A few weeks ago I wrote a post called The Sad Reality (you can link to it HERE if you missed it). Writing that post drained me. I needed nearly two months to find the courage to write it. Then I needed over a week to write it, and several days to come out of the deep funk that writing it caused. We saw a lot of ugly things at the institute where Aaron lived. Some we will never share publicly. We chose to share The Sad Reality because there are too many children who have no voice with which to tell the world of their suffering, and we have a responsibility to be their voice, as Proverbs 31: 8-9 demands:
"Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy."
There is more to the story of The Sad Reality. I didn't want to write it, and just by thinking about it, I am already slipping into a funk that only God can heal. But the story needs telling. So here it is: The Sad Reality, Part Two.
We walked the mile to and from Aaron's institute sixty-five times before we were finally allowed to cart him away to freedom. Sixty-five times we entered those shoddy gates and trod those uneven walks. Sixty-five times we struggled to accept the sights, sounds and smells of a hidden world that shook us to the core. Sixty-five times we walked, watched and grieved.
It is difficult to describe the despair I felt every day as we passed a shed filled with boys who had absolutely nothing to do. It filled me with grief when some of them cried out, "Mama!" hoping that I could offer them the same escape I was offering Aaron. It was hard to process this world, in which survival of the fittest reigned and played out every day between boys of widely varying sizes and ages-- a world in which hitting, fighting and abuse is normal and goes largely unchecked. Beyond that, how could we face the reality of the hidden boys, the ones we only glimpsed, the ones whom we knew lay behind closed doors in their cribs-- silent, lonely, attention-starved, stiff, far beyond any hope of release-- dying?
We couldn't. We just walked back and forth to and from the institute, holding hands, supporting each other, joking about anything we could find, scheming about our blog posts, biding our time until the wheels of bureaucracy turned far enough to allow us to go back to our safe, predictable world with Aaron in tow.
Aaron's institute housed older boys from a wide area of his country. So far as we know, only a few had any family in town, and only about two or three of these had any visits during our time there. Because of this, his institute wasn't well set up for visitors. There were no indoor visiting rooms at all, and for outdoor visits there was only one designated area: a painted steel gazebo with rotting wooden benches, situated just outside the administration office's door.
Aaron quickly got tired of this gazebo. After a year of confinement, he was ready to explore, and we were his passport to freedom. For our part, we preferred the gazebo. It was our assigned visiting area, the only place anyone ever really gave us permission to be. We were safe there. No dogs bothered us there, and no one shooed us away there. Each time we followed our wandering fugitive out of that gazebo, we knew that we were setting ourselves up for trouble. And we did get into trouble, more than once.
We finally reached a compromise with Aaron. We gravitated toward a neutral spot at the center of the institute, a sort of crossroads from which we could see nearly everything that was happening there. We could see the main gate, so we wouldn't miss the arrivals and departures of the institute's vehicles-- in Aaron's opinion the most important events of any day. We could see the dining sheds in which the boys took meals and snacks (picture below, at Rob's back). And we were on the paths by which all three groups of outdoor boys reached these sheds, so we could watch and join their parades to and from meals. Just down the path (to Rob's right) was the shed filled with the moaning boys, the lowest-functioning of the outdoor boys. Beside us was the building in which they slept. We didn't really like being there, but Aaron was happy there, and at least when we were there no one could accuse us of spying.
And so the crossroads became our new home at the institute. By accident or design, we received an unspoken, tenuous permission to spend three hours every day at the center of a secretive facility. We saw nothing of what went on behind closed doors, but everything that happened in the open, we saw. That's how we came to see the second part of our sad reality.
In that lowest functioning group of outdoor boys, there were three older ones whom we got to know. They had a job carrying things back and forth from their shed area to their building, strange benches with multiple holes, so we saw them every day. All three were precious. One laughed and called out to Aaron and to us with glee every time he passed. His vocabulary was limited, but he always spoke with gusto. His legs were bent at odd angles, and one was much longer than the other, so he hobbled up and down the path each day; but he always laughed and clapped his hands, filled with joy. The second was silent, lost in his own world. He stared at us from a distance and gave us crooked smiles. The third was a sweet angel with Down Syndrome. He was short, bowlegged and as gentle as can be. Alone of the three, this one would wander over to spend time with us. He gently handled and played with Aaron's toys. He spoke to us softly. He was a perfect gentleman in his behavior. Unfortunately, in his person he was anything but gentlemanly. His smell was overpowering, and when he offered his hand for us to shake, we could see why: his hands were stained with excrement.
