Monday, July 27, 2009

I have hesitated (as you may have noticed) on writing this blog, simply because first, it's hard to know where to begin, and second, I don't know that words can ever describe the intensity of my feelings and what we've experienced during the month of June. That sounds cliche, I know, but between reuniting with the other COTW teams, saying goodbye to the Nepali children and Prava, and traveling to Uganda to say goodbye to our other ten children, my emotions have been all over the place.


We arrived back in Virginia the second week of June, and we were all so excited to see the other team leaders and children! We spent about eight days with everyone together, and it was definitely a bittersweet time for all of us. The last Sunday we were there, we woke up at 6:00 in the morning to say goodbye to our Nepali children and Prava, our chaperone. This was the only goodbye I would have to say in America, because Jay and I knew we would be saying goodbye to our Ugandans while we were in Africa. This was, by far, the most difficult goodbye we had. Several factors contributed to this, but mostly I think it was because that was when the realization hit that it was actually over. When we first started out, it felt like it would never end. But like most things, when we look back now, it seems like the time flew by. The realization of "THE END" hit me like a ton of bricks, and I don't know that I've ever cried so hard in my entire life. I know these children aren't ours in a physical sense. But in every other way, they are OURS. We belonged to them. They belonged to us. In this short and precious season, we belonged to each other. We fought, we bickered, we got on each other's nerves. But most of all we LOVED. We cherished each other. We were a big, well-tuned, functional, but very unusual family. And then, we watched an extension of ourselves get on a bus and drive away. We had to let them go.


I think the Nepali goodbye was also more difficult because we were not able to gain comfort from visiting their home country and see where they lived, like we did with the Ugandan children. In addition, our Nepali children are, by nature, more emotional and affectionate than our Ugandans. They were so available to us in every way, and we felt a very special closeness with them. As I have mentioned before, Jay and Neha had a particularly close bond. She has said before that she considers Jay as her father, just as Yeshoda considers me her mother. To disentangle myself from these children and let them go out into the world, surrendering them to God's total care was one of the hardest things I have ever done. Lastly, I dreaded the goodbye with Prava. I came to cherish her as a sister in every way. We leaned on each other this year through thick and thin. Although she was planning on coming back next year as a chaperone, they were having unseen difficulties with her Visa, so we didn't know for sure if we would see each other again. (Thankfully it has since come through and I will get to see her this next year!) We clung to each other and she was the most resistant to get on the bus. I miss her so much... I want her to come live with Jay and me and be an auntie to our babies one day!


A couple of days later, Jay and I flew fourteen of the Ugandan children from Washington D.C. to London, London to Nairobe, Kenya, and then Kenya to Entebbe, Uganda. In London, we had a ten-hour layover, the definite low point in the trip. We were not allowed to leave the airport, and Heathrow is probably the coldest and most uncomfortable place to try to sleep (no carpet, only freezing tile floors, and arm rests on all chairs so you can't lay down!). Not fun, but the kids were troopers and didn't complain one bit. Once we finally arrived in Entebbe, we drove about an hour and a half to Destiny Children's Home in Kampala (the capital city). By this point, we had been traveling non-stop for two days without sleep and we were all exhausted. But it was morning in Uganda, and we had such an exciting welcome at Destiny that it wasn't difficult to conjure up some energy!


There are over one thousand children at the home, and we were thrilled to see that it was a very well-maintained facility. As we drove up to the gates, we saw that all the children were lined up one both sides of the "driveway," and everyone was singing worship songs and clapping for us. We got out of the van, and saw that there was a marching band, praise team, and drummers there for the big welcoming ceremony. Our kids were surprisingly shy at first, attempting to hide behind us, but they quickly embraced their celebrity status! Later that week, we returned to Destiny a couple of times to work with the children who are going to be in the choir next year, and to just play with all the other children.


The most eye-opening experience on the trip was a visit to the slums in the city. Almost all of the Ugandan children on our team were from these "neighborhoods," and the small glimpse we had into their lives was devastating. Like anyone else in America, I have seen images of living conditions like these on television, but seeing it first-hand and imagining our children living there was heartbreaking. Thousands of people live in these tiny villages, just struggling to survive from day to day. There is a real sense of community, with everyone depending on each other for supplies and resources. They live in "homes" that are broken up into tiny rooms that are no larger than a half bath in our own homes. They cook their food on fires made from trash laying around on the ground. There is no running water. Babies toddle around with no clothing and no diapers. Small children wander the paths in between the scrap metal buildings (very haphazardly put together) without anyone watching them. Goats, cows, and chickens roam free looking for something to eat. The smell is overwhelming, because sewage runs through ditches on either side of the narrow pathways.


