The Max I see today is kind and warm-hearted. When I first started visiting the orphanage, he was shy and timid. Rightly so, when he is first meeting strangers. Over time, he started to warm up to me and the others that came to visit, and now he runs to me with a ready hug. He has a soft heart for the other children as well. Let him within five feet of a baby and in seconds he'll be smiling and cooing at them, touching their cheeks so gently.
Max's story began before I knew him. From the moment he was born, his Down Syndrome defined him. He was likely abandoned because of it, even if he had loving and hopeful parents. The stigma of disabilities is high in China, and children with special needs are considered a burden rather than a blessing. Even with parents who love them, children with special needs are expensive, will likely never go to school, never get married, never be able to go in public alone. Max's life was a struggle from the start... taking on the rejection of his birth parents... being passed around from department to department and facility to facility before settling at the local orphanage... learning that crying wouldn't get him anything in a room full of other children who also needed to be changed and fed... figuring out the pecking order among a group of children who are all fending and fighting for themselves...
The Max I see today is funny and fun-loving. The first game he ever played with me was hide-and-seek... and it was his own idea. I still remember his sneaky grin peeking around the corner at me, daring me to come and chase him down. If there are bubbles, or balloons, or markers, or musical instruments in sight, he is all over it. Somehow, he even makes brushing his teeth look fun.
The Max I see today is smart and determined. For the first 10 years of his life, Max had never set foot in a school or read a single Chinese character. No one had ever given him the opportunity to go to school, likely because his verbal communication skills developed much slower than other children. But this kid blew my mind last year when I heard he begged his nanny to let him go to school with the other kids. They let him try it for a month, sure that he would change his mind once things got hard. Now months later, he's still going strong and learning so fast.
No more is Max defined by his disability. He has made a name and a place and a voice for himself that is beyond what we ever expected. Keep it up, little man. You're going to do amazingly great things in this world.
This is Hannah. She’s our little miracle. She may never understand how big of a role she plays in Hope Station’s story, but it will always be true.
Some of you may remember that in June of 2016, I (Rebekah) sat down with the orphanage Director and a colleague to talk about a new therapy program. She was surprisingly open to our ideas and asked lots of questions. My colleague and I felt good about where things ended, with her approval to let us try out our therapy program (victory!). But we still hadn’t signed any papers, and with all the past no’s we’d received, I was hesitant to get my hopes up. To my surprise, she followed us out of her office and downstairs to sit with the kids and continue chatting. As we sat there together with the children, she asked us a question I’ll never forget:
“This girl,” and she pointed to a child sitting near us, “She’s never been diagnosed, and we don’t know what to do with her. Can you help her?”
The story of fulfilled promises doesn’t end there...
I’ve been doing therapy with Hannah for 6 months now. We play a lot, explore a lot, run a lot, and eat a lot. I learned a lot about her lack of communication skills and daily living skills, her need to put everything in her mouth, and her love for all things plastic. She has a lot of needs, a lot more than what I and Hope Station alone can give her.
Can we just get real for a moment? I was thrilled that the director asked us to do therapy with a certain child, but I was not expecting Hannah to make very noticeable improvements. And when we started out spending time together, I kept telling myself that even if she doesn’t learn anything, I am still showing the orphanage that I want to hear and work within their suggestions and ideas. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in therapy. I believe that play, and attention from a loving adult, and human interaction can work miracles in a child’s life. But Hannah’s needs were pretty intense and still mysterious.
A few months in, I started noticing little victories. She was more attentive to me in our sessions. She remembered where I kept her favorite things even if they were out of her sight. She started to learn our therapy routine and became more physically comfortable being around me. To my amazement, the nannies started noticing changes too. “Every time she sees you through the window, she starts smiling and running around the room.” “She is looking at me more these days!” “She is grabbing my arm and leading me to where she wants to go!” It was unbelievable music to my ears. Truly miraculous. I also started making connections between her behavior and potential diagnoses. I am not a medical professional who is qualified to diagnose special needs, but I have been able to make educated guesses that help me find solutions for her unique behaviors and needs.
Hannah has changed everything. And even more importantly, Hannah herself is growing and learning. Just as her name represents, she is a fulfilled promise from the great Promise Keeper.
