took his picture as well in order to bring it back to my group and show them that he was ok.
He stood above the rest of the if their protector.

Several days went by of us calling everyone we could think of to ask for help for these children and still nothing was moving. Then, out of the blue, Sam shows up at our hotel again. It was very sad. He had on the same shirt that I had taken his picture in 3 days earlier and he was wearing pajama bottoms. Again, he was very hungry so we set him down and gave him something to eat. He began to tell us that after we left the center that last time, that they kicked him as well as a few other kids out on the street because I took pictures of them and they had spoken to us that day when they told none of the children to speak to us. He had stayed a couple of days with his uncle until he could gather enough money for transport over to us again.

We were glad to have him finally free of this place although he worried a great deal for his sister and brother who remained. He said that his mother wanted to collect her children from this center as well as some other mothers. So we got a new ray of hope and thought that we could get the kids by having their parents go in and get them out.

One of our Sierra Leonian friends, who was just a Godsend to us on this trip, showed up to help. She is pregnant with twins, we think. She used to work for Red Cross during the war and she currently works for World Vision and is a child protection worker . She said that she would take Sam and go talk to his mother for us. Sam was worried for our protection and said that he needed a "black" person to go with him. Julia quickly stepped up. They headed out the door with the plan to go speak to Sam's mother who lives right over beside this awful center. The next thing we know Julia calls us from down there. We hear all kinds of yelling in the background and complete chaos going on. She tells us that somehow the orphanage director found out that she was coming that way and had people meet her on the street and approach her as a set up. Her son also approached Julia and raised his hand like he was going to hit her and someone stepped in and stopped him. Somehow, through their lies, they had Julia arrested. They made up lies and told a police officer that she was there to try to buy children. It was just horrible. All we knew was that Julia had been taken to jail and we had no idea where Sam was. People stepped up to bat for Julia at the police station and she was later released. We learned that Sam stuck by her side the whole time and she let him stay at her house for the night with her family so that he would not be in danger. As our minds were spinning at this point, we realized we had not spoken to the Mayor's office about this situation. We started at the top, thinking the minister would be the best bet, but then contacted a councilman in the Mayor's office who quickly came to hear what was going on. He came over that night and met with us and heard the whole story. We also had him hear it first hand from Erica's adopted daughter's brother who had lived at the center for years. He told this councilman everything that had gone on at that place. We finally felt as if we had someone in our corner to help these children. He went out there to the center and came back and reported that he saw the kids in conditions that looked torturous. He seemed very motivated to get them out of there. Again.....we had a ray of hope. It had been well over a week. Could someone finally help us free these children?

He had us show up at City Council the next morning on a Saturday. He had to bring it before a few poeple because, of course, the Mayor was out of town at the moment.

Our nerves were on edge as we worried about those children. It had been so long and we feared they thought we had forgotten about them. We prayed and prayed that this was our answer we had been looking for.

The nurse who had been helping us with the children as well as Julia and Sam and Erica's adopted daughter's brother showed up to the councilman's office to try to help.

How relieved we all were to see Sam after we had heard about his horrible night before. He has made such a sweet connection with Lori. He immediately went to her for assurance.

It truly is amazing to see what a sweet connection these two had in such a short time. She truly had the heart of a mother for this sweet boy and he so desparately needed it.

We all sit and wait as we hear the councilman take this on. He gets resistence from others in his office about going to get the kids out. He is going to bat for these kids.
We sit down with the boys and they start showing us the children who have left the center. This group ran across these kids back in Dec and have been supporting them since. Well, we have found that some of them are no longer there and we don't know where they have gone. These brave boys start pointing out the kids and telling us where they think they are.

Our greatest fears are that something horrible has happened to these kids. They knew where some of them went, and then they didn't have a clue where some of them were. At one point the councilman came in and told us that he didn't think he would be able to get the kids out that day. He couldn't get people to get on board with him although we could clearly see he was fighting for it. Our spirits were beginning to get crushed again.

All we knew to do was to pray. Everything up to this point had failed. We keep hearing of more horrible things associated with that center and yet the kids still remained there.

Just when we thought all hope was lost, he finally convinced them to get the kids out on a rescue mission. He said that if anything happened he would take the heat for it.

We were so thrilled. He took two police officers, one of the boys, and a woman from social welfare and headed out. We were praising God that it was finally time to get these kids moved.

We went back to our new center and sat and waited for them to arrive. We received a call that there was a riot going on down there and that these people would not relinquish the children. This sent us into a state of prayer warrior. We all gathered together right there in the center and just started crying out to God on these kids behalf.

We even had some praise and worship and just thanked God for coming through for these children. We prayed and we believed for God to work it out.

