Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Captivated in Guatemala (with reflections on our adoption journey)...

Blog written by Jenni Ramsey

Last week I had the privilege of leading a team of nine volunteers to serve in the beautiful country of Guatemala. As our team ascended into the air towards Guatemala City on American Airlines, I opened my journal and reflected on the faithfulness of God. My adoption journal has captured the incredible journey that began in June, 2007. At that time, we believed that God had called us to adopt our next child. We were excited about our adoption journey and were completely unaware of the adventure and calling that lay ahead.

Mailing our adoption documents for El Salvador (January, 2008). Our adoption in El Salvador eventually failed and we lost over $15,000.

As I look back over the past four and a half years, I am simply amazed at all that God has done. We believed that our adoption adventure would consist of opening our home to a child, but this journey has radically opened our hearts to orphans all over the world. The Lord has birthed an indescribable passion and calling in our lives for adoption and orphan advocacy. He has opened doors and created opportunities that have been life changing! Our adoption story has been filled with heartache, deception, shock, tears and confusion. However, it has also been filled with miracles, divine appointments, new friendships and opportunities to speak, write and lead teams to journey directly into God's heart for orphans.

As I flipped through the journal pages and was reminded of the emotions, miracles and adventures of the past four and a half years, I was in awe. I realized (to my surprise) that this trip to Guatemala had been scheduled exactly two years after my first orphan outreach trip to El Salvador. During that trip I fell in love with the El Salvadorian children, but became aware of heart wrenching issues related to orphans as well as unethical practices in adoptions. It was also on that trip that I was introduced to my dear friend Lucy Armistead, who later invited me to join the staff of All Blessings Intl. Adoptions as their International Outreach Coordinator.

My first trip to El Salvador... falling in love with the children! Little Carolina completely captured my heart!

I have now had the privilege of leading six orphan outreach teams (in two years) - four to El Salvador and two to Guatemala. These teams have had the opportunity to bring gifts, touch, love and hope to hundreds of orphans. It has truly been an honor to serve in six orphanages and to touch the indelible faces of abandoned and abused children. I have fallen in love over and over again and my heart has been broken for the things that break the heart of God.

While our family continues to wait for the referral of a baby girl from Asia, the Lord is quickening our hearts for His orphans. It has been so exciting to birth "Sprouts," an orphan care ministry in our home church. We currently have seven families in our church who are either in the process or are considering adoption or foster care. Wow! Mike and I have been humbled to speak on adoption/orphan care in our church and helped to organize a blood drive to raise funds for our church adoption fund last year.

Speaking in a panel on adoption/orphan care at The Village Church of Irvine and volunteering with Show Hope.

It has been a thrill to form The So Cal Orphan Care Network in the past year. Our network currently has over fifty leaders connected to our group. I have been blessed to represent All Blessings Intl. Adoptions at various venues and attended The Christian Alliance for Orphans Summit in KY this spring. It has been an unbelievable journey and our hearts are overflowing with gratitude. We are especially grateful that both of our boys been able to serve in El Salvador and have gained hearts for orphans as well. As I journaled, prayed and prepared to lead this team to serve "the least of these" in Guatemala, I was reminded of the faithful hand of God. He promises to lead and guide His children if we trust Him with all of our hearts. He has been faithful to our family and has kept His promises in our lives.

The boys loved serving in El Salvador (Aidan in July, 2011 and Jordan in March, 2010).

The trip to Guatemala this past week was so impactful that it is difficult to describe in words. The Guatemalan people captivated us with their joyful spirits and grateful hearts, despite their poverty levels and heart wrenching experiences of extreme tragedies. It has been said over and over again by our team members, but it must be repeated. We traveled to Guatemala to "bless the people," but they blessed us beyond belief. Their faces will remain in our hearts forever. Their words of gratitude, expressed through tears, are like hidden treasures in our minds. The precious children in the orphanage touched us deeply. Their stories broke our hearts and caused many team members to weep, but their joy, laughter and hugs healed us.

As I reflect on the past six orphan outreach teams, it is clear that each team has left an imprint on my heart. However, this team was especially unique. This trip was extremely emotional due to many personal losses in the lives of our team members. While we spent many team meetings laughing and joking together, there were also many tears. At times, our team members were able to relate to some of the painful losses of the Guatemalan people, and that was priceless. I watched this team come together in a deep and powerful way to support one another, pray for one another and even carry me through some very emotional moments.