If you read this post (Guanxi Moments Part 1: The Director), you’ll already know how important guanxi is in Chinese culture. “It often gets translated as relationship, or what I think is even closer, rapport (I know, you’re wondering if that’s even English)… In China, relationships are everything. ‘You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.’”
This is Episode Two.
And it’s a story that will forever be engraved on my heart.
Last fall, I had just returned to China after a summer in America. Throughout the summer, I’d been keeping in touch with Josiah-now-Jay and Maisy-now-Emma, who had both just joined their new forever families in America. It was always so special for me to hear from them and see how they were learning English, loving their siblings, and adapting to life in America. The photos and videos of their new lives were collecting in my phone… I had no idea how significant that would be when I returned to China.
“You miss him?” I asked.
“I really miss him. He was like a son to me. I will always miss him.”
“Do you want to send him a message in my phone? I can take a video of you…”
“Yes! I want to tell him how much I miss him.”
I then proceeded to record her video message for Josiah-now-Jay. I could barely keep from crying myself as she choked out her message to him between sobs and tears. She told him how much she misses him, how she wishes she could go and visit him someday. She told him how happy she is that he has a mom and siblings, a family to love him and take care of him. She told him to come back someday and visit her, his Chinese mama. She said she will remember him and love him forever. Never before had I seen such a show of affection and love between nanny and child. And it opened my eyes to a whole new dimension of the nannies’ hearts for the children they care for.
Here’s where Chinese guanxi comes in… That nanny used to be so cold towards me. She is used to volunteers who come, play with the babies, then leave her to deal with them as they cry when the volunteers say goodbye. The volunteers don’t come back. They are just another face in the revolving door of “good service” towards orphans. I understand how she could think that I am just another volunteer like that. But this changed everything. Now, I am the gateway between her and the child she loved like her own. Now she greets me with a smile when I come, and she asks me about Josiah-now-Jay every single time without fail. We are friends on WeChat (a Chinese messaging app), and our entire relationship has changed. Through my relationship with Josiah-now-Jay, I showed her that I am committed and dedicated to loving on the kids she loves. And for that, she’s let me in to her circle. I know now that if I ask her for help or a favor, she’ll be happy to oblige. Guanxi is a powerful thing.
Happy New Year! Here are a few of our favorite moments from 2016...
A huge highlight of 2016 was the relationships we built with the orphanage nannies. With each visit, they were increasingly warm and friendly towards us, and we finally were able to see the fruits of our regular visits and efforts to connect with them over the past years. Guanxi is a big deal in China (what is guanxi?) and we are so thankful to have come this far.
3 year old Ava (left) and 5 year old Leah (right) arrived at the orphanage and we have loved getting to know them both! Ava is a smiley and giggly little one who spends her days in the baby room at the orphanage, unable to walk or crawl due to cerebral palsy. Leah is attending Kindergarten and easily making friends with the other kiddos in the orphanage.
Ezra and Eli were both made available for adoption in 2016, and in the fall the announcement came that they could be adopted TOGETHER as brothers! We are excited to see if a family will come forward to adopt them together...
Here's to 2017 adoptions!
THANK YOU to all who supported, encouraged, donated, prayed, and thought of us in 2016. The Lord has been faithful to us and to the children we serve. And we are forever grateful.
If you’ve ever studied another language, you know that translation is not always as simple as it seems. The phrase “Lost in Translation” becomes very real when you start learning a new language.
There is a Chinese word that the Chinese people use often, but it doesn’t have a very good English equivalent. The word is guanxi 关系。It often gets translated as relationship, or what I think is even closer, rapport (I know, you’re wondering if that’s even English). The problem with translating this word guanxi is that it is such a cultural concept. Guanxi represents something that American culture doesn’t have. In China, relationships are everything. “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” When you move into a new apartment here, its a good idea to get to know the gate guards right away. Ask them about their kids, their hometown, give them an apple as you come home from the market. Eventually, you’ll need something from them, information or a favor, or help with some task. Never mind that you’re paying a fee every month to the apartment complex for their services… Rather, because of the relationship you’ve built with them, they feel a responsibility towards you.
