Even the Sparrows

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For those who know Ayla and her life-long friend, Gato, you may have read in yesterday’s post about her favorite animal having been lost for three days and known the grief she must have been feeling.

Forget her! I have put more hours looking for that cat than I can count, run up and down miles of stairs to make sure she’s in the arms of the girl I love, broken up hundreds of fights between friends who all want Gato (out of all the animals in the basket!) and even exchanged motherhood stories with Ayla about what our sweethearts (babies) have been getting into lately. I’m more than a little invested in that piece of cloth (and my daughter’s heart), so when she is missing, I grieve too! Is that crazy?

You know, I think this reveals a piece of our Father’s tender heart for us and the world He created. In Luke 12:6, Jesus says that even a handful of sparrows, which would sell for a pocket full of change, don’t go unnoticed by His Father.

So last night, when I put Ayla to bed, we prayed that we could find Gato. Today, we found her! I know it’s just a stuffed animal, but she’s special to my special one’s heart, and I treasure it as a loving gesture from our Father and continue to pray for more moments like this as she discovers who He is for herself. I know it’s a reminder to me to bring even the seemingly smallest problems to Him. Even the sparrows.

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Running towards the heartbreak

Right now I feel like I’m in a glass bottle, set on a table in the midst of a bar where fights are breaking out in every corner.

Over in Nepal, the earth shook and mountains trembled and so many thousands were gone in an instant. Though there is aid starting to pour in, and life will go on,  it will never be the same.

Then, near my old stomping grounds, the streets of Baltimore have erupted. One life there taken, but one in a long chain of too many. People are calling for so many changes, needed changes of heart, law, police procedures, society and on and on, but I wonder if this much change is possible.

Uncomfortably close to where I sit now, several Middle Eastern countries are at war, bombing airports, intercepting ships, overthrowing governments. Terrorists in nearby countries are kidnapping and executing Christians, committing atrocities straight from hell and forcing entire people groups to abandon their countries to find refuge elsewhere. People I know are working night and day to find bad guys and broker peace, but will they?

Meanwhile, in my little life, the dinner I made tonight was pretty good. We haven’t been able to find my daughter’s FAVORITE stuffed animal for going on three nights, but we’re surviving. My toddler son throws spontaneous dance parties that crack us up, and can also throw a fit with the best of them when I can’t guess the object of his “unspoken” desires. So, you know, life is fine. It’s good. Great even. Blessed, I would say. Quiet in the immediate vicinity of my glass bottle.

But out there, it’s messy and getting messier. I see people running towards the heartbreak in every direction. I see aid workers hitting the ground in Nepal and experts spreading the word on what can help and what doesn’t. I see clergy linking arms in Baltimore, showing up with love in the midst of the pain. I see my friends down in Uganda picking up the downtrodden, providing a refuge for the weak, lifting up arms that have fallen. (Wait, did I just slip Uganda in with everything else? Yes. It’s not the headline,-anymore- but it’s a country in crisis, where names and faces are still fresh on my heart.)

My bottle is shaking, quiet and whole, but I’m not unaffected. Now it’s just a question of what I can do.

I want to be out there running, too, helping somewhere, but in here I’m just tripping over too many toy cars and princess dresses to do much out there. Oh, I know this mom place is just exactly where I’m supposed to be, but it’s because I’m a mom to kids who live in this world that I watch these corners burn with a heavy heart, bent knees and open hands. (Ok, honestly, my hands are pretty full, but I’m a mom, there’s always room for a little more!)

Roads and Roots

The car trip from the Entebbe airport to the town of Jinja took longer than either segment of plane travel from our home in the Middle East. Our driver, appropriately named Abdullah, took as many back “roads” as he could to get around the congestion on the clogged two-lane highway. He told us the traffic that day had two main causes, heightened security due to the tragic terrorist attack in neighboring Kenya, and the holiday weekend where thousands poured out of the city to spend Easter with family in their villages.

In countries like Uganda, where modern technology like cell phones and wi-fi are more prevalent in the rural areas than basic social services like a working sewage system or driveable roads, you can see this tension as traditions shift and give way to modernization and globalization.

Far more tragic than a four-hour traffic jam is the toll this shift has taken on the family unit. Not too terribly long ago in tribal cultures, when biological parents couldn’t care for their children, the village absorbed them. There was still a loss, but children remained in families, retaining their heritage, language and culture.

