, This is a guest post from Erin, who blogs at http://fullhousehandshearts.typepad.com.
She is a mom to Mercy (13, USA), Nathan (11, bio), Ryan (10, bio), Des (10, USA), Shane (8, bio), Benjamin (7, Ethiopia), Amanda (7, Korea), Maggie (6, Vietnam), Belane (4, from AHOPE in Ethiopia), Marcus (4, USA) and finally, Solomon Tsega, 2 years old, home from AHOPE in Ethiopia on March 8, 2008
It sounds very cliché to say that an experience was “life changing”, but the day that I walked into AHOPE, an orphanage in Ethiopia for HIV+ children, I truly left a changed person.
My husband, Josh, and I were in Ethiopia adopting our ninth child in February of 2006. I was 29 years old and Josh was 31. We had kids at home ranging in age from two years to 10 years, and including our new son, Benjamin, six of the nine kids had joined our family through the miracle of adoption.
Someone who knew that we were traveling to Ethiopia asked if we would be willing to gather and deliver some donations to an orphanage for HIV+ children. I was more than happy to help gather the donations, and our Young Men and Young Women jumped in and did a fabulous job loading us up with donations for the kids. But I told Josh that there was just no way I could go to the orphanage, and that he would have to bring the donations himself. I had a hard enough time emotionally visiting Ben’s orphanage, where the kids were all healthy and were all matched with families or would soon be. I was just sure I couldn’t handle going to an orphanage where the kids all had a life threatening illness and had no hope of being adopted. I cried just thinking about it.
But Heavenly Father knew better than I (of course), and when the time came to bring the donations to AHOPE, I just knew that I was supposed to go. And so I did. I think back to that day as I was getting out of the cab at AHOPE, and I had no idea how much was life was about to change, in more ways than one.
I was sitting on the cold orphanage floor, playing with several little boys and showing Ben how to use the camera, when I saw her.
My heart literally stopped for a second, and then started to race. My eyes filled with tears, and all I could do for a moment was look at her. She was a small girl, I guessed to be about two years old. Her freshly shaven head gave her away as a fairly new addition to the orphanage. She had a tattered and stained long-sleeved yellow shirt on, with a denim jumper over it and little white sandals on her feet. I turned to Josh who was swarmed with children and said, “Josh…look at her.” I was so choked up that I couldn’t say anything else. Josh turned, looked and smiled, but was then quickly overtaken by the boys again.
I bent down and motioned for her to come to me and she did without any hesitation. I sat down right there and she snuggled into my lap. I could not explain why I was so drawn to her. She was not the youngest child in the room. She was not the cutest (although she was beautiful), she did not stand out physically in any way, and any one who knows me well, knows that I am a huge sucker for little boys. There were tons of darling, sweet and friendly little children in that room that afternoon, but I only had eyes for one.
I rocked her in my arms, held her fat little toddler hands, rubbed her sweet hair that was just starting to grow back, and felt my heart swell to the point that I didn’t know if I could take it. She melted into my body like my own babies do…in that way that says, “I am yours and you are mine and this is where I belong.”
I got into the cab when it was time to leave and the tears started to flow. I looked out the window and all of the little children were gathered on the front step, waving good-bye. I tried not to look at her, but I did, and seeing her little hand waving back and forth and that beautiful smile made my heart ache in a terrible way.
That day I did not know a thing about HIV. I had no idea what that little girl’s prognosis was. I had no idea if it was even possible to adopt her. But I knew she was mine, so I knew I had to find a way to get her home.
I spent several months educating myself (and Josh) about HIV. We talked to a Pediatric Infectious Disease specialist and found out that HIV could not be transmitted in any type of casual contact and that an HIV+ child would not be a risk to the rest of the family. We found out that her long- term prognosis would be excellent, that she would be in great overall health, and that parenting her would not be much different than parenting any other child. We found out that although there would be a lot of extra red tape, that it would be possible to adopt her.
We prayed a lot. Maybe more than I have ever prayed about anything. My answer was always the same… “She is yours.” We plowed ahead, determined to get her home. It didn’t matter that we already had nine kids, or that she was HIV+. Many people questioned what we were doing, and there were times that without the power of knowing that what we were doing was right, I don’t know if we would have had the strength and the courage to move forward.