This concept of guanxi is everywhere, especially in business. Knowing someone “on the inside” is the only way to get anything done. Building trust and a history together is everything. Guanxi has been incredibly important as we build a relationship with the orphanage Hope Station serves. We initiated a relationship with them with the intention of serving them, expecting nothing in return except their trust and cooperation. But because of this give-and-take mentality that is built into Chinese culture, it has taken a long time for them to believe that we are simply there to help… we don’t want to exploit the children, we don’t want money, we don't want to build up our reputation at their expense. We’ve been visiting this orphanage since 2010. In all that time, they have never asked us for anything, they have rarely agreed to any of our ideas or proposals, and they watch us like hawks anytime we are there.
Recently, something changed. I can’t say if it’s time, or the fact that we keep coming back, or something I’m entirely unaware of. But something has definitely changed.
In June, I sat down with the orphanage Director and my CRDF colleague (from the Chinese nonprofit that Hope Station is partnered with here) to talk about a new therapy program. She was surprisingly open to our ideas and asked lots of questions. My colleague and I felt good about where things ended, with her approval to let us try out our therapy program (victory!). But we still hadn’t signed any papers, and with all the past no’s we’d received, I was hesitant to get my hopes up. To my surprise, she followed us out of her office and downstairs to sit with the kids and continue chatting. As we sat there together with the children, she asked us a question I’ll never forget:
“This girl,” and she pointed to a child sitting near us, “She’s never been diagnosed, and we don’t know what to do with her. Can you help her?”
It was the first time that she’d ever asked us for help with anything. It took everything within me not to jump up and scream, “Yes!” Keep it together, Rebekah. Maintain a professional attitude. I let my Chinese colleague field the question, and she answered with a calm and positive approach. “Of course, we’re willing to try everything we can. What are her biggest challenges?”
Since that day, the Director has smiled and laughed and talked more than ever before. Finally, after 6 years, I feel like we have gained her trust and cooperation. At our next visit, the Director signed the therapy program agreement, and the girl that she asked us about is our very first therapy participant. We call her Hannah, which means favor and grace. Every time I see Hannah, I am reminded of that day, and the favor and grace we received both from our Father and from the orphanage. Just as He was faithful to answer Hannah’s prayers for a son in the Old Testament, He has been faithful to answer ours as well.
Is Hope Station still doing anything? Do you have any kids in your foster care program yet? What are you doing now? Are you still visiting the orphanage? Are you gonna stay in China?
These are some of the questions I’ve gotten in the past few months. They are good ones! And I think it’s finally time that I let you know what Hope Station is up to this season.
Hope Station has done a lot of things to serve orphans in China over the last several years. We’ve done adoption advocacy, raising awareness locally and internationally, giving resources to the orphanage that we regularly visit, and encouraging nannies and playing with children during those visits. As most of you know, our plan was to start a foster care program, to bring children out of the orphanage and directly into our care. After finding out that we cannot open a foster home, we decided to step back for a season to regain some perspective. We continued our regular visits to the orphanage, and we continued adoption advocacy. Most importantly, our Board of Directors and I (Rebekah) spent a lot of time in prayer. We knew that we wanted whatever we do next to be His idea, not ours.
Ultimately, Hope Station is all about family. This past season really helped us to see that more clearly. We want to do whatever we can to bring family into kids’ lives. Family is everything (Eph. 3:14-15, 4:4-6). And giving the gift of family can look lots of different ways—from advocating for kids to be adopted, to giving an orphan a hug to show him somebody loves him. Without family, you and I would not be the people we are today.
China is an ever-changing place and culture, and the social welfare industry is growing like never before. At Hope Station, we want to grow with the culture, to meet their needs in each season, rather than working against them. So, each season might look different for us. But the one thing that will never change is this: We will always champion the orphan and give the gift of family wherever we can.
So, finally we get to that burning question: What is Hope Station doing now?
The best answer is: Lots of things!
We continue doing adoption advocacy, working with the local orphanage and a U.S. adoption agency to bridge the gap between waiting children and waiting families. We continue touching base with families who have already adopted and are walking through the beautifully messy process of adoption. We continue making weekly visits to the local orphanage to play with kiddos, encourage nannies, and refresh all their hearts (Phm. 1:7, Mt. 10:42). We continue raising awareness in our local and international communities by sharing the kids’ stories.
