Wednesday, December 28, 2011

a quiet plea

It is very late here.  I just checked on my sleeping children one more time.  The gratitude fills my heart and tears cannot be stopped.

The thing is, on the other side of the world, there are women that I call "mama" that give to little ones with no mamas day in and day out, they are the women that care for the children at the Save the Children Orphanage in eastern DRC.  It is a small place nestled at the foot of mountains, green and lush.  It is a forgotten place.  The mamas truly love the children, they do what they can with what they have.  Then the children grow up to 4 or 5 years old, like my Natalie.  She is sweet, vulnerable, innocent.  Tonight I am grateful that as her mama I don't have to say goodbye to her tomorrow.  I don't have to send her off to a foster home that is already over-burdened with children and in the throes of the effects of dire poverty.  I don't have to send her to someone that doesn't know her, that doesn't know that she throws the covers off in her sleep and needs me to cover her back up, that doesn't know she has a huge heart that shelters little ones and watches me closely to gauge my emotions, my heart.  No, tomorrow, she will stay with me.  I will care for her every day that I am given here.  And I am grateful for that.  Not so very far away, the mamas say goodbye to the children they have raised since infancy (when their own mamas died giving birth to them).

When I first met these mamas and I brought them formula, they didn't trust me to bring more.  They were barely keeping the babies alive on watered down formula, from the little they had.  But they kept them alive.  And they loved these same babies too much to trust a foreigner (what reason did they have to trust me?), so they kept feeding those babies watered down formula.  And I kept going, and I kept saying, I WILL bring more.  I WILL. God will make a way, He will honor this love you give them.  And he has made a way, so many of you have partnered with us and we HAVE brought formula every single month since that day (Feb. 2010).  The man that has taken over for me since I left is a trustworthy, hardworking man who loves the children and works hard to make our work transparent, honest, and with excellent accountability.  He is independent of the orphanage and it's leadership, so that also helps with accountability.  I am very grateful.

But these little ones, the Leblancs....the little ones who have left and been unwelcomed in their homes.  They weigh on me tonight.  Paying for their school fees seems like such a little thing, but it's not, it's a huge thing!  It takes a burden off the foster family.  They can send the child to school.  And it gives the child a chance.  It is small (some schools are $5/month) to us, but huge to them.  Did you know that most people in that area are fortunate to make $30/month?  How in the world would you feed your family, pay your rent, your taxes, and still send all of your children (probably over 8 in your home) to school?  It is impossible.

Would you consider donating to help pay the school fees for these little ones?  We would like to raise at least $1200 to help contribute to the school fees for 80 plus children for the next three months (some are in secondary school and some in college, which makes their fees higher).  Would you consider passing this blog along or our website along?

These are the little ones I tucked into bed tonight, and I'm grateful that I don't have to say good bye to them tomorrow and watch them go into an unknown future.

I don't think I have a particular gift at fundraising. Pretty much all the money we have raised has come from people who have listened to the stories (or visited the children themselves) of these children, passed their stories on to others, and given.   I feel so vulnerable when I write every single post, putting my heart and these children in the public eye.  I don't have any gifts to give any of the donors that might like to support Tumaini; things are still in the rough beginning stages on our end and we fumble along and start this small charity.  Some amazing folks have come together do this work and I'm excited for the next year.  I only can tell their stories of the children I have come to love.  The mamas that love them and have kept them alive day after day, and given them love, not knowing what will come in the future.  I can honor this that God has placed on my heart every day, speak and not be silent.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Sweet little ones who are not forgotten

The last few days have been lovely spending time with family and appreciating the gift they are to me.  My thoughts often turned to 32 little ones living on the other side of the world in an orphanage and 82 bigger children living in foster homes that we also help support.  I wonder what their christmas is like?  It would be celebrated as mostly a religious holiday, spent in church, and eating a meal together.  Even at the orphanage it is custom to spend a little more and have a party.  Often families of the children that live near by are invited to eat together with the children.  Last year I was able to visit the kids shortly after christmas.  That was a special treat.  It was fun to share a special meal with them, eating at their small tables, them falling asleep in my lap.

Christmas, last year.

