Bringing Hope to Forgotten Youth: How Orphans Taught Us The Meaning of Life

“Orphans are easier to ignore before you know their names. They are easier to ignore before you see their faces. It is easier to pretend they are not real before you hold them in your arms. But once you do, everything changes.” – David Platt

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Some years back, my family traveled to Florida to celebrate the Christmas holiday in a more forgiving environment than the bitter cold lingering back home. Though far from the usual tradition of evergreen trees and falling snow, everyone seemed glad to try something new.

On our way back, my mother asked us how we liked the change of scenery. Nearly all at once, we replied resoundingly that it was deeply satisfying. My sister—around 10 at the time—had other thoughts. She bemoaned the strange experience of opening presents in the company short sleeves and absence of any extended family. In the end, she practically pleaded to never leave home during Christmas again.

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Our response was shock and confusion. We had already endured enough of the terrible winters and any excuse to have a break from the seasonal hardship was appreciated. To us, her response seemed ridiculous, if a bit selfish. The problem was that the way she perceived the circumstances differed greatly from the rest of us as a result of contrasting experience and perspective. She was right, and so were we, but we couldn’t agree.

True empathy for another’s pain or misfortune is perhaps one of the most challenging emotional responses to achieve. Without personal experience, it’s often incredibly difficult to identify the basis of a given situation and so, understanding the key reaction is nearly impossible.

Learning to know others
A few weeks back, I was told about a week-long camp in Dongguan specifically for orphans to have a little fun around the city. What began with a few messages, quickly evolved and before I knew it, I was heading over to a nameless Dongcheng hotel to join the kids.

I wondered if the kids would be happy to have new friends for play or would their emotional trauma be too much to permit an extended joy? How would they look? Could I recognize an orphan on the street? Why did I get a family while so many others never will?

Before even stepping into the small, multifunctional room that had been converted into a children’s carnival, I had already been trying to comprehend how I would feel to be one of the orphans at the camp.

Within diverse expectations, I wondered if the kids would be happy to have new friends for play or would their emotional trauma be too much to permit an extended joy? How would they look? Could I recognize an orphan on the street? Why did I get a family while so many others never will? And so forth.

Then, my trance was suddenly interrupted.

1_DSC02212“Do you want to do something fun?” asked Katie Freeby, Director of Dongguan’s Bring Me Hope branch, just prior to my arriving at the hotel. Without any specific detail, I was immediately inclined to selfishly reject, but I knew I had to accept. Shaking off any negative impulses, I told her okay.

While I was taking off my coat, she explained that I’d dress up in a bear costume and say hi to the kids.

“Last summer, the fan inside the giant head fell down and was hanging by the wire outside the costume. The kids started freaking out and yelling it was a robot,” she mentioned, laughing enthusiastically and reminding me quite vividly of any mother amused by the comical behavior of her own children.

1_DSC02240After suiting up, I could barely see my way, so Katie guided me to her world.

Upon my entrance, she announced the arrival of their favorite furry friend and the kids cheered wildly. One by one, each of these little souls gripped me—hiding in a bear outfit—in passionate embrace. Not smiling was impossible and I immediately realized that orphans are not a thing, they’re people and they feel just like us.

They constantly exist, and they’re always waiting for something good to happen, just like any of us.

After a few troublemakers bopped me on the head and one girl finally let me free of her never-ending squeeze, Katie told me that I was finished. It was time to go back and change. After all my pointless reservations, I suddenly didn’t want it to end.

Give kindness where nothing is expected
The whole event is organized by non-profit Bring Me Hope, which hails from California, but also operates in Canada, Ireland, China, Philippines and Australia. By creating and leading local and international camps, they’re working to deliver a slice of happiness to small groups of family-less children.

“Last summer, the fan inside the giant head fell down and was hanging by the wire outside the costume. The kids started freaking out and yelling it was a robot,” she mentioned, laughing enthusiastically and reminding me quite vividly of any mother amused by the comical behavior of her own children.

Here in Dongguan, the branch is managed by Katie and Chinese Director, Victor Xie. Previously, Katie worked at another BMH extension in Yantai, but pivoted to focus solely on supporting the expected growth of the Dongguan unit.