New this season is a therapy program we’ve started right in the orphanage. We’ve been talking about this idea with the orphanage director for several months, and in June we signed a partnership agreement with her for a two-year developmental therapy program run by Hope Station. If you haven’t followed the ups and downs of our relationship with the orphanage over the last few years, let me just tell you: this is a BIG DEAL. It’s a pilot program: one hour, once a week, with one child. But the fact that it’s on paper and official-ized is a major Win.
In June, Josiah-now-Jay went home with his new forever family! He had been matched with this family since last summer (read the match story here). It has been absolutely amazing to walk through this experience with him and his family. To be on his side of the world throughout the waiting period, to send pictures and updates to his mom as he grew, to deliver a birthday cake from his family to him when he turned 5 years old.
Now I’m visiting the U.S. side of the world, and I find myself reflecting on all that happened with Hope Station during our first year and a half in China. In December, we received the very final news that we won’t be able to do foster care (read that story here). That was unexpected and difficult news to receive. It meant a total redirection of our programs, which was not an easy thing to wrap our minds around, let alone carry out. Yet, also unexpected in our first year was the role we were able to play for three adoptive families and their kiddos. For Anthony-now-Tommy, Maisy-now-Emma, and Josiah-now-Jay, we stood in the gap as families waited to meet their child, and children waited to go home.
I personally didn’t even realize the full impact that standing in the gap could make, until I walked through the whole experience with Josiah-now-Jay. It was a privilege to be his mama’s hands and feet before she came to get him, as I visited him weekly at the orphanage. And I looked ever forward to the day that his mama and brother and sister would arrive in China to meet him for the first time. I had stayed in such close contact with her that she graciously invited me to be there when they first met their Jay.
Adoptive mama has been waiting to meet her son for almost a year, pouring over every detail of his face in every picture she has of him, memorizing every word from every email in an effort to get to know this little boy who will join her family, wondering how he will react when they meet. Will he be excited? Afraid? Smiling? Crying?
Watching Josiah-now-Jay jump into her arms for the first time definitely tugged at my heart strings. But after those first few seconds, he gets down, looks at her and his siblings, and seems to be asking himself, “So… now what?” He doesn’t know her, and they don’t even speak the same language. We all play together for the next hour as paperwork is being signed by all involved. When it comes time for the orphanage staff to leave and for Josiah-now-Jay to go with his new family, he starts screaming, sobbing, kicking his way out of everyone’s arms as we try to comfort him. I make sure they were all settled in their van to go back to their hotel, as he is still screaming, and then I say goodbye. (His mom told me later that he cried all the way to the hotel - until they reached the elevator and let him touch all the buttons… then he was fine.)
It’s been three months now since he went home to America with his forever family. And we’ve kept in touch. Every time he sees a picture of me in his mom’s phone, he asks to video call me. He’ll call, and we’ll have short conversations in Chinese about his bike, or his love for milk, or going swimming. I’m now the only person in his life who is connected to the last five years of his life. His mama sends me videos of him often, and sometimes asks if I can understand what he’s saying if he’s frustrated or making funny faces when he says something in Chinese. He’s transitioning so well.
Being part of his life after going home was something I never expected. But the role that I play, through Hope Station, is bridging a gap that no one else can. As he grows up, he’ll forget Chinese and he’ll forget what his life in the orphanage was like. But I’ll always remember. I’ll always be around to tell those stories about when he was being potty trained, how much he loved books when we first brought them, or the funny sheep shaped cake he had on his 5th birthday.
Hope Station might not be doing foster care, as we originally thought. But we are still doing all we can to give the gift of family to these kids, standing in the gap between forever families and children during the adoption process, and bridging the gap between past and future after they go home. It’s oh so sweet. And it makes every struggle along the way oh so worth it.
If you’ve never heard Maisy’s laugh, you are missing out. Chances are, you haven’t, considering most of you are living on the opposite side of the globe from Maisy and me. But let me tell you, there is absolutely no way to hear her giggle and not giggle back at her. Granted, Maisy had her crabby days just like the next toddler. That girl could make the fiercest moody faces I’ve ever seen on a 2 year old. But I made it a personal challenge to make her laugh every time I saw her. I couldn’t leave the orphanage without making sure she’d laughed at least once… that adorable laugh that sounded like summer.