At first we assumed that he simply didn't know how to take care of himself. We also assumed that the caretakers gave older boys like him much less help in taking care of themselves than they gave the younger ones. It wasn't really surprising that a boy of his age and in his condition would need a bath.
But later, we began to understand that all three of these boys were dirty every day. And we knew that Aaron's institute had a good staff that wouldn't put up with filth. One day, every boy at that institute got new clothes in preparation for a visit from a psychiatric professional, but these three boys were still dirty. It took us forever to understand, finally, what was happening: The mysterious things the boys were carrying every day were potty benches. These boys were washing out potty chairs every day and moving the benches back and forth from the building to the shed. They were responsible for cleaning up after 20 boys every day, probably twice per day. They were the boys from "the picture," all grown up and graduated to the next logical step in their sad existence.
We already knew that the older boys performed essential jobs there. Aaron's institute was poor, and needed every available resource. They had to put the boys to work. We had seen some carrying water from the outside well, carrying laundry and setting tables in the sheds before meals. The luckiest ones worked with the hired caretakers on the grounds, bringing in food or keeping things neat. The unluckiest, our three friends, scrubbed the potty chairs. They did their job with an innocent willingness that brought tears to our eyes. And they carried the marks of their job everywhere they went, in the form of filth that in their circumstances was just too hard to remove.
Why do I share this? Why is poop so important? Because of the indignity of their situation. There is nothing wrong with requiring the boys to work; in fact, it is probably a benefit for most. But for these three sweet boys to end up in this sad situation, doomed to hold the least desirable job at the institute for who knows how long, is just deeply sad. It lowers them to subhuman status. As we said before, their plight is a result of poverty, not of neglect. Those caretakers do the best they can with what they have, and they work hard. Where there are no plumbing facilities for so many boys, someone must scrub potty chairs. The only practical way to solve the problem would be to remove these boys from their untenable situation. They simply shoudn't be there in the first place. If so many boys were not cast off at birth, doomed for life to impoverished institutions, then no one would have to scrub potty chairs for 20 boys at a time. If more people in their country and ours would open their homes to these children who have been orphaned through no fault of their own, then no one would have to suffer degradation like this. If the nutty bureaucracies of their country and ours didn't set up so many hurdles in the adoption track, then more of these poor kids could find homes and families of their own.
Nearly every child in the Eastern European orphanages (baby houses) who has a mental or physical disability is transferred to an institution like Aaron's by the age of four, five or six. All are stowed away in these underfunded institutes, in villages far off the beaten path. They receive no education and no therapy, so they make no progress. They will live and die at these places or the even worse adult institutions that await them. They have little to no hope of ever leaving. It is their sad reality.
And as long as they live in such places, the unlucky ones will get demeaning jobs like these. When we finally realized what was going on, our next thought was that this would probably be Brady's fate. He fits the profile. If no one rescues Brady, then he may very well spend his days scrubbing potty chairs and carting benches-- when he could be doing so much more. Poor Brady. How sad to have so little hope for the future when you're only six.
That's why we're still shouting about all of this months down the road. It's why we often find ourselves discussing, agonizing, praying and struggling with our memories and stories. It's why we want the church to march into these places. Where the church has entered, there have been life-giving changes for the boys and girls inside these institutions. We need the church to march into that village and that institute. We have no idea how it will happen, or when. We are two very small people with a bit of knowledge and little else. We don't know where to turn. We cry out again and again for God to send families for Brady and Heath. We can't believe that God would open those gates for us, leave us there far longer than need be, show us all of this hurt and then leave the situation forever unchanged.
All we know to do is pray, advocate, yell, holler, scream and shout. It takes a lot of time, and it's exhausting. Sometimes it seems pointless and fruitless. But those poor boys need a voice. They need someone to cry out for them. The Lost Boys need to be found.