We need to raise funds for the second trimester of school fees due in the end of January for the 82 children who lived in the orphanage from infancy and then moved out when they turned 4 years old.  Some moved back with their fathers, others into informal foster settings.  Some are treated well, some aren't.  Rarely can the families that accept them back pay for their school fees.  This increases the likelihood of a life in servanthood or menial work (and destitute poverty).  Education doesn't guarantee a lift from dire poverty, but it gives you a chance.  We work together with the orphanage to help give children this chance.  School is not free, and if you are an orphan, you have to work harder than the other children.  We firmly believe that education is a basic human right every child should have access to.  Would you consider helping us by giving a donation this week to help us pay for the school fees for these children?  The cost is $5/month for children in primary school and $10/month for the children in secondary school, their are six older children who are now attending their first years of college locally and their fees are $44-72 every three months.  We are hoping to raise $1200 by the end of January to help contribute to the school fees of these children.

Would you consider spreading the word to help us raise the funds?  Feel free to link to my blog.  We are helping supports 115 children in eastern DRC.  These children are vulnerable, all of them lost their mothers (most lost them when their mothers died in birth).  They are not direct victims of war, but they are victims of the poverty that is a result of years of instability, extreme poverty, wars, insecurity, transient populations movements, crop failure, poor infrastructure, poor health structures and on and on.  Their mothers die in birth from preventable causes (like hemorrhage).  These children all have names and faces.  I have met about half of the children and look forward to meeting the older ones in the years to come.

They are the faces of hope in a place that has much darkness.  They reflect the Light of the Christ child whose birth we just celebrated.

Would you consider remembering the sweet children of the Save the Children Orphanage this year?  Please follow this link to donate to Tumaini.  Thank you.

Even blurry, it's hard not to smile looking at Ziruka's joyful face.

Sweet Noella, born days after christmas.

Ganza, smiles all around.

And two of the older boys who come to play with the little kids (they grew up in the orphanage and now live in foster homes/with extended family).  We help pay their school fees.

(Please pray for sweet Theo, who was adopted from western DRC and very soon after coming to the states was diagnosed with cancer and is very ill.)

Monday, December 19, 2011

just because I can, doesn't mean I should

Living in DRC changed my life (that could probably go without saying).  When I moved there, I had never lived overseas before.  I had only visited the continent one time before; I went with my new husband to Zambia and it was lovely, beautiful, and the people were friendly and open.  I made my first international trip at age 25ish when I went to India with some friends and traveled around for three weeks.  I did a MPH and didn't take a single international course (because I thought then that I was never going to work overseas, I was committed to rural or urban U.S. poverty).  So, I was woefully underprepared when I moved to Congo.  I suppose it was the classic example of "sink or swim".  (I share that for all of you out there who don't know me and think I am some sort of super person for moving to eastern DRC with my newborn.  I wasn't then and I'm not now.  I am just a simple person that felt my heart move, knew it was the right thing to do and the right time.  Took a leap of faith and one step at a time.)

My first memory of DRC was crossing the border.  We weren't even in Congo yet.  We were just sitting at the Rwandan border going through customs.  Congo was across the bridge, over the river, and up the dusty road.  I was trying to feed Natalie (who was 8 weeks old or so at the time).  She was a fussy/colicky baby and very attune to my emotions (and still is!).  I was nervous, scared, excited and hence, she was too.  It was hard to get her to latch on.  She was hungry, I was feeling a bit vulnerable in this big white land cruiser with windows surrounding me.  The more she screamed, the more anxious I became, and the more people started noticing the lady with the screaming baby in the white ngo car.  A woman stopped and stared in the window at me.  Eventually I had to give up all attempts at modestly and just threw the cover off and tried to get her on.  What started out as one woman quickly became at least 20 women surrounding the car and staring in the windows at me.   All kinds of words were shouted to me through the windows in languages I didn't understand.  I understood the gist of what they were saying I think.  Lots of it was advice, I think some of it was speculation as to whether I even knew what I was doing, if I even could breast feed.  Eventually I got her on.  And when I finally lifted my red hot embarrassed face, to glance at all those lovely women, they all were giving me grins with thumbs up.  Instead of bursting into tears (which is what I had felt like doing), I grinned back and felt like, this will be okay.  I'm going to be okay.