Then the call came from the councilman telling us that they had left without the children. Our hearts just sank. He said that they had locked the kids in a hot room and that some of them were getting shoved around. He said that for the protection of the kids they decided to leave and let it cool down. Which we didn't understand how protecting the kids could mean leaving them there, but there was nothing else we could do.
This all took place the day before we were to leave to head back for America. We really believed that God would come through last minute for these kids and we would still be able to see them get set free. It had been two weeks of us fighting for these kids and we were still back to square one.
I walked out on the balcony, depressed and discouraged, and looked down at the carpenters continuing to build all the bunk beds to prepare for these children. I was reminded by God that this was not our battle but it was His. The further we tilled down this path toward the children, the more dirt piled up in the middle of it. He is uncovering that which is done in the darkness and bringing it into the light.
As exhausting as it all is, we realize that God was using us to uncover a lot more than we ever could have imagined in the lives of these precious children. There was so much that two weeks is not enough time to allow God to get everything set up as it should be to bring everything about these people to light. We know that he has a plan. We also know that these children will get set free. They have destinies and we have been fortunate enough to see the destiny of one boy named Sam because we stepped out of our comfort zone and entered a country that we knew nothing about in order to follow God's call and help children, just as he was brave enough to step up and reach out to people that he knew nothing about. God is the connector of both.

There are many lives waiting to be changed on this trip. There are many works in progress waiting to come through.

In some children I see pain.

In some children, I see hope. The above picture of the older child is Sam's sister.

But I can't help but many more Sam's are there out there?

How many children have hopes and dreams and destinies that lay before them?

How many kids look at us and see hope but can't picture it for themselves and don't have the ability to run towards it?

Each one of these children have a destiny.

Some of them find joy in God's love alone while they wait and hope for things to change.

Again, I ask, how many more Sam's are there?

How many more Julia's are there who are willing to fight for justice?

How many more sons are out there?

How many more daughters are out there?

I can tell you that I have found a Hero in Sam. He showed up one morning when we were sitting, waiting for God to act on these kids behalf. We were praying for God to move....and in walked Sam. He has led the way for the rest of them.
So, with heavy hearts, as our mission is far from complete, we say our goodbyes to the three in our group who we leave behind to continue the fight for justice.
Our group of 10, after two weeks, becomes 3......and the story continues.
The day after we leave they got in touch with Sam's mom who they knew was sick, according to Sam. In spite of her illness she shows up to go to the councilman's office with everyone to try to get help to get her other two children back. The rest I will tell you in Erica's words taken from her blog....

"Yesterday his mother came to visit us..when she arrived we were shocked by her condition...he had mentioned she had been sick for some time...she looked like she weighed about 60 pounds....when I say skin and's no exaggeration...When I realized she could barely walk I frantically ran to the hotel office and asked where I could find the closest doctor...I was told there was a Lebanese doctor practicing right outside our gate..he treats all of the international guests where we are staying. I took her over and he examined and immediately started her on fluids...he suspected she had malaria and typhoid and was also severely anemic with inflammation in the lungs and low liver function....he ordered a complete blood /lab workup....We took her to a guest house close by so she would be close enough to come in for treatments...this morning I dropped her off for her treatments and headed into town for the council meeting.
We returned late this afternoon and there was a quick knock at the door. The doctor was standing in the doorway and we could tell right away the news wasn't good. He began explaining that Sam's mother, Matilda, had tested positive and was in the advanced stage of AIDS. Because of her fragile condition her body can't fight infection so on top of this terrible diagnosis she also has many other conditions that she is battling...."
They have moved Sam and his mother to a guest house close to them in order to be able to monitor her condition.
She is pictured above with Sam and below as she was getting treatment. I can't imagine the fear she must have.
Erica told me that after she had been on her drip for a while she walked over to check in on her and she was sitting there saying out loud, "thank you, Jesus.....thank you for the white people who have helped me." She told Erica she had not felt this good in a long time.
It was early the next morning that the Dr sat down with Sam and his mother and told them the news. They do not expect her to live but for another couple of months. They had Lori on deck with Skype and had her immediately talk to Sam and his mother over the internet to lift his spirits which they say she did.
Another twist in the story is that they found Sam's older sister who he has not seen in 4 years. She has shown up to try to help. She sat down with them and told them how thier father was killed right in front of all of them by the rebels during the war,while their mother was pregnant with the youngest boy. They all fled for their lives and escaped. It was then that they met this orphanage director and she took the children in saying she was going to help this mother who was left with all the children alone. She took the children in, along with many others, except we now fear and realize it was for her personal gain in order to receive money from the government by having an "orphanage". It was not for the benefit of the children or the mother at all.
When I say that the battle is God's and that we don't know what each day will bring, I am not kidding at all. God has unfolded this trip just as He had planned. Each day brings something new. Sometimes it doesn't always look like what we think it should. But in the end it is the missing link to the puzzle.
But I do know that because one boy was so brave to step out on his own for help, he now has made a connection with someone that he sees the love of God in, someone who will be there for him and show him the love of a mother, however God can make that happen, when he had no idea that he is about to lose his own mother. Lori was no different then all of us who stepped up to go on this trip. I remember her telling me in the beginning that she was hoping that God would open her eyes on this trip and show her a calling He has on her life. She said she really didn't even know what her purpose for coming on the trip was but that she just felt she needed to go. Let that be a lesson to all of us as to how God can use you. Sam's mother will now have the peace of knowing that her children will be taken care of. There is no telling how many prayers this woman has prayed over the years. Her older daughter, who just popped in the picture for the first time in 4 years, is now going to try to get the other two children out. Please pray for all of them in this family as well as the other children that remain in the center. God always shows is never too late.

Other children have been brought into the center from surrounding areas as we wait for the relinquishment of the others. To inquire of sponsoring one of these children ,

More updates to come....