Today we helped out at a local orphanage in Langfang, about an hour from where we live in China. All of the children have special healthcare needs — and all but one has brittle bone disease, which causes their bones to break at even the slightest touch. Some of the kids are truly orphaned, having lost both parents, while others are either abandoned or had their custody relinquished by parents who could not (or would not) care for children with such complex needs.
Agape is more like a foster home rather than an orphanage. It is private, but approved by the State. Many orphanages in China are government run.
When we visit Agape, we typically help out with maintenance projects around the campus, spread out across four buildings in a residential neighborhood. Our group (which is mostly full of engineers) helps with these projects not because the staff are incapable of doing them on their own, but because they have no time to take care of them. The program runs two children’s homes, an older kids’ and a younger kids’ house, a bakery, and overseas the children’s education. There are only a few staff available to fill these roles and their responsibilities keep them busy 24 / 7. So anytime they can have volunteers come in and take care of tasks such as painting, organizing, and building new furniture, they are always very grateful.
The women of our group set to work painting and cleaning a small room at the front of one of Agape’s buildings, preparing it to serve as the kids’s computer room, while the men went to work building the computer desks that would go in the room.
Since I only brought a limited wardrobe with me to China, I didn’t really have any clothes appropriate for painting. I ended up putting a pair of my husband’s shorts on over my favorite pair of jeans, turning my fleece inside out, and wearing flip flops with socks so as to not ruin my only pair of sneakers.
The children love creating artwork, and it’s for sale to benefit the home. The paintings are always very colorful and expressive.
Agape also has a bakery that serves as employment for the children as they grow older and “age out” of the Chinese child welfare system, somewhere around 14 – 16. After this, children who have not been adopted are considered to be responsible for themselves. Recognizing that not only are these children not old enough to provide for themselves, but also that they are limited by their health challenges, Agape set up an on-site business so the kids could keep living there and have a way to draw income for themselves. I didn’t take pictures of any the workers in the bakery as they are more shy and private than the energetic children.
Bread of Life Bakery serves the local area with delicious baked goods and makes some of the best pizza I’ve ever had.
I wanted to hang out with the children, as I knew my opportunities to visit the Home would be limited during our remaining time in China. The younger kids were content to play quietly with their toys, making sure to show me each one they had. Interacting with the kids at Agape was a challenge for me at first, as I realized just how much of my interaction with small children usually focuses on physical touch — hugs, high fives, and holding them. But for most of these kids, their bones are so fragile that the slightest touch could cause them to break. So holding and touching the children is limited to the staff who are trained in how to properly care for the children. I had to push myself to find ways to affirm them and interact with them that did not involve physical touch.
While the younger kids were content to stay warm inside and play, the older kids, however, wanted to get outside and enjoy the day. Joseph, one of the more outgoing of the children, suggested, “Go for a walk?” as he pointed insistently toward the door. That sounded like a great idea, so I went outside with him and several of the other older children to make a few laps around the block of their small and isolated neighborhood.
Joseph led the way.
While my heart leaped with joy to interact with the children, it also broke for them knowing they sit there waiting, hoping to be adopted into a “forever family,” and miss out on a lot of the physical affection children without their disease are able to receive. I wanted to laugh and cry with them at the same time.
This past year has taught me the very painful lesson that it is possible for the heart to be filled with both unspeakable joy and unbearable sorrow simultaneously. I realized at that moment, as I wrestled with that battle of opposing emotions while I enjoyed my time with the children of Agape, that I feel a similar conflict in a lot of areas of my life right now … and for the first time in a long time, I was ok with that.