I learned a lot since then.  I have been humbled so much, and fallen flat on my face more ways than I can count.  I have felt my pride and arrogance whittled away bit by bit.  All my preconceived and judgmental opinions were swept away as well.  What I thought was the best way to do things and all my pat answers left me by the time I drove away from Congo 4 1/2 years later.  All those answers I thought I had back then in that hot white car surrounded by all those women; well, I don't have them anymore.  I really don't have answers to most of it actually.  I was talking to a friend about it yesterday, and I think there are some questions that I will never have answers for, especially those surrounding suffering, pain, and injustice in the light of a good and loving God.  I will not stop believing or having faith, but I think I will finally accept that some things I won't get answers for this side of heaven.

I could go on and on about the ways I have changed in 4 1/2 years but I want to share about one way that I changed in regards to giving.  I knew something about aid/development/humanitarian work moving to Congo having had my husband and good friends work in the field, so I wasn't naive to the bad parts in the midst of the goodness of it.  But seeing first hand the effects of aid/donations that were blindly given really helped me to see how important it was to treat people with dignity when we give with compassion.  I saw blind giving completely paralyze a community into dependency that led to cycles of not caring for their children that led to extreme malnutrition and neglect.  I was humbled by my own ability to treat fellow brothers and sisters with lack of respect and dignity.  I learned that I must never let my love be without wisdom (and how I often mistook my pride for wisdom).  And that in my compassion I must not forget dignity.

I watched this video tonight.  And what really struck me was that the pictures were so similar to eastern DRC.  I used to love walking around town and shopping.  One could find most anything there! It was incredible.  To high end shops selling products that might cost 100s to 1000s of dollars to the man or woman on the side walk with shoes, or clothes, or books, or food, backpacks sitting on a blanket for a person to buy.  There was this awesome market that I loved going to in town.   I didn't go very often but I loved it when it did.  You could find SO much there.  There was a section of it that was just shoes.  Brand new shoes were in one area under a ceiling.  High heels, boots, you name it.  Then there were the nicer used shoes on one long long lane, boots, kids shoes, running shoes, sandals.  Then there were the very very used shoes section.  There were clothes organized by size, type, gender, age.  There were pots/pans.  There was an underwear area.  There was a rug area.  An area to buy sheets, towels.  To buy food.  Soda.  Beer.   It was very fun to go there, especially with someone that spoke fluent swahili.

What I learned is that one can buy MOST things in eastern DRC.  Not everything by any means ( and finding good quality things was hard sometimes) , but most things.  You can buy high quality formula and powdered milk.  The city I lived in was a city of almost 1 million people.  (Imagine what can be purchased locally in cities like Kinshasa at 10 million?) And I learned that a lot people sell things to make a living if they weren't farmers/cultivators.  They sell clothes to feed their families.  They sell shoes, they sell pots, they sell fabric.

At Tumaini, we have tried to make a commitment to buy locally as much as we can.  We buy formula locally, powdered milk, and when they need clothes or shoes we help them buy it locally.  We try to encourage donations of goods that cannot be bought locally (or in good condition).  We try to discourage donations of anything (like formula) that can be bought locally and support congolese families.

It may seem overwhelming to figure out what can be bought locally and what can't.  But you can start by asking.  Most of what you want to give can be bought locally, which in turns gives back to the Congolese people be supporting small business which in turns supports families (which in turns helps them not fall into destitute poverty which can lead to abandonment of children).   Trust well known and respected organizations that are committed to sustainability in the countries they work.  Commit to working with organizations that respect the dignity and the value of the Congolese people.

We received donations last year to complete a fence that enabled the orphanage to start to grow their own crops that they harvested and then used to feed the children (the harvested beans are below). 

Amos, the cook that has worked at the orphanage for 40+ years, proudly showed me the beans.  

