Do you remember the day we met? I remember that summer… or winter day in Zambia, like it was yesterday. It was my 4th trip to Lusaka, our mission was to host a kids’ day camp for children affected by AIDS & HIV. Unfortunately, this meant that many kids were orphaned, and had learned to survive on their own. Our goal was to give them a week to learn about Jesus, and play like every child should.
I built relationships with the same sweet group of girls for 4 years at camp. So when they climbed off the bus, each of them came sprinting across campgrounds and leapt into my arms. They weren’t afraid of me. They knew I was on their side, and that I fiercely loved each of them. I later found out that you had been sitting on the side of the road when the bus that was hauling kids to camp pulled over to pick you up. Never have I believed that was a coincidence. It was divine intervention, and the Lord’s will at work that would forever change my life.
When the bus pulled up to camp, I know you were scared. You had been thrown into a group of girls that you barely knew, and it was the first time for you to ever see a white person. As I hugged all my old friends, squealing about how much they had grown from the year before… you stood in the back, head down, eyes barely open. As the girls ran off to begin game time, you held back. I squatted down to be at eye level with you, but you couldn’t make eye contact with me. I know you must have been terrified. You didn’t know my intentions, that I wouldn’t hurt you. I’m so sorry you had to feel such fear at only age 9. I told you my name was Auntie Ellen, but I’m not sure you spoke any English at the time. I held my hand out, and you gently placed yours on top of mine. I cupped your tiny little hand in both of mine, and in that moment- you looked up. I felt a connection to you that I had never felt before. The Lord’s presence was covering that moment, as He knew both our lives would never be the same.
Throughout that week, I learned a lot about you, Hope. Everyday, we bonded when the two of us would leave the group so I could take you to the clinic to have your eyes washed out. I know your eyes hurt so terribly. You could barely open them, and when you did, they were irritated, and clouded yellow. Our visits to the clinic taught us a lot. Your eyes were aching so much because you were on quite strong medication that without proper nutrition, could be life threatening. We ran tests, and found out you have HIV. It’s nothing you ever deserved. And praise the Lord, we now have medication to battle it. You will live a long and healthy life, Hope, because we found out early and are able to help you.
I slowly watched your walls come down throughout the week. It wasn’t easy, though. You had become a very tough little girl, who had learned a harsh reality of survival. I knew you were funny. You would say something in Nyanga, and had the entire group rolling with laughter. I so wish I could understand what you were saying- or maybe I don’t. Quite possibly you were making fun the of the “muzungu’s” (white person) dancing or singing ability.
It broke my heart to see you so sick. You were so tiny, malnourished, independent, and alone. You sometimes lived with your aunt, who was also taking care of a dozen other children, so that left you little-to-no attention or food. I remember calling Clayton while in Zambia, crying over the phone telling him about this child who had stormed into my life, and stolen my heart. Without a second thought, Clayton said we would do whatever it takes to make sure she has a better life. Leaving you that summer has never been so hard. I cried the whole way home, feeling helpless that I was leaving you in such a vulnerable state. I wanted to take you with me, but knew that wasn’t what was best for you. I lived off the scripture in Philippians that says, “And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finished when Jesus Christ returns.” I knew you weren’t alone. The Lord was with you, and loved you infinitely more than I ever could.
We were able to provide for your basic needs- food, education, clothing and medicine. Six months later, Clayton came with me to Zambia for the first time. We walked the streets of Lusaka looking for you. I remember you running around a corner, and flying into my arms, and screaming “Auntie Ellen!” This was a very different little girl than I left last trip! You were healthier and had gained a little bit of weight, which gave you more energy. Your eyes were beginning to clear up, and you hugged Uncle Clayton as if you had known him for years. We played, danced and sang songs all day long, until it was finally time for us to go home.
On the plane back to America, Clayton & I prayed for you, and asked the Lord what we could do to love you better. We knew your greatest need was a place to call Home. You, sweet girl, deserved a family and a place where you would be deeply cared for. We wanted to build you and children just like you a home where you all could laugh, play, learn, grow, and thrive. You, Hope, are our inspiration.
People from all over the United States heard you story and were inspired too. They wanted to be a part of the Lord’s work to build kids like you a home. For 2 years, we raised money so we could build Arise Home- where you and the 8 other kids live now!
Pulling up to Arise Home in January was a dream come true. You were the first one to run out of the house, followed by 7 other children, and came leaping into my arms (which is not as easy anymore since you are getting so big!). You showed me all around the house. You showed me your bed, and where the girls sleep, and where the boys sleep, and the garden where you have learned to plant fruits and vegetables! We saw the kitchen were you have learned to cook and the water faucet that turns clean water on! You showed me the library where you are learning to read and study for school, and where your dreams will continue to grow! And you introduced me to all your new brothers and sisters, who have now become a family to you.
You are so happy and healthy now Hope. The Lord has done incredible things in your life, and you continue to give all gratitude to Him. Uncle Clayton & I are so proud of you, and the young woman you are becoming. You, my dear Hope, can be the change this world desperately needs.
I love you with all my heart, half a world away - Auntie Ellen
"For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prospere you, and not to harm you...To give you HOPE and a future..." Jeremiah 29:11