While navigating through the maze of shacks, children would chase our van, squealing, "Mzungu! Mzungu!" which means "white person" in their language. We definitely stood out over there! Many of the children had never seen a white person except on television, so we were glorified celebrities! Once we got out of the car, we were immediately surrounded. They all wanted to touch us and have their picture taken... the digital cameras fascinated them, as they could see themselves afterward on the screen. Many of them had never seen their own reflection before! We spent a few hours wandering the paths and talking (as best we could) to the people who lived there. They were very welcoming and friendly, and took pride in having us in their homes.


When we got back in the car, I broke down. This was the most humbling experience I have ever had. I just kept thinking about how much I have complained this year about living in the RV (see previous posts!). These people would die to live in something that nice. They would trade places with me in a heartbeat. I was beyond ashamed and so very thankful that the Lord opened my eyes. These people have little to no hope of ever changing their situation. They have no education, most don't have a job, and they make about fifty cents a week. Because of this, they will never be able to leave the slums... and their children will share their fate. The more I saw, the more I understood why our children were taken to the children's homes. Now they have a hope. They have a future. That is the greatest gift those parents can give to their children. And for the special few that get to come to America to be in the choir, the parents are eternally grateful.


The goodbyes in Uganda were extremely painful as well. Those children will always have a piece of me. I feel as though an extension of me is gone. Upon returning to the States, I had no idea what emotional state I would be in. I didn't know if I would cry all the time... if I wouldn't be able to talk about it... but in the end, it was neither of those. Jay and I talk about the children often, and are reminded of them a hundred times a day. I am still figuring out how I am "supposed" to feel. I cry at very strange times, I guess when I let my feelings float to the surface. The first time was upon passing the children's shoe aisle at Target, knowing that I would never buy thirteen pairs of those little shoes again. I sobbed when the song "I'm Already There" came on the radio (for those of you who are familiar with it, it's not hard to see why). I cried when Jay and I stopped to fill up the car at the gas station, aching to yell over my shoulder, "Ok, bathroom break! Line up fast!" I felt like my heart was broken all over again, knowing that they would never be riding behind me again.



Zurufah and I on the plane, getting ready to leave America

Exhausted after two days of traveling

The welcome we received upon arrival to Destiny Children's Home

Practicing music with the new COTW kids for next year

Martin and me, at Destiny

New kids for next year... more BEAUTIFUL faces!


Smiling for the camera!


Fighting for Jay's affection


In the slums, this little girl never let go of my hand.

The little girl with her baby sister


One of the "houses" we went in


The sewage running through the "paths" on either side


Children in the slums


Chapel service at Destiny
At Good Samaritan Children's Home, where three of our kids live. This precious girl didn't want to leave my side!
Jay and I feel so blessed to have been able to go to Uganda. We are comforted by the fact that our children are safe and loved. They really do have a hope and a future that they would not have had in the slums. God is teaching me daily to trust in Him... trusting that He has our little children under His great arm of protection. I pray for them daily. I pray that Isaac, Suresh, Gift, Ezera, Jimmy, Lincoln, Martin, Zurufah, Yeshoda, Rose, Maria, Sarah, and Neha will know that they are loved and cherished. I pray that they will embrace their education. That they will look back on their time in America and smile. That they will never feel lonely. But most of all, I pray that they will choose to seek Jesus every day, shining His light in all that they do. I will love them until the day I die. I hope that I will see them again someday, but if not, I know that we will be reunited again in Heaven. We will spend eternity together, loving each other and worshiping Him with all that we have. I couldn't ask for anything more.

Monday, June 15, 2009

One last photo shoot


One of our chaperones, Ashley, is a great photographer, but she hasn't had her super cool, super high-tech camera with her the whole year (for fear that it would get ruin by one of our cute little munchkins... good call on her part). Anyway, now that we're in Lynchburg wrapping everything up, she had a friend bring her the camera and we did a last minute photo shoot in the park for our kids. In my mind, I'm picturing a photo wall in our house- white frames, white mattes, black and white pictures. Thanks, Ashley... these are some of my faves! (She wants me to add a disclaimer that she hasn't had a chance to photoshop these yet. She's mad that I'm putting them up before she gets the chance!)