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Raising three 2 year olds and a 4 year old (while being an introvert, without caffeine)

So there are 1 1/2 months where the three youngest girls are the same age.  Isla is only 10 1/2 months older than the twins.  She is also the same size as them and she is still in diapers.  She has a speech delay so although her cognitive and social skills are older than theirs she still sounds a lot like they do when you listen to them.  So, today I have three 2 year olds and a 4 year old.  And they are all girls.  Which means emotions run high around here.  More likely or not someone will be crying at any given time due to their feelings being hurt more than anything else.  Or they will be yelling at each other in 2 year old speak about who knows what.  Dinner is anything but a quiet affair.  It is amazing how fast they can get emotional, yelling and crying about a perceived hurt another inflicted upon them (and they are only two and four!).

Isla, Mia, and Ellie

They also really love each other.  They are each other's best friends, they stick up for each other, they defend each other and they ferociously protect each other.   They kiss, hug, and cuddle with each other constantly.  The littlest of the bunch, in age and size, is Mia.  Mia loves loves loves hair.  She loves to suck her finger and stick her other hand in my hair and cuddle.  My hair or Isla's hair.  You will often hear her say, "I want Isla's hair" and Isla patiently says "okay, Mia" and lets her cuddle with her.  I really don't think that my three younger brothers and I showed each other affection in the same way (hardly!), so it's quite amazing to me.

Keeping Ellie company as she gets her neb treatment.  

From my view of life, as the mommy of this cute bunch, I alternate b/w laughing and smiling at their sweetness, to wanting to scream when the needs of taking care of so many children under 5 overwhelm me.  There is one certain little miss of the bunch who loves to hang on my legs and has a very faithful and persistent whine.  I am so thankful for the ergo wrap because I can put her on my back for an hour or two and she is happy.  But when there is more than one craving my touch and crying at my feet I often run out of patience and dream of escaping!  I have tried the good old escape to the bathroom, but it isn't really a refuge when little people are dramatically throwing themselves at the door, trying to peek under the door, generally yelling at one another about where mommy went, or puddled in a pool of tears crying like I have left them forever.  I have given up and leave the door open.

I recently went to the doctor and was told that I had to give up caffeine (as I was having too many funky heart rhythms).  I blissfully (and foolishly) replied, "no problem, I just drink tea" (it's not like I drink coffee).  What's that saying?  Pride goes before the fall.  Yes, that is what has happened to me.  It seems that one of the major ways I get through my days at home with the kids is my two lovely cups of Kenyan Black Tea.  And when I stopped those two lovely cups of tea...well, let's just say I wanted to go hide under the table with a blanket over my head and cry all day!  It hasn't been pretty.  I want to tell you, I love caffeine and I despise the fact that I can't drink it!  How does one take care of 3 two year olds and a four year old without caffeine?  I don't know.  (Oh, and I'm about to tackle potty training them all at once :)!

Natalie and Ellie

The last little tidbit I want to share is that it's hard to parent little ones as an introvert.  Just like I crave caffeine, I crave time totally alone without anyone talking to me, touch me, needing me, or crying for me.  I love my kids, but I also need time to myself to find energy and joy to take care of them well.  Our younger two girls spent the first 5 months of their lives in a crib and were rarely held.  They desperately seek out physical touch.  Which is a great thing!  Their little love tanks need constant refilling.  So they want to be held and cuddled as much as possible.  When I sit on the floor, they rarely want to play with toys, they just want to sit on me (any body part they can get) and will often push and shove each other to make sure they have an equal share.  I'm very grateful for this need of theirs, it shows they are attached to me and are seeking me out for affection and love.  I also struggle with being so needed all day long.  At night I stay up too late because it is quiet and I can get the alone time I need.

Parenting little ones is beautiful, because they are lovely, sweet kids and it is also really hard.  I'm thankful for them and I'm thankful they are in my life.  I have never been stretched so much before to be a more loving, kind, patient, gracious person.  I am trying to not have unrealistic expectations for myself.  We keep life simple.  We rarely go out (we last about 10 minutes anywhere and the two youngest are not great about staying by me in areas where there are cars) and most often stick close to home.  It works for now.  And since we know so few people here we have few demands on our time, so we can spend most of our time with each other.  I'm grateful for this.  Meanwhile I am trying to learn how to take care of two year old triplets and a four year old.  Without caffeine.  And as an introvert.

(P.S.  Great, thought provoking blog post here.)