As we ascended back into the air and headed towards home, I realized that I had been captivated. Captivated by the passionate expressions of love and gratitude that our team experienced through the Guatemalan people. But I had also been captivated by God's love and faithfulness in my life, clearly seen through my journal reflections as well as His sovereignly hand-picked team, who selflessly served the Guatemalan people and will remain forever in my heart.

Link to Mike & Jenni's Adoption Messages

Post written by Jenni Ramsey

On November 6th, 2011, our church was honored to partner with hundreds of churches around the world in celebrating "Orphan Sunday." Mike and I were humbled to speak on "Caring for Orphans" with a panel (which included three members from our missions board). Please click on the link below to hear the forty minute message. Note: Mike gives a brief introduction, Glynn Smith (founder of Beacon of Hope Ministries, South Africa) speaks on the issue of AIDS/HIV and orphans, and Jenni addresses practical ways to serve orphans at the end of the message.

Mike also preached a sermon on "God's Heart for Adoption" in February, 2011. It was a powerful message, which included some personal thoughts on our adoption journey. To listen to his message, click here:

An Expression of Gratitude from the Mays

Each of our team members is extremely grateful for the support, donations and prayers that carried our team through a life-changing week in Guatemala! Thank you co much from the bottom of our hearts!

Phil and Amy May have created a thank you card for their supporters. To view, please click here:

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Building Beds and Killing Lice...

Written by Jackson May, age 13

Today we woke up at 6:45 so we could brush our teeth, take showers, and get dressed for the 7:30 breakfast time. It may seem like a lot of time to you, but my family doesn't like getting up early so it takes us a while to get going in the morning.  We (my mom ,dad, and I) have to get some coffee and a shower before we are awake enough to speak to others.  As I heard from others, it was a delicious meal of pineapple, mango, watermelon, eggs (with ham of course), and beans (I wasn't feeling well so I didn't eat).   They ate at 7:30 so we could be ready for the people from the medical clinic to pick us up at 8:00.  As we have learned, everything is more laid back here.  When someone says they will be there at 8:00 they could be there at 9:00 and think nothing of it. 

Our translator Darvy  picked us up from Art and Lisa's house. He had another friend named Danny following us in his truck, which was filled with enough wood to build five beds.

It was a short drive there, with breathtaking scenery of the mountains and farms along the way.  It was cool to see how they grew crops on the side of the mountains.  We realized we were really a world away when my dad saw men digging on the side of the road and thought, "wow they could do this in a few hours with a bulldozer."   However, they just don't have that kind of money here.  

We got to the clinic and were immediately greeted by about 100 women and children who were crammed into the clinic like tuna in a can!   We went straight to work after a short prayer with the staff.  Darvy  taught my dad and me how to build the beds.  So for the first bed we were helped by both Darvy  and Danny,  but after the first bed  Darvy, the professional carpenter, left us to fend for ourselves in the scary world of building.  After the second bed, we finally got into the groove of building and started to pick up the pace.  

While we were building those first two beds,  the women were doing lice treatments for the kids.    After completing the second bed, we loaded the beds on the back of the truck and drove into the next village. As my mom said multiple times, "thank God for Danny."  He is a 245-pound body builder who leg presses 1200 pounds and bench presses 500.  Danny did most of the heavy lifting. The beds weren't all that heavy, I mean my dad and I could carry one on flat ground, but when you have to tip it up on its' side, (while going up a steep hill for a couple hundred yards)  that's a whole nother story!  

The people were beyond grateful and everyone was very friendly when we delivered the beds. We had a translator that spoke Spanish and the indigenous language. Teresa translated from the indigenous language into Spanish and Jenni or Danny translated into English.   The kids and women who lined the dirt roads waved to us along the way.  

When we got back from the clinic we realized that all of the lice patients had been treated.  We were all tired and  sat down for a lunch of egg salad sandwiches, cookies, apples, bananas, which was made by Darvy's mom.  It was delicious!   I even had two sandwiches and I don't like sandwiches very much normally. 

As we were taking our second trip out to deliver two more beds, we saw a bus driving through, and though the bus driver didn't know it, some kids jumped on the back of the bus and were skiing with their bare feet on the ground. We drove off and once again rode in the truck bed. At one of the houses we delivered to, there was a disabled old man outside their house that couldn't use his legs and was in a wheelchair. My dad and I wondered how the man could get around in this country, because they depend on the man to work in the fields, there aren't many  desk type jobs for people in those villages in Guatemala, like there are in North America.  It is amazing how much someone's life can differ based on what family you're born into.  I could just as easily been born a Guatemalan orphan. 