I spent a lot of time praying for little lady Maisy. Even though she was already a toddler, she wasn’t eating solid foods, she wasn't attempting to run, and she wasn’t interacting with other children the way most toddlers do at her age. We’d heard a rumor that she would never be available for adoption because her birth mom was still alive, just unable to care for her. It broke my heart. She was such a delight. And she needed a family.
Then one day, our partnering adoption agency emailed me with a surprising request:
“Can I ask you a big favor? Maisy’s file was just assigned to our agency and I just introduced her file to an adoptive family. Can you please share with me any information that you know of Maisy?”
Never before had they asked for our help in the adoption process. And of course, I was so happy to help answer all of their questions. I shared videos and pictures, and my observations on her personality and development and experience growing up in the orphanage. Then, I waited.
It was months before we finally found out that Maisy had been matched with a family! I asked the adoption agency to share my contact info with the family in case they wanted further updates while they waited to come pick her up… but I never heard back.
We knew that Maisy’s adoptive family would come pick her up in the spring, but we also knew that we would probably never meet them or cross paths with them. Parents meet their children for the first time at the adoption office in Chengdu, rather than at the orphanage. While we all waited, we loved on her as much as we could. We started speaking English to her so that she could get used to hearing the different sounds and words even before moving to America. And when the day came for us to say goodbye to Maisy, we thought it would be forever. Of course, we were thrilled for her to be joining a forever family. That made the goodbye so bittersweet.
Fast forward to a couple weeks after Maisy left the orphanage. I received a message on facebook from the Easter family, thanking Hope Station for loving and praying for Maisy-now-Emma before she joined their family. By some miracle, they had found Hope Station’s page and recognized their new daughter from pictures we had posted. Truly a miracle, and a blessing for all of us.
Since then, we've been able to share with them all of our photos of Maisy-now-Emma’s first two years and tell them more about what her life was like in the orphanage. We were there when she started saying "mama," we were there when she started learning to walk, and we were there when she learned the joy of hide-and-seek ... So many of those first moments that her forever family now has pictures and stories of, even though they weren't able to be there in person. In return, the Easter family encouraged us in saying that Maisy-now-Emma is growing up in a home that loves the Father. All of these things are huge answers to things we’ve asked the Father for throughout our time with Maisy.
From us and from the Easters: thank you to each and every one of you that kept Maisy-now-Emma in your thoughts along the way! Praise the One who gave her that laugh like summer and the eternal joy of family.
I don't know about you, but I remember most of my childhood birthdays with fondness. There was the American Girls party, the princess party, the scavenger hunt party, the Chucky Cheese party... I could go on. Birthday parties are special to us for a reason. They make the birthday girl or boy feel loved in a unique way.
This past weekend, we had the opportunity to throw a birthday bash for the kiddos at the orphanage. Many of them don't even know their own birthday, let alone have ever had a birthday celebration. With nearly 50 kids between the ages of 1 and 20 in the place they call home, we figured it was about time they all experienced a birthday party for the first time.
We went all out. That morning, with the help of some volunteers from a nearby university, we did all the kids favorite activities: coloring, parachute games, and balloons. No birthday party would be complete without a piñata... but those aren't easy to come by on this side of the world. So we made our own. The kids caught on quickly when we explained that there was candy inside and that they would have to hit it until it burst open. Some of the kids surprised us with their strength. Jackson and Eli, who are both deaf, were especially excited to participate. They didn't need any further explanation beyond seeing their buddies take a turn hitting it. Everyone got a turn to whack it with the plastic baseball bat, before we had to help out a bit and cut some holes in it. Finally, it broke and the candy fell and the chaos ensued. Shaylee and Ezra were especially smart, stuffing candy in their shirt or pockets for later.