Isaac, the charmer

Neha, our sensitive, kind-hearted oldest

Jimmy, our "Crazy Man"

Suresh, the one all the church ladies want to keep forever

Prava, who I couldn't have done this without

L-O-V-E

Martin, our wise leader

The team that I can't believe is actually separating

Ezera, the uncles' wrestling partner

Rose, with the famous dimples

Gift, our mischievous boy

Sarah, the sassy one

Maria, the soft-spoken one

Zurufah, always the flirt, always the drama queen!

Lincoln, the boy with the servant's heart

Yeshoda, who is everyone's encourager

The best example of how we became parents this year:
Jay and I leave for Uganda tomorrow. Please be praying for us as we take fourteen precious children back home. We will be in Kampala, Uganda until June 22, and then the 23-27 Jay and I are going to take a much-needed vacation in London!




Monday, June 1, 2009

OCEAN CITY

We spent the day at the beach in Ocean City, New Jersey... we couldn't have had a better day!  The kids had a ball.  It was a little chilly, which is why I'm wearing jeans at the beach for the first time ever.  Our kids were the ONLY ones crazy enough to brave the frigid waters!  Here are some pictures for your viewing pleasure!

Jay and his girls
I have never seen kids love sand more than ours!





They really did just literally roll around in the sand.  They didn't care where it ended up.  We kept calling them sand monsters!
They were fascinated by the seagulls... Jay said he would give them a dollar if they caught one (Nice, huh?).  So after lunch, they had the brilliant idea of bringing leftover french fries down to the beach and waving them around.  We got ATTACKED.  Little did we know, feeding them is illegal and everyone around us was angry (notice the abandoned beach chairs).  Sorry!  We really didn't think it would be that bad.
And Auntie Isaac raiding a dress-up bin:

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Priceless...

As we wrap up the end of the tour, it seems like we're looking back and realizing how much we've done over the past 10 months.  It is completely surreal that it really is almost over.  A lot of the time it seemed never-ending, but now that the end is in sight, I really can't believe it.  We've been counting down for a while now.   The kids ask every day, "How many days left?"  They are not ready for it to be over.  Every hour, someone is saying, "Only 8 days left!"  And, "Only six more concerts!" The past few months, we've been saying goodbye to states we know we're not returning to.  As we cross over the borders we yell out, "Goodbye, (insert state here)!"  I keep thinking about the miles traveled, the churches visited, the people we've met, etc.  I thought you might enjoy a little breakdown:

***All numbers are approximate after calculating as best as I could.

39,000.... miles driven

60,000... adoring audience members

195... concerts

160... different cities/churches

160... church parking lots I have slept in (in the RV)

160... different host families that have spoiled the children

390... number of times I have directed and the children have sung "Global Hallelujah"- once for each sound check, once during concert  

720... meals eaten in restaurants (Thank the Lord this is part is almost over!)

440... different gas station visits

70... games of Phase 10 the Aunties have played

20... bottles of Dramamine purchased for all our kids who throw up regularly on the bus

50... number of times the Dramamine hasn't worked and children have thrown up into plastic bags on the bus (always pleasant!)

800... number of emails from the World Help office I have received

800... children who have gotten sponsored (food, clothing, medical care, Christian education until they're 19 years old!) by our team

13... smart kiddos who will now receive full college scholarships from World Help

25... number of times I have tripped the electrical breaker at the churches from trying to turn on too many things in the RV at once (Jay loves it when I do that!)

560... bathroom trips with all 13 kids

1,000,000... number of times a child has asked me to go to the bathroom (you do the math on how many times I said to hold it!)

400... phone calls to my Always-There-When-I-Need-Her mother

7,200... hugs I have received from my affectionate children (THE BEST PART)

40... fried chicken & green bean dinners churches have provided us with

5... the longest time (in days) we have spent in one place

120... different parks we have visited for the kids to play

5... number of times I have survived tornado warnings while in the RV by myself

1... number of nights Jay and I slept in a church lobby

4... broken bones (all Ezera's fingers)

6... doctor visits (I'm really proud of this one... such healthy kids!)

240... hours spent watching kids' movies

1,000,000 number of times someone has asked, "So, how did you get involved in this?" 

1,000,000,000... number of times someone in a gas station/restaurant has looked at our group and said something like, "Now, what exactly IS this???"