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According to the Child Rights International Network’s 2010 study called Families Not Orphanages (a very interesting read if you have the time): “Long-term residential care for children is an outdated export. In the history of many developing countries, institutional care is a relatively recent import. In most cases, it was introduced early in the twentieth century by missionaries or colonial governments, replicating what was then common in their home countries. At the same time, institutional care has largely been judged to be developmentally inappropriate and phased out of developed countries that continue to support this care in poorer countries.” (emphasis mine)

More than 85% percent of occupants in orphanages in Uganda have at least one, if not two, living birth parents. (Source here) Parents or relatives bring children to orphanages because they are out of options. Now, granted, for some the orphanage stands in place of a foster care system, providing temporary care to children whose parents are not capable of providing them with an emotionally and physically safe place to live, but still desire to be in their lives and reunited with them eventually.

The Ugandan Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, estimates there are more than 800 orphanages in Uganda. Jinja is home to countless orphanages (literally, many operate unregistered, so there is no way to count them). Some organizations focus on getting the children into a pipeline for foreign adoption, while others do their best to keep the children with local families.

We toured one of the latter, Good Shepherd’s Fold, and were very impressed with the facilities. They had immaculate landscaping, tidy houses, clean children laughing and dancing together and sprawling property with chapels, school rooms, livestock and farming. It seemed to be a thriving, comfortable community for children to grow up in.

Ayla swinging with a new friend at Good Shepherd's Fold
Ayla swinging with a new friend at Good Shepherd’s Fold

In contrast, Abide Family Center is on a small, gated compound, surrounded on all sides by tall brick walls topped with broken glass shards to deter thieves. The centers of activity are a classroom with no walls where the staff meets daily to pray and plan the day and caregivers take parenting and business classes to help get them back on their feet.

In the small, outdoor kitchen, the cook, Margaret, and her rotating roster of helpers, prepare tea, snacks and lunch for all the children, their caregivers and the staff.

Margaret and helper, Sylvia, prepare lunch for the families and staff at Abide
Margaret and helper, Sylvia, prepare lunch for the families and staff at Abide
Lunch time!
Lunch time!

Two small classrooms, decorated as brightly as possible, house the Childhood Development Center, where dedicated staff care for and teach pre-school aged children and infants while their caregivers are in class.

Nakato, Child Development Center director, pours herself into teaching the kids
Nakato, Child Development Center director, pours herself into teaching the kids

Their new sustainability venture, Stitched Together, takes up a few more rooms, where women are learning to sew, so they can support themselves and give back to Abide.IMG_6336

In other small but clean rooms on the property, families can stay in Emergency Housing for up to three months while they’re going through Abide’s programs.

The major differences between these institutions  are not the size of the property or provisions available. The presence of caregivers (biological mothers, fathers, grandparents and such) with their children and the emphasis on the temporary make Abide stand out in a crowd of orphanages. Megan Parker, and the staff at Abide, don’t want the families to be too comfortable there. They should want to complete the programs and move out and up. Most of the families going through the programs are not staying on Abide’s property, so the social workers spend most of their days doing visitations with them at their businesses and homes.

I tagged along with Income Generator Director, Juliet, as she went to visit two of her graduates, Justine and Anna. After going through Abide’s business class, Justine learned how to style hair and with small grant was able to open her own hair salon. She’s already training another woman and looking to open her second location. I had read about her on Abide’s blog, so I told her she was a celebrity to me. She smiled graciously and agreed to a photo (no autograph though).IMG_6323

Anna operates a fruit and vegetable stand in an open-air market and is now able to send her children to school.

Juliet does some post-graduate mentoring with Anna, at her market stand.
Juliet does some post-graduate mentoring with Anna, at her market stand.
Judson enjoying one of Anna's bananas.
Judson enjoying one of Anna’s bananas.

These two represent the many lives Abide has changed, but the staff doesn’t stop for long to reflect on these success stories. There are too many clouds overhead with storms brewing, too many families on the brink of separation, and too much work to do to keep Abide’s doors open to help them.

They know that the road to their goal, to move the orphan-prevention and family preservation agenda forward, to keep children in their families, is long and full of potholes and obstacles. But they also have such strong faith in the people of Uganda, that they can return to the beautiful roots of their tribal culture, at least in this regard, and one day make orphanages obsolete.

A few pictures

I’ve got words to use and stories to tell about our time with Abide Family Center, but I’m taking extra special care with what I write to get it right. Meanwhile, here are a few pictures I posted on Instagram during our trip (apologies if these are a re-run for you!).