Another big part of birthday parties is the gifts. We couldn't pass up this opportunity. Erin and I had so much fun picking out special gifts for each of the kids individually. We wrapped each one, so that everyone would have a chance to unwrap their own gift. To be honest, we weren't quite sure how this portion of the party was going to go down. Everything we've ever brought to the orphanage has been for all the kids to share, or we've had enough of the same thing to go around to every child. So to give each child a unique gift of their own had the potential to be really meaningful or major chaos. In the end, I think it was both. After what seemed like an eternity handing out wrapped items to kids who were crowding around the big bag of gifts saying, "Where's mine? I want one too!" we reached the bottom. Some of the kids were really excited about their own gifts. Others kept prodding, "But I want what he has!" We did our best to trade things around so everyone was eventually happy.
Our crazy boys Ezra, Jackson, Eli, and Avery all got matching transformer guns. At first they thought they were just guns... which apparently wasn't cool enough. But when we showed them how they could transform into transformer guys, they were ecstatic. After that, they could be found huddled together in a corner or running as a pack through the halls with their transformers in the air. I can only imagine the conspiracy they were dreaming up to take over the world.
It was a chaotic day, for sure. But aren't all birthday parties? I look back on my own with fondness, but I can only imagine the planning and coordination that my parents put into the celebrations. I'm sure they felt the chaos of so many children at once doing this or that activity. We know we made the kids happy during the Hope Station Birthday Bash. And that's what matters.
Within 30 seconds he had entered, captured everyone's attention, and gotten right into the middle of what was going on. All at 2 feet tall.
Over the next few weeks, I experienced more and more of Josiah's personality. I couldn't help but think of him as fiery and feisty. And that's exactly where the name Josiah came in. Whenever I meet a new child in the orphanage, I learn their Chinese name and then give them an English name. (They often won't ever hear their own English name, but it helps us English speakers to understand as we talk about the kiddos we love!) Josiah means "Fire of the Lord" and seems to encompass Josiah as he is, and all that I hope and pray for his future. He was fiery as he picked out coloring pages each week ("This one. No. That one. NO! This one!"), fiery when he got marker on his hands ("I need to wash my hands! Help!"), and fiery when he played with balloons ("Make me a sword!" and then... "Chaaarge!").
Of course, a fiery personality in a now 4 year old has its struggles. There have been countless moments that Josiah demanded a toy or thing from me, and I said no. Tantrums, crying, throwing himself on the floor, those have all been part of our experiences together. But he is learning that my word is final, and we have reached a point where he will often comply if I ask him to "Ask nicely and you can have it."
Amidst all of the struggles, sheer joy and unlimited laughter have been the highlights. Josiah was the first child I introduced to books, and we read that Fruit board book for hours before moving on to Vehicles. Turns out that books are the only thing that keep him still for more than 2 minutes at a time. Tickles, chasing, hiding, and being sneaky are some of my favorite memories with Josiah, and we have spent countless mornings together laughing and hiding and sneaking around corners to scare each other.
Nearly all of the children in China's orphanages have special needs, but it was a long time before I learned Josiah's special need. Just a few months ago, we discovered his diagnosis, one that caused him to have small stature, clumsiness, and some lack of control over his muscles. This explained the nearly constant bruise on his forehead from falling on his face so often. I started bringing toys for Josiah that helped develop his fine and gross motor skills, and he loved them.
All the while, I hoped and prayed for Josiah's adoption file to be completed so he could be made available for adoption. This spring, it finally happened. We started advocating for Josiah through BAAS (an adoption agency in the States that we work alongside), hoping that through our pictures and videos his forever family would find him. Earlier this month, I got an email from Rachel. Rachel had seen a picture of Josiah and wanted to know more. We shared several emails back and forth, and she finally decided to move forward and pursue little Josiah!
Rachel has a son and daughter who were also adopted from China, and Josiah's picture and fiery personality immediately reminded her of her son, who is also "a feisty, fiery, center of the party tiny guy." The three of them are so excited to be pursuing Josiah and can't wait to welcome him into their family. Before anything was sure, they had started affectionately calling him "Jay." As it turns out, that is the name they have decided to stick with as Josiah-now-Jay joins their family. We can't wait to meet them and introduce them to their son and brother.
We hope that this is the first of many family stories we get to tell you in the future.
A note from Rebekah...
If you've ever wondered what it would be like to start a nonprofit from the ground up, to open a home for ORPHANS with special needs in CHINA, you've come to the right place.