5... children on our team who have prayed to ask Jesus to be their Lord and Savior

Spending 10 months getting to know, cherish, and adore thirteen beautiful children of God... PRICELESS






Sunday, May 24, 2009

Singin in the sun

I know our kids look nuts in this video, and even if they're not totally synchronized (AT ALL), they're definitely enthusiastic!  And each one has their own VERY unique style!  This dance is supposedly from "Hannah Montana," but I have my doubts.  If it's supposed to look anything like this, there's no way she'd be famous right now!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

For my amazing husband

I'm sure it doesn't come as news to anyone that I was the one who wanted to venture on this journey.  When I initially told Jay that I thought we should seriously look into it and contact World Help, he said, "Well, you can email them.  I don't think anything will come of it, but you can see.  As long as God opens doors, I'll walk through them, but I'm not going to do anything to help it along."  A little reluctant, huh??  If you know Jay, you know he comes from a small family.  They are extremely close-knit and so supportive and loving.  But Jay is the baby of the family.  A 28-year-old baby.  Before we were married, he hadn't spent any significant amount of time around young children and was extremely apprehensive around them.  Enter the Hampton (my maiden name) clan!  I have seven nieces and nephews, all of whom (with no encouraging from their new uncle) quickly attached to the new addition to the family.  My nieces view Jay as a jungle gym- when we're in town, climbing all over him is their favorite activity.  

That being said, even though I may have sprinted through those doors that God opened for us to be here, I found myself running back to tug Jay along every step of the way.  He couldn't believe this was happening.  When we were offered the job, we took a few weeks to pray about it.  Suddenly, I had cold feet.  I knew if Jay wasn't happy, I would be miserable.  We would be giving up our lives.  But in the end, Jay thought it was what God wanted for us.  We accepted, and went from ZERO to THIRTEEN children in one day.

This year has definitely been a journey.  The first few months were extremely difficult for Jay.  While we were in training camp, we essentially had no freedom (every minute of every day is accounted for) and for my laid-back, go-as-the-wind-blows husband, that was hard.  The minute the kids arrived, I jumped right into my role as "Mommy in America," and Jay had to warm up to it.  When we began traveling, Jay felt like all he was doing was driving a bus, and that was another hurdle to jump over.  Eventually though, he settled into this crazy life.  It has been the hardest thing we have ever done or could imagine doing.  But we have learned so much along the way. 

I have learned that I need Jay to keep me sane.  When I am being OCD, he helps me take a step back and teaches me not to sweat the small stuff.  Because I am not legally able to drive the bus and have no mode of transportation, he has taken me to Walmart/Target/the mall hundred of times because he know how difficult it has been for me to have given up that independence.  He has let me take over much of the RV with my clothes and shoes and books.  He doesn't feel neglected when I am surrounded by thirteen children that all require my attention.  He lets me take my shower first in the morning and doesn't complain when there's no hot water (WE LIVE IN AN RV!!!).  He doesn't mind that I call my mom on the phone fifteen times a day.  He lets me read for hours at a time on the bus while he's driving 400 mile stretches.  He loves me even when I'm inflexible or demanding.  He left everything he knew- his job, his friends, his family, his tennis/jiu jitsu/running, his house, his dogs- to do this for me.  And now I am going to be there for him.

I will be devastated to say goodbye to these children.  But there is a season for everything, and this season is quickly ending.  We will pray for them every day, we will be reminded of them every hour, and we will miss them every minute.  But we are ready for what is in store.  Jay is officially the new worship pastor at New Covenant Church in Greenwood, South Carolina (www.newcovenantlife.org).  We are so excited about what is to come, and can't wait to be SETTLED in a new place.  We are looking forward to joining this church family and getting to know the people there.  When we visited, everyone was so friendly and welcoming, and we knew we could so easily "fit" there.  YEA!!!  God has answered so many of our never-ending prayers!

We have a little more than TWO WEEKS until the tour is over, and only TWELVE concerts left.  That is so surreal.  Please be praying for us as we prepare the children (and prepare our hearts) for their departure.  We will leave to fly them back to Uganda on June 17th.

I'll leave you with some pictures from a recent excursion to D.C.  We decided to take Martin and Gift because we thought they were the only ones who would really appreciate it.  We had such an amazing day!
 
The whole gang in front of the Washington Monument.   I always wonder what people think when they see such an eclectic group together!
Martin said he wanted to see the Capital more than anything in America.  He wanted a picture to be able to show his mom he'd really been there!
Priceless.

Doing their "boy" thing

Standing in the Capitol at the exact center of the city. (If you're wondering why the grown-ups are all wearing sweatshirts and they're in shorts and flip-flops, it's because they think we're babies and they say they're "not freezing."  It's not because we neglect them!