This was a week packed full of meaningful moments, but the day we visited the state-run orphanage, Kebebe Tsehay, in Addis Ababa, was an experience that is unforgettable to me.
As our bus pulled into the orphanage compound, several dirty little feet tapped toward us. Little cuties ran up the hill with arms stretched as wide as they could stretch them and huge beaming smiles from ear to ear. I got a mighty hug from one little boy and noticed how tight he was holding me — a teddy bear hug that seemingly would need to last a lifetime because he wasn’t sure when the next hug would be.
The kids were wearing tattered clothing, no shoes for the most part and dirty from head to toe. (But not in the way my kids get dirty from playing outside – no! – this was serious grime, likely a result of their accommodations and the limited access to bathing and washed clothing.)
Our group walked over to the play area and the number of children grew from 5 to at least 100, with ages ranging from 2 years old to maybe 12. Most of the children were obviously ill with simple sicknesses like runny noses, ring worm, dental issues and cuts. Illnesses that would be easily remedied here in the States, but apparently unaddressed at the orphanage.
Why were these children here? I wanted to know their stories and started asking our guide to translate questions I posed to the Director. In one word: poverty. Most of the children at this orphanage were dropped off by parents that could no longer provide food for them. Some had horrific stories such as an 11-year old girl who had been chained to her bed her entire life with the scars on her ankles to prove it.
After an hour or so of playing with the kids outside, a few of us walked over to see the kids dorm room. Beds were stacked 3 high — some beds with sheets, some without. It smelled. It was dirty. This room was disgusting! “These kids live here?,” I thought.
Then my entire body went numb. No emotions. No feelings. I stood there in emptiness — like an out-of-body experience. Before the trip, I had read that when a person becomes emotionally numb, this means that the emotion has become too much for the mind to process. This is the body’s way of protecting itself. When I realized I was experiencing this state, I broke down in tears. Yes, this was too much to face, but in the interest of the kids, I pulled myself together.
Then we walked into the baby room. Thirty cribs packed a small room in the back. Some cribs had two babies laying feet to feet and some babies were sitting in bouncy seats — approximately 50 babies in all. With 3 caregivers, the babies were picked up only for diaper changes and bathing then put back in their cribs. Each crib had a bottle in it.
The environment was sad, but these babies were beautiful! I wanted to ensure that I held at least each baby once. I could at least see to it that for one day these babies would get some human interaction. My heart ached for each of them.
After more than an hour with the babies, I walked outside and that is when I felt a flicker of hope and after a minute… pure joy! Sitting on the steps leading up to the orphanage doors were my fellow DMP travel mates surrounded by children and reading the books that we had brought with us! The kids were wide-eyed listening and enthralled with the magic uncovered in the words that were read to them. We really were making a difference here.
This week’s adventures were an emotional roller coaster, but every time I saw hardship I also saw love and our experience at the orphanage brought it all full-circle. Yes, there was hope and it was staring back at us through beautiful eyes and big smiles. It was magical and made me believe that there were better days ahead for these kids and other children throughout Ethiopia.
Thank you to Sonja and Haleigh and the DMP for an incredible experience that I will never forget. Thank you to the people of Ethiopia for showing me that humanity and character are alive and well on the other side of the world and that you are people that honor everyone you meet with openness and love. Randy Pausch, author, said, “Brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want something badly enough. They are there to keep out the other people.” Together, we will knock down the walls of poverty. We will break the education and language barriers and we will make this a better world for everyone.