It felt like a great accomplishment to build those beds.  We all loved it and felt really tired in a good way. 

Written by Marlene Eckert

If I didn't look too closely, the hillsides containing lush crops that our team observed from our jam-packed vehicle while ambling along a dirt road on our way to serve at a medical clinic in an indigenous village appeared to resemble the Tuscan countryside.  However, upon closer examination, we were definitely not in Italy!  Women dressed in costumes unique to their village ambled along the road with loads balanced on their heads, babies slung on their backs, and small children in tow.  Once we even saw one of the little girls carrying a baby on her own back.   Men worked in crews digging trenches and extending the concrete portion of the road, while clusters of children played along the roads.   What I didn't see until later when we were delivering the beds was that there is a whole "nother" world that lay beyond what is visible from the road--clusters of many one-room houses with dirt floors, bamboo stick walls, and tin roofs that become visible only by hiking steep, muddy trails.  Most of the homes probably have no electricity, but late in the afternoon I did observe a light bulb dangling from a doorway, attached to a frayed cord that was tied to a tree, when we were delivering the last of the 5 beds.

My first impression upon arrival at the clinic was that women and children filled the waiting room to the brim.  The clinic operates on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and serves 4,000 people in 3 villages.   There is a nominal charge for most of the services (typically between 5 to 10 Q--approximately one dollar; Q stands for quetzale, the Guatemalan currency which is worth about 12 cents each).   The fees motivate the patients to take their medical care more seriously, and of course nobody is turned away for lack of ability to pay.

The one service that is totally complimentary is the one that we assisted with--lice treatment for the children.  Our typical clients were girls between the ages 3- 10 with long, thick hair, but we served a few little boys as well.  The procedure consists of rinsing the hair with cold water (since there is no hot available), shampooing, and then applying a lice treatment .  The child then sits for 10 minutes to allow time for the lice to come to the surface, and then we rinsed it out, applied conditioner, combed the hair, and finally used a lice comb to attempt to remove the unwanted bugs.  The final touch was braiding the hair and securing the braids with new, clean hair accessories.  We were amazed at how still and cooperative the kids were (my granddaughters would never have got past the initial dousing with cold water without putting up a fight that I would have lost!)

The sad and frustrating aspect was that it was impossible to remove all of the lice due to extremely limited resources (e.g., the children had to share towels and the product used was not on the same order of magnitude as effective as what we use in the states); more significantly, even if we were able to completely eradicate the lice, they would quickly be back again since the children immediately return to unsanitary living conditions.  The volunteers at the clinic reminded us that we are there only to provide temporary relief because the root cause is not easily solved--as Katie Davis says in "Kisses From Katie", it feels like we are trying to solve an ocean of problems one eye dropperful at a time, but God only asks us to help the one in front of us, and yesterday these little ones were the ones in front of us.   While I am in agreement with this, right now my heart yearns to find a way to return to educate these beautiful, loving people on how to introduce cleanliness into their homes.

Upon returning to Art & Lisa's home, we found Florita, one of the ladies in Lisa's Bible study group, waiting for us.   We learned that she had come in the morning to greet us and was disappointed that she missed us, so she made a second trip in order to say good-bye to us face-to-face.  She presented all of the ladies in our group with roses to express her gratitude for our having travelled so far to visit with the Guatemalan people (we feel terrible that they give us gifts when they likely  do not have food on their tables, but unbelievable generosity is part of their culture).  

If that wasn't enough, I was moved to tears when Florita's 9-year-old daughter Tiffany gave a homemade card and stuffed bunny rabbit to our 12-year-old teammate Morgan, who Tiffany had bonded with at the party last Thursday.   I, too, had bonded with Morgan, who agreed to be my temporary granddaughter for the week, so I am especially touched because I know that the love that Tiffany showed Morgan will have a huge impact on her for the rest of her life.   After Florita and Tiffany finished sharing their encouragement and faith, we had 2 more similar rounds with the Camarenas' gardener Augusto and their cook/housekeeper Eufy.  We are grateful that funds from our trip fees were available to make food and monetary gifts to Eufy, Augusto, all of the ladies in the Bible Study, as well as to the Camarenas in support of their ministry.

After dinner we gathered for our final team meeting.  We were able to share how we had each been impacted throughout the week. We also processed the potential challenges of "re-entry" back into our "normal lives."  We have all been changed by the love, faith, hospitality, gratitude and warmth we received this week.  We came to bless the Guatemalan people, but they truly blessed us beyond belief. 

