There were three boys that Charlie (my Chinese translator) and I met coming off the bus on the first day of camp . One was 5, the other 6, and the last kid was 8 years old. All of them had emotional trauma from their past. One seemed like a normal kid, another had severe attachment disorder, and the last kid had Down syndrome.
This was not what I expected for the first week of orphan camp, but perhaps I should not have been so surprised. This was China after all – the land where the unexpected is more often than not to be expected.
Going into the first week I knew little about orphans in China. In fact, I knew hardly anything at all. I discovered that most Chinese orphanages are state-run with a few private ones in the minority. Some are better than others. It often depends on the province and the city administration overseeing the orphanage.
I learned that orphans go to an orphanage for many reasons. For some, their parents had died. For others, their parents did not want them. Some parents could not afford another child, or it was illegal to have another.
Other children had been abused by those they thought they could trust. Some had been trafficked. These children were in an orphanage to be protected from adults who had used their position of power to coerce and manipulate the children into doing things no innocent child should ever have to do or experience.
During my first week, Charlie developed a close relationship with two of our kids, and I was close with our kid who had Down syndrome. I knew very little about Down’s before I met him.
His communication skills were behind for his age group, but he had his own way of communicating, especially with other children who had Down’s. One of his favorite expressions in Chinese was, “Bu Yao!,” which basically meant he didn’t want to do something.
He was a very stubborn and adventurous kid who had a kind heart. On Thursday of that week, we all went to the indoor water park near the hotel where we stayed, and he wanted to slide down every waterslide in the park. If I didn’t watch him too carefully, he would look for the nearest slide and begin running up the concrete steps until he reached the top of the slide (now I understand how parents can have minor heart attacks when their children do something reckless).
We went down nearly all the slides. The first two were open-air slides that took less than a minute to go down. The last one was a blue tube that snaked around several bends before it would dump people out into the water.
I’m not a big fan of small, claustrophobic spaces. And this slide felt uncomfortably small inside. As we started to slide down, we had a slight problem. We stopped moving. My kid was wearing a lifejacket, which slowed him down to an imperceptible crawl.
I was sitting behind him. So I started pushing forward with my hands so we could make it down the slide. As we slowly inched forward, I was waiting for another person to come barrelling through the blue tunnel of doom and slide right into my back. Then I imagined others piling up behind him.
Fortunately, everyone else must have been preoccupied with the open-air slides, or no one felt like going through the narrow, eternally winding, blue tunnel of doom. After we reached the last bend in the slide, the final steep descent pushed us along until we slid into the water.
I was relieved. And my kid wanted to do it again. I put a veto on that.
After our day at the waterpark finished, we headed to the locker room, changed our clothes, and walked back to the hotel. The sun was beginning its downward trajectory, but the heat was still intense. No need to dry ourselves off.
The next day (Friday) was our last day with our three kids. After a flurry of signing kids’ notebooks and cleaning up the rooms, we headed to the lobby to wait for the bus. It came sooner than I expected.
Soon enough all the orphans had boarded the bus. Some were ready to leave and others weren’t ready to go back. Some were crying as they hugged their volunteers and translators one last time. I put on a brave face for my kid. It helped that he wasn’t too emotional about having to leave.
After they had left, I felt an odd sense of having lost something I didn’t even know I had. After a week of spending time with these children, I felt like we were family. But now we had separated. And I’m not sure if I would ever see them again.
After eating lunch and resting in our rooms, all of the volunteers and translators met in the main meeting room to process the week and debrief. We split up into several different groups and shared our thoughts on the week, specifically what we thought about the week, what we realized about ourselves through interacting with the orphans, and how we thought this experience would affect us as we go back to normal life.
I didn’t like to admit it, but I saw a lot of myself in my kid with Down syndrome. He was a very stubborn kid who got fixated on certain ideas, and once he did, it was very hard to change his mind. He was also one of the most adventurous kids I had met at such a young age. But he did have a kind heart and a gentle spirit too.
I also realized I wasn’t as patient as I thought. I’d like to blame my impatient reactions on the stress and busyness of the week, but if I were honest, it was just my true self and feelings that revealed who I really was inside. It wasn’t always a pleasant image, but it was an accurate one.
As with most high-intensity, high-pressure situations, the week at camp will take me weeks (if not months) to process. There was so much to learn and so much to expend. At times, I felt like I had no energy left to give. I felt like a lemon that had been squeezed dry until only a few drops were left.
But God gave me enough strength for the day and helped me realize how weak I really was on my own. I am thankful for a spiritual Father who chose to adopt a sinful, rebellious child who stubbornly wanted to pursue his own passions and desires apart from God.
I don’t deserve his mercy and grace, yet he has freely poured it out on me. How can I not do the same to the least of these?