When many people think of an orphanage, I think they often envision babies and toddlers. I used to be one of those people myself. On my many trips to China, however, I began meeting and falling in love with the older children who have grown up in institutions, many who never had any true chance of finding a permanent home. Their faces and stories are in my heart forever now, and sadly many of my memories of these great kids involve tears.
Their faces and stories are in my heart forever now, and sadly many of my memories of these great kids involve tears. Tears from Jenny, who broke down on her 14th birthday when she realized that she had aged out of the adoption system without being chosen. The final realization that she would never know what it meant to have a mom or dad of her own caused her to fall into a deep depression. Tears from Lily, a 17-year-old girl whom I had given my jacket after she admired it. When she refused to accept it initially, I put my hand on her shoulder and said, “But of course you have to take it because you are like family to me.” And it was at that one word, “family,” that this normally stoic young lady broke down and sobbed uncontrollably, as it is the one thing that she longed for.
The most emotional moment of my time in China came one night when I was able to meet with a group of older orphaned teens I had watched grow up over a five year period. Every time I would visit their orphanage, I would enjoy getting to know them more. They all seemed so close, such good friends, and they always had smiles for me when I arrived. That night, however, was a night when the kids finally let their guard down. It was a night of real conversation and sharing what it means to grow up as an orphan. Toward the end of the evening we were all in tears. Afterwards, one of the older boys stayed to talk with me privately. I am hesitant to even write of it now as it was such a deeply personal and emotionally raw conversation. I will share, however, that he told me that growing up without a mother or father “hurts more than death.”
Children aren’t supposed to raise themselves. They are not supposed to grow up alone, which I know sounds impossible when you are growing up in a crowded orphanage. The reality, though, is that hundreds of thousands of orphaned children feel utterly and completely ALONE. I held this incredible and wonderful teen in my arms as he sobbed about how much he wanted a mom, and I can’t think of it now without great pain.
Why was I given the opportunity to be born into a family who could take care of me, while millions of children are born into situations so sad and filled with hurt that many people don’t even want to hear their stories? I have struggled with that question for years with no answers. But I do know that all of us who have been blessed to know what a family really is should make every effort possible to help those who are orphaned. If not us, then who?
The theme song for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games was a song called “You and Me.” It has been sung to me by children in orphanages many times, and it always makes me cry. The words haunt me… especially for the older children who have grown up feeling so alone: “Put your hand in mine. You and me, from one world. We are family.”
How I wish those words were true in every person’s heart. How I wish everyone believed that we need to treat people as family and share our ever shrinking world. What a wonderful place this would be if every adult took the hand of a child in need and didn’t let go. To all of the older orphaned children who have aged out of the possibility of ever finding a family, I send my heartfelt prayers. You are not forgotten. And we will continue doing our very best to help in every way possible.
Amy Eldridge is the Executive Director of Love Without Boundaries.