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Victor Xie

“Dongguan was actually the first camp to finance itself last year. The community really rallied together to raise enough money for the camp to run. We usually just share by word of mouth and that has sustained us so far,” Katie said, describing how they fund their operation.

During a typical week of camp, a small group of children—depending on how many volunteers join—from one of a few orphanages around Dongguan is broken up into what they call families. These usually consist of a foreigner, a local to help with translation and two children. Over their next five days, the quartet will essentially spend all of their time together, just like a family on holiday. The idea is to create a substantial bond that’s built on trust.

“Spending about 100+ hours with an orphan will build a very special relationship. You will see both the touching and hard moments that require discipline and you have an opportunity to really show unconditional love to a child. It is easy to put on a happy face for any afternoon, but doing that for a week is a greater test of love. You now have a deep understanding of their personality, abilities, hobbies, etc. This information and understanding is immensely valuable to help correct people’s incorrect understandings of orphans, perhaps leading people to adopt,” Katie mentioned to me.

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Thanks to programs like these, some lucky children are finding families, but certain geographical and legal constraints continue keep adoption numbers low. In 2015, slightly less than 2,400 children were adopted by U.S. citizens, or roughly five percent of the daily births in the country. There is a continual hope that Chinese will become more receptive to adoption going forward.

1_MG_5851“My best memory was when some kids I knew from camp were adopted. I went to meet one of them in Guangzhou when the parents were getting the passport for him and got to know how much they had gone through before being adopted,” Victor told me, demonstrating that these programs can, indeed, have a great benefit.

120 hours of laughter
Throughout the week, the children, ranging in ages from 5–21 years, engage in a stimulating variety of activities. One day, they’ll head to the mall to do a little shopping. Maybe later, they’ll catch a movie. I joined them on one occasion when they sprung out to Qifeng Park for some fresh air and games.

Throughout it all, though, education and socialization also play a large role in conversation. Remember, most of these kids never had anyone to teach them how to treat others or, frankly, themselves.

It is so much easier to advocate for a child when they are so much more than a name, age, gender and disability. That name comes to life. That name is worthy of love and a family. That name is valuable. That name is a real child.”

“My official position this year was Assembly Staff. I was in charge of teaching moral character to the kids and leading everyone in song and dance,” said Jone Zheng, now finishing her third tour of BMH camp.

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“[Once,] I asked a little boy whether he’s willing to share his snacks with me. He refused at once with a sly smile. After a while, he quietly came to me and opened his hand, to show some snacks [he now offered],” explained Jone, citing one of her favorite memories from her second camp.

A subtle focal point of this time together also strategically includes explaining common manners, like saying please and thank you.

1_DSC02200“I’ve seen the majority of the volunteers (myself, included) get majorly frustrated and angry with the kids, rather than sympathetic. … You find them saying things like, ‘I love this kid, why doesn’t he love me back?’ or ‘Why is she so naughty? Why isn’t she making any improvements?’ Expectations are off. You expect to relate to them like you relate to every other person. If I love you and do nice things, you are thankful and maybe we can be friends, right? Or, if someone reaches into your life and disciplines or teaches you the right behavior, you listen and make the correction, right? How can we expect to have these kids behave like that? All their past circumstances keep them from behaving like a “normal person,” Katie relates, demonstrating the need for such education.

By giving the children all the tools necessary to be the best they can be, they’ll not only help themselves, but hopefully also take this knowledge back to the orphanages and help others learn, too.

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“We long to bring hope to orphans. How can we bring hope? First, we spend a week with them and let them know that there is someone who loves and cares for them. It isn’t an ideal solution, but it’s a start.

Second, we advocate for the kids. Volunteers go home, wherever that may be, and share [stories] about these kids. They talk about their experiences and share these kids’ heartbreaking stories. This, in turn, spreads awareness to the issue at hand and also leads some to adopt those kids. Bring Me Hope camp has been known to help orphanages get many kids adopted. It is so much easier to advocate for a child when they are so much more than a name, age, gender and disability. That name comes to life. That name is worthy of love and a family. That name is valuable. That name is a real child.”

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