We got to attend church on Resurrection Sunday. Highlight for us was worshipping Jesus in public with fellow believers from other nations. Highlight for Ayla was the orange soda she got to drink in children's church. Wired much?
We got to attend church on Resurrection Sunday. Highlight for us was worshipping Jesus in public with fellow believers from other nations. Highlight for Ayla was the orange soda she got to drink in children’s church. Wired much?
We took a boat trip to the source of the Nile River. (See that little blue sign on the left? That's it.)
We took a boat trip to the source of the Nile River. (See that little blue sign on the left? That’s it.)
Oh Ayla. You do not experience Uganda as much as Uganda experiences you.
Oh Ayla. You do not experience Uganda as much as Uganda experiences you.
This part of Uganda is so lush and green, a welcome and needed break from the drab desert we call home.
This part of Uganda is so lush and green, a welcome and needed break from the drab desert we call home.
If #hotmessmoses can wear a fancy dress, he needs his fingernails painted blue, too! #nailsbyAyla (Moses is the child in the purple polkadot dress. His mom likes to put him in dresses. He's Abide's official mascot.)
If #hotmessmoses can wear a fancy dress, he needs his fingernails painted blue, too! #nailsbyAyla (Moses is the child in the purple polkadot dress. His mom likes to put him in dresses. He’s Abide’s official mascot.)
Judson learning some football skills from Alamanzan.
Judson learning some football skills from Alamanzan.
Kids are in school while moms are in business class.
Kids are in school while moms are in business class.
Kyomukama is a new student in Abide's @stitchedtogetheruganda shop. Here the ladies learn how to hand make items to support their families. Items will be available for sale once inventory is increased, so follow Stitched Together for the latest news!
Kyomukama is a new student in Abide’s @stitchedtogetheruganda shop. Here the ladies learn how to hand make items to support their families. Items will be available for sale once inventory is increased, so follow Stitched Together for the latest news!
Like this necklace? So did I. Sadly, Judson already broke it. BUT, I have more styles to give away as sponsorship incentives for the families at @abidefamilycenter! Stay tuned for more info!
Like this necklace? So did I. Sadly, Judson already broke it. BUT, I have more styles to give away as sponsorship incentives for the families at @abidefamilycenter! Stay tuned for more info!

To Go or To Give?

Who's helping who here?
Who’s helping who here?

Yesterday I left you hanging, wondering, “What ever will John and Anna do to help Abide Family Center fulfill their ground-breaking and much needed mission to keep children in families in Uganda?” Today, you will learn.

We live in the Middle East, so Uganda is only about 5 hours of flying time away. It seemed like a no-brainer to go visit them while we’re over here. First, I asked if we could come, because that seemed like the polite thing to do before showing up. They said yes, so planning commenced.

Then, just before we bought our tickets, they published a specific call for help. Their monthly funding was short by about $6,500, and the doors that had welcomed more than 70 families with resources to keep them together, would have to close in July. I asked Megan, one of the founders, if our travel money would be better off donated to the cause, and this is what she said:

“I believe that there is so much value in vacationing in a developing country- for two reasons. One, you are pouring into their local economy which creates jobs and helps the country move towards sustaining itself and not just relying on aid. Two, you are sending the message that this country is beautiful and worthy of being admired, instead of “saved” as us humanitarian workers seem to think. When I enter the country and they ask me why i’m here and I say i’m working in an NGO i’m sending the message that their country is broken and needs to be fixed. When a tourist enters the country they are sending the message that this country is beautiful and worthy of travel and funds to come see and admire. 

Also, there is so much value in people coming to see. Our most passionate supporters and advocates are people who have visited us in the past and are able to speak personally about families and staff they have met first hand. 

Yes, $5,000 would be nice for Abide, but we get lots of one time donations. What we need more then anything is consistent monthly support [like what you guys already give!] so we’re not worrying every month about whether the money will come in for the next months operating costs. 

If you come to Abide, choose to spend the money you would have spent on a vacation anyway pouring into Uganda’s economy, and advocate for Abide through social media you could potentially get us more monthly donors. If 8 people chose to sponsor a family at $50 a month because of your trip, you will have already paid for your trip entirely.”

There you have it. I (re)started a blog and off we went.  I’m going to tell stories and post pictures and ring this bell as loudly as I can until at least eight new sponsors join Abide’s team.

Story time with Judson and Abide resident, Amram. Only one of them had pants on, so that was exciting.
Story time with Judson and Abide resident, Amram. Only one of them had pants on, so that was exciting.

They ask sponsors to commit to a year of sponsorship, either at $25 or $50 a month. The program they provide families costs around $250 a month, so it takes 5 sponsors for each family.

You know that intoxicating new baby smell? The joy of that is followed closely by the freeing sensation of handing that baby back to his or her mommy (or daddy). This is the heart of family preservation, orphan prevention and the clarion call of Abide Family Center.

In future posts, I’ll show you more what that program looks like and introduce you to some of the families needing sponsors. If you’re ready, you can click over to their page now to sign up, but it’s ok if you want to read a little more first. I’ve got lots of words and pictures to use, people!

My Foster Babies Made Me Do It!

Five years ago this month, we welcomed our second baby, a boy, into our home.