The final thought that I want to share is that though we have much in terms of cleanliness, health, education and material blessings, we met many Guatemalans who taught us about faithfully relying on and being grateful to our Lord, even in the midst of tragic circumstances.

We want to share our deep gratitude to all of our supporters.  Thank you for your prayers, donations, encouragement & financial support!  May you be greatly blessed through your eternal impact on the people of Guatemala.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Day of Contrasts...

Written by Jenni Ramsey

The past four days have been filled with laughter, deep emotions, new experiences and unforgettable moments for our faithful, gifted and humble team of nine. I have been honored to lead many international outreach teams over the years, but this team has been especially unique for many reasons. Although three of our team members are from Southern California and six are from Tennessee (and we met for the first time in the Dallas airport), we have built significant and life-long relationships that will hold a special place in each of our hearts. Our team meetings have been filled with jokes and laughter, but also with tears of brokeness, heartfelt testimonies and moving prayers for the families and children that we have served as well as for one another. Needless to say, we have all been greatly changed and will return home this week with grateful hearts and many experiences to process.

The last five days have been fast and furious. We had an intense four days of ministry, serving at the home of Art and Lisa Camarena (missionaries in Guatemala for 15 years), visiting impoverished communities and caring for precious orphans. Today was a much needed R&R day. After a very emotional time of prayer in the morning, we loaded the cars and headed for the picturesque city of Antigua. However, we had one final home visitation to make at the "casa" of Leo and Sandra. Sandra has been part of Lisa's Bible study for many years. She is a beautiful woman who has suffered tremendous losses, including the drowning of a child, a near death experience from hemorrhaging in a pregnancy (which resulted in the loss of the baby) and the tragic deaths of other family members. Ben Keenan, Roberta's husband who passed away this July, dearly loved this family and served them on many of his teams. His impact is clearly visible by the fact that Leo and Sandra's youngest son is named after him. Roberta brought a gift for little Benjamin today and he loved modeling his news pajamas for the "gringos!"

Art and Lisa have ministered to Leo and Sandra's family for many years. Previous short-term teams from our church have also served their family and provided funds and labor to improve their home (which was once a shack). Their home today is poor by our standards, but it has been significantly improved with tile floors and a separate kitchen. The family beamed with pride as they gave our team a tour. They pointed to the new walls (built by teams from our church) and thanked us with heavy sobs of gratitude. Sandra was so proud of her new kitchen, yet shared how workers had stolen tile and taken advantage of them during construction. Despite the setbacks, their family is grateful to God and their faith is deep, real and absolutely contagious.

It is extremely difficult to describe the emotions that were felt in Leo and Sandra's home today. Though they are impoverished by our standards, they are grateful. Though they suffer deeply, they are filled with joy. Though providing food for their family is a challenge at times, they thank God for His provisions. They described our team as God's angels... a humbling and overwhelming honor. We have expressed to each family this week that the gifts that we brought came from God. We were just the vehicle through which He chose to provide in their lives. It has been a tremendous privilege to be HIS hands and HIS feet this week to some of the most beautiful people in the world.

After a special time of prayer with Sandra and her family, we headed down the lush highway to the historic city of Antigua. Antigua sits deep in a valley surrounded by breathtaking volcanoes on every side. The cobblestone streets are inviting. The restaurants, hotels and ancient ruins are post card perfect, and the contrast from Leo and Sandra's house was tremendous.

As we visited historic ruins, enjoyed some open air shopping and ate lunch in a quaint patio, we discussed how most tourists don't experience the "real Guatemala." The contrasts in Guatemala are blatant. There are rich and poor. There are five star hotels and shacks. Reconciling all of this for the team has been challenging, to say the least.

We ended our day with a wonderful meal in restaurant that is over five hundred years old. It is nestled in a breathtaking hotel, which once belonged to Guatemalan royalty. We were entertained by indigenous Guatemalan music and enjoyed a performance with dancers dressed in Mayan/Spanish costumes. Some of our team members even danced in the show! As I write this post now, most of our team has gone to bed. Tomorrow is our last day of ministry. We will be serving in a medical clinic in an impoverished village. Our team will have the privilege to build five beds and deliver them to homes. I was honored to participate in this project last year, and am thrilled to experience this again with the team tomorrow.