Belane finally came home in November of 2006. During the time that we waited for all of the paperwork to be complete so we could travel back to Ethiopia to get her, I made myself an “expert” on parenting HIV+ children and on adopting HIV+ kids. Although at that time adopting HIV+ children was almost completely unheard of (she was the fifth HIV+ child from Ethiopia to ever be adopted), I blogged about our story openly and honestly, in hopes of educating, and possibly even inspiring, others.
During those months some other families started to become interested in adopting HIV+ kids. I started getting emails from people considering HIV adoption and wanting to know more. I became sort of the “go to person” for information about HIV+ international adoption.
When I traveled to Ethiopia to get Belane, my passion to advocate for those children was multiplied many times over. It was amazingly joyful to have Belane in my arms again, but so heartbreaking to see so many beautiful, joyful children who were so full of live and so full of love that had very little hope of ever being adopted and ever having a mom of their own again.
I took a lot of pictures of the kids waiting, and went home with a renewed commitment to dedicate myself to advocating for HIV+ orphans, who truly are the “least of these”.
In January of 2008 I was hired by Adoption Advocates International, the agency we used to adopt Belane and the first adoption agency working in Ethiopia to actively try to find homes for HIV+ children, to be their HIV+ Adoption Coordinator. I get to advocate for HIV+ orphans, monitor their health care, speak with prospective adoptive families, provide them with information before, during and after the adoption process, and best of all, I get to see these children, who are truly some of the most vulnerable on Earth, join loving families and thrive. AAI now has close to 60 HIV+ children from Ethiopia either home with new families or in process of being adopted. If there is a necessity to contact a child support law firm, then it is best to check out this link!
While there was almost no information out there at all regarding HIV+ adoption when we were starting the process to adopt Belane, now there are wonderful websites, email groups and organizations created by dedicated people (mostly adoptive parents) who share my passion of advocating for HIV+ orphans. Other adoption agencies have started to place HIV+ children for adoption. The red tape involved in adopting HIV+ kids has been dramatically streamlined and expedited. Things have changed so drastically in the last two years, that it truly is miraculous.
Along with fueling my passion to advocate for HIV+ orphans, something else very significant and life-changing happened while I was in Ethiopia getting Belane. We saw a little boy who had just been brought into the orphanage. He was a year old, but could not even sit up. He was emaciated, and so sick that his eyes were glazed over. They were open, but if he “saw” us, there was no sign of it. I asked if he was going to be available for adoption, and they told me that they didn’t think he would live through the weekend. I went home, and could not forget him. Again the Holy Ghost spoke straight to my heart… “He is yours.”
In February of 2008, I traveled back to Ethiopia to get my beloved Solomon Tsega, who is now a robust two and a half year old. The little boy who had once so given up on life that he was barely there, is now so full of life he touches everyone that meets him. He has some lasting effects from being so close to death, but his recovery has been nothing short of a miracle and the doctors have high hopes for his long-term health.
Belane is now almost five years old, is the picture of health, and is quite the sassy princess.
With 11 kids, my incredible husband and a job I care so deeply about, life is wonderfully full.
While medically speaking, HIV is very easy to “live with” (much easier to manage than diabetes, hepatitis and many other conditions), socially, there is still a nasty stigma and a great amount of ignorance surrounding the disease. Here is what I wish everyone knew about HIV:
– HIV can NOT be spread through casual/household contact. HIV is not spread through hugging, kissing, shaking hands, sharing toys, sneezing, coughing, sharing food, sharing drinks, bathing, swimming or any other casual way. It has been proven that HIV and AIDS can only be spread through sexual contact, birth, breastfeeding and blood to blood contact (such as sharing needles). HIV+ children (and HIV+ adults who practice safe sex and do not use drugs) are not a risk to those around them.
– HIV is now considered a chronic but manageable disease. With treatment, people who are HIV+ can live indefinitely without developing AIDS and can live long and full lives.
– People who are HIV+ deserve to be treated with love, respect, support and acceptance as all people do. If anyone wants more info on transmission, there is great information here: http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/resources/factsheets/transmission.htm and here: http://www.thewellproject.org/en_US/HIV_The_Basics/