“Baby Z” was two weeks old. He was strong and scrumptious. Though we only had him for two weeks before the county placed him with another foster mom, his mark on our family is permanent. Something changes in you when you’re responsible for someone this fragile.

I just happened to be babysitting Baby F when Baby Z was dropped off.

A few months earlier, we had provided a month of respite care for “Baby F.”  Even after two biological kids, I still consider her my first baby. The moment we met is crystalized for me. Forty-eight hours after her mom gave birth, her social worker brought this tiny human to my house. She set her in her car seat on my couch, handed me a small bag of clothes, a few bottles and gave instructions to feed her every three hours. That was it. The social worker left and it was just we three.

Someone just brought a baby to our house and left her with us.

Though we’d been pursuing and preparing for this moment for more than a year, we felt the change right there. Our hearts cracked open wide to let another part of this world have its place. We didn’t know it then, but that’s when we started preparing for our recent trip to Uganda, to visit Abide Family Center.

Our experience doing foster care* included excellent training, caring and responsive social workers, and biological parents from diverse backgrounds with varying degrees of willingness to participate in family preservation with us. During the training, we latched onto the idea of fostering as a process of restoration. We would do our small part in a larger effort to keep children safe, but ultimately place them back with their biological families when at all possible.

Keeping children in their families is possible so much more often when there are people who believe that’s the best thing for them, and are willing to do the hard work to make that happen. Now, I’ve never been accused of being an optimist, but maybe you could call me a “hope-ist.” My stubbornness grabs on to the good things that should be in the midst of a fallen world and just will not let go. So when I see people like Megan and Kelsey, the founders of Abide, go all in to keep families together, I’m shouting, “Yes! This needs to happen, all over the world! How can I help?”

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Abide Family Center social worker, Julia, holds current resident Naya, while co-founder Megan gets her daily dose of baby smiles.

To be continued…

(PS. I’m going to drag this story line out so you feel like you’re sitting with me in Uganda, waiting for the dinner we ordered an hour ago and we’ve just been chatting away!)

*I wrote extensively about our foster care experience on my old blog. If you’re interested in reading about it, you can do a search over here for posts with the label “Foster Care.”

For the First Time

For the first time in, well, since ever that I can remember, my little girl, Ayla (4 going on 14), hung limp in my arms at 7:30pm, telling me she was tired. She’s usually proclaiming how not tired she is even as she rubs her eyes and yawns, fooling no one. Today, she had a very long day. First, there was pre-school co-op, then a playdate, then a birthday party at the pool, complete with pizza and home-made ice cream.

She had a day filled with friends, and friends’ parents, with me as her bookends. Welcoming her into the day with a cup of milk and breakfast before rushing her out the door, then reading, singing, praying with her before we cuddled and I tucked her in bed with sweet kisses and hugs and vows of love.

Shouldn’t every child get a chance to start and end their days filled and surrounded by their parents’ love?

Photo Credit: Abide Family Center
Photo Credit: Abide Family Center

In less than 36 hours from now, we’ll be pulling our children out of bed just after midnight to get on a plane to go visit a place where two mighty women of God, Megan and Kelsey, together with their staff at Abide Family Center, are making this kind of day possible for the families in their corner of Uganda.

We’ve taken our kids to the Middle Eastern country where we live. They’ve visited nearby countries of Bahrain and Oman. We’ve trekked to further lands like Germany, Austria and the Canary Islands. Ayla’s been with us to Turkey and Costa Rica, and cruise-stopped in Jamaica, Grand Cayman and Mexico. This isn’t our first rodeo! (We’ve never actually taken them to a rodeo, so that will be another first for another time!)

But for the first time, they’re going to need their yellow cards to enter a country. The kids are sporting bandaids on their chubby legs from shots to keep them safe. We’re taking another break from the desert, but this is different. This time our hearts are tuned to a bigger cause. This time our purpose is lifting up other families, to bless them and cheer them on.

Photo Credit: @maddypittman for Abide
Photo Credit: @maddypittman for Abide

My kids (and I) will get to play with the kids at Abide Family Center, including #hotmessMoses, that dashing fellow up there. I’ll get to meet the moms, grandmas, aunties, older brothers and daddies I’ve been adoring through their Instagram feed (@abidefamilycenter). I’ll buy up the goods the ladies of Stitched Together (@stitchedtogetheruganda) are making. I’ll get to encourage the social workers and teachers who work hard to make this a place for families to be safe and together. 

While my sweet little Ayla and Judson dream cozily in their beds, their mama’s dream of taking her children to see the big world God made is coming true! Will you take a minute to follow Abide on Facebook and Instagram, so you can see this good and beautiful work for yourself?