After all, we call it a foster home. And, if you go there during the daytime hours, the place is buzzing with so much activity that one has no time to think about the fact that all of the children are orphans. Compared to most orphanages, the place is paradise! To be honest, on most days, the kids don't even seem to notice what they're missing! Between arts and crafts in preschool, a game of hide and seek on the playground, and a big lunch in the main dining hall with all the other staff and students, it really feels more like a preschool or a daycare. I usually leave at 5 p.m., and sometimes I half-expect to pass parents pulling into our parking lot to pick up their children after a long day's work.
But last night something changed... I spent the night at the foster home. All of the daytime management staff are taking turns spending the night at the foster home to show the night nannies that we recognize their contribution and hard work and to better understand what their job is like. Last night was my turn. On any given night, there are 3 nannies who care for the children. Before I go further, I cannot emphasize enough how amazing they are! Just like the daytime ones, they are loving, patient, and treat the children as if they were their own... but, they are at a disadvantage in that they are outnumbered! It isn't a big deal, since for most of the night the kids are asleep and they only need to tend to isolated incidents, and it is certainly a safe and appropriate staffing number, but when it comes to getting 21 kids to bed at once, that's a lot of work for each of them!
The foster home is a different place after-hours. There are no visitors and very few staff (other than the night nannies) who stay past 6:00 pm or so. I arrived at around 7:00 to begin my night shift. I started in the downstairs playroom, where all the kids, fresh from their evening baths and with full bellies, were quite ecstatic to have this break from the routine. From 7:00 to 8:00 it was me and about 7 toddlers, singing songs like Row, Row, Row Your Boat, Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, and the Wheels on the Bus, and playing Ring Around the Rosy and Duck, Duck Goose. (We usually had about 5 geese at any given point; no one wanted to be ducks!) The nannies were busy tending to all the little details that comes from mothering 21 kids -- making sure everyone who needed it had their evening medications, changing diapers, brushing hair. So it was just me and the toddlers in the playroom, and being the center of the children's attention was quite fun -- though occasionally a bit overwhelming. They play until about 8:00 or so, when everyone lines up for a last cup of milk, their own toothbrush, and finally a drink of water -- the requisite goodnight tonic for children around the world.
That's when I realized I was in an orphanage.
Since there are 15 children downstairs and 2 nannies to put them to bed (the other 6 babies and 1 nanny is upstairs), no one gets the prolonged nighttime routines familiar to many children around the world. No stories. No cuddling with mom before drifting off to sleep. I put Cheryl to bed, and I think she knew I was a softie who was new at this gig. :) As I turned out the light and left her room, she started crying. (Most of the kids don't cry at bedtime; it is business as usual and a common routine.) Even though there was a part of me that knew since every night she has to fall asleep by herself, turning around was only giving her a taste of something she couldn't have right now, I couldn't keep going. I turned around and sat beside her crib, gently stroking her face and singing her a song until her eyes grew heavy. Cheryl is one of the children who tries to act very strong, yet I see her deep emotional woundings as clearly as I see her disabled leg. It's hard to describe, but I know her heart aches for a family... For a mother to tuck her in every night. (If we were 30, she'd be at the top of my list!!)
She's usually so strong -- unnaturally so for a 3 year old. But tonight in the dark quiet of her bedroom, I saw something in her eyes. A brokenness... a vulnerability... an openness to and desire for love. But she was so guarded. I never let my gaze waver from her eyes, but she could only look at me for a few seconds at a time. Her eyes would dart away, but then they were back again. Back and forth she went, until her eyes couldn't stay open any longer.
As she fell asleep, I sadly realized something. No matter what we call it, it is still an orphanage. No matter what programs we offer and how much we try to make life happy for the kids, there is still an emptiness. No matter how much we love them, there is still a longing. And no matter how much we try to heal and bind up wounded hearts, there is still a brokenness.
As I fell asleep on the couch in our foster home, listening to the soft sounds of a house filled with sleeping children, I dreamed of the day when each of these children has the family they deserve.
Hasten the day...