Our team will depart from Guatemala City early Wednesday morning. We will most likely be unable to post tomorrow, but please continue to visit the blog. We plan to post an update on the bed project after returning home and will continue post other updates as well. Buenas noches de Guatemala!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

James 1:27 - Loving Orphans!

Written by: Lisa, Morgan, and Conner on behalf of the team

Hola from Guatemala! After a night of sleeping in bunk beds at Casa Bernabe' and sharing our quarters with a great mission team from Ohio, we awoke on Sunday excited to help get the children ready to worship the Lord Casa Bernabe' style. Like the prior day, as our team struggled to help get approximately 12-15 children ranging in age from babies to two year olds ready for church, our team continued to be amazed at the enormous amount of responsibilities placed on the house parents and their teenage assistants. They truly have a calling on their life in order to sustain the daily tasks of caring for these children. When the kids were ready for church, we once again climbed the steep stairs (approx 120 steps) with a baby in our arms or holding a little one's hands to reach the area in which the church services were held.

The children were dressed nicely for church and you could definitely tell the children were accustomed to this routine. As Amy blogged yesterday, the children are organized into homes, called Casas, and the children in the homes sit together during church. It was fun to see all the children, staff, and visitors pour into the church area excited to worship God. Our team each had a child to love, sing, and dance with during the service. The worship band in Morgan's words was "amazing". Conner commented that it was an "astounding" site that Guatemalans and Americans were praising the Lord together. The energy of the service was apparent to all those participating. There was a man waving a flag and dancing during the worship time along with dancing by the front stage by the children and even our own team member, Marlene. The precious children of Casa Bernabe', though they come from tough circumstances and will continue have real struggles in their lives, are being fed the Word of God which will give them the strength they need throughout their lives.

After church, we took the 3 year olds to the playground area for Sunday school and some fun playtime. We each had particular children that we established relationships with in a short amount of time. Conner had a little boy named William from the Baby Home that he bonded with and William wouldn't let Conner put him down without a fight. Morgan and I bonded with Mariella (who loved the monkey bars) and Veronica, (who loved to twirl) from the Toddler house (ages 3 to 5) and Hanna and Dulce from the Baby house (up to 2 years). Dulce was always attached to Morgan in some way today. Jenni bonded with Adan in the Baby house and could often be found singing sweet Christian songs in Spanish to the children. Phil thought Antonia and Katerine were pretty special and tried to keep up with the energy of Antonia. Amy also bonded with Mariella and Jackson loved spending time with Stephania from the Toddler house. Marlene had fun spending time with Adan, Claudia, and Veronica.

Though particular children touched our hearts in special ways by just being the one in front of us that needed some loving and hugging, all of the children have made lasting imprints on our hearts that won't be forgotten. We all prayed over as many children as possible throughout the day and some of us also felt led to sponsor some of the kids God placed in our paths. We are excited to continue these relationships with the children. Guatemala is closed for adoptions so there is an overflow of children going into the orphanages and they need help providing for these children.

During the afternoon, we helped the Baby house with lunch after they got up from their naps. It was so cute to see 12-15 little ones sitting around patiently in a circle in their high chairs ready to be fed. We helped the kids through their lunchtime routine and then took them outside to play. While at the baby house, we met the mother of one of the little boys. Morgan and Conner were astonished to find out that the mother was only 12 years old. Unfortunately, here in Guatemala, this is not an unfamiliar story. The culture here is to have a lot of children. The mothers and various caretakers are young themselves so a lot of unnecessary accidents and illnesses result as a lack of education on safety and hygiene.

Towards the late afternoon, we took the children in the Toddler house for a walk on the large grounds of Casa Bernabe'. During our walk, we saw a huge mansion high on a hill. It makes one pause to see that much wealth overlooking an orphanage in need. In Guatemala, you only see extreme wealth or extreme poverty. Two very sharp contrasts that are hard to reconcile in one's mind. If only we all saw our possessions as God's and not our own, there wouldn't be such extreme poverty in the world today. This is something that everyone will wrestle with on our return to the States.

After dinner, we headed back over to the Toddler house to help get the kids ready for bed. We had an assembly line going as the kids were showered and dressed for bed. Once again, it was a hilarious process. When the van arrived to take us back to Art and Lisa's home in San Lucas, we said our last good-byes to the children which took a really long time. We couldn't give the children enough hugs. We do know that God will be them always.

Just like hot chocolate on a ski slope that tastes better after it's earned, we will all sleep soundly and happily tonight knowing that our day was well spent. Tomorrow, we will be spending the day in Antigua and will have some time to process the past few life changing days.