Tuesday, July 15, 2014

"God, Will You REALLY Heal The Broken Heart?"

Insomnia. The inability to sleep. The lack of power to shut my brain off and allow my mind to rest. I can no longer blame it on jet lag as that has passed, but I know this is still due to travel because I brought a huge part of Ethiopia home with me.

Her name is Mekedse Germa. Allow me to introduce you to her. Believe me when I tell you that you do not want to miss meeting this little girl and hearing her story. God is pursuing her heart, changing the hearts of those around her, and I want to help the world to see the ashes turning into beauty right before our very eyes. Only God could create such a masterpiece as this.

Mekedse (Mek from this point on - what? don't you give all your children nicknames?) has got to be the most beautiful 10 year old little girl I have ever seen. Her eyes are stunning - not just brown, but a deep brown that reminds me of the color of a coffee bean. A color only created by God. Her skin is perfect and her teeth look as though she has been wearing braces for 2 years. Her hair is soft and wavy and when she smiles...well that is the finishing touch that creates the beautiful masterpiece that she is. Everything about this little girl is absolutely perfect...except for one thing - her heart.

Two weeks ago, I was up on Entoto Mountain when the rain drops started. A sense of dread came over me because we still hadn't been to Mek's house yet and I didn't want to cut our time there short. I had to see her. It was urgent. I had packages to deliver from her sponsor mom (who God has put in my life as a friend now), but most importantly, I needed to see her. With my own eyes, my own stethoscope, my own nursing skills, I needed to see this child and try to figure out what her father could mean when he had reported on the sponsorship form that she had a tired heart when she was little.

We hugged first. I cried a little at seeing her again. It had been SO long - a year since I had last seen this little girl. I think I was even shaking because I was just that thrilled. She was overwhelmed. You could see it on her face. Her eyes were huge. She didn't know my team and I were coming that day. When we settled in, I gave her the presents that her sponsor, Jessica, had sent first. She tenderly held the pink backpack that had everything in it. I could tell she loved and appreciated it so much because she almost didn't want to open it. She wanted to cherish it for a while longer.

We talked through an interpreter for a while and then I started asking questions about her health. I found out from Mek and her friends that she doesn't like to play any sports, she doesn't like to run, she doesn't like to do much of any playing actually. This was a change from the previous year. One friend, Marta, told me that Mekedse never played soccer because she would get very sick. My own heart got sick right there and I finally just pulled out the stethoscope and listened...knowing full well what I was about to hear.

The only way to describe what her heart sounded like is to compare it to a washing machine. It was loud with no distinctive 2 beats. My eyes instinctively got huge and welled with tears. Endihnew, the founder of the nonprofit we partner with on Entoto, gave me the look to play cool. My thoughts on that: How? This child is going to die! She will not live to see 20. She won't. And she lives in a country that can't do anything to help her. It's not fair. Why? Why, God? Why would you let me fall in love with this little girl and feel desperate for her to where I HAVE to help her. Have to. There is no question in my mind. I will help her. Today. Now. Right this second. I should have done this yesterday, last week, last year. I should have helped her last year. Why didn't I think to question her when she sat out half way through playing duck, duck, goose last year?

last year during our game...

But then, those beautiful eyes caught mine, smiled at me, and brought me back to my present reality. Little Mek, precious little Mek was smiling at me, wanting to go to her tiny little house next door and open up all of the presents inside of her bag. She was wanting to know if it was okay if she could go home and look in her bag. She just wanted what the gift. She didn't care about anything else that was going on. Her eyes were focused on the prize!

Walking her outside, I made her put her hood on, and made her promise to share the candy I gave her with her brothers and sisters. I told her that I would see her again in a few days and then  hugged her and gave her a kiss on the cheek. She kissed me back on my cheek and walked the rest of the way home.

I was able to Mekedse 2 more times while in Ethiopia and they were two of the most glorious days of my time there. We laughed, we hugged, she stuck to me like glue, and I would not have had it any other way. I was seeing sick kids on the Entoto Feeding Program Day and she was right by my side, watching every single thing I did; absorbing it all. And as much as I was trying to make sure that she was okay with all of the kids coming in and out of the makeshift "clinic" open room, she was right there trying to make sure that I was okay even more.

eating her "caramella" while I examined this little guy's infected foot

On my last day there, as I was preparing to leave for America, Mek was preparing to go to the hospital to get her ECHO. My team had enough money in our budget to pay for Mek to have this done AND see the cardiologist a few weeks after. I tried to go with her but David thought it best not to in case they weren't done in time for me to catch the flight. I wanted to be there; I struggled with not being there. She had been my sidekick the entire time I was on Entoto and I didn't want her to feel afraid. Truth be told, I just wanted to spend my last day with her. I already knew what the ECHO would likely say, so I think spending time with her was more of a comfort for my soul too. A healing balm.

Several days later, the reports were in and the one time I wanted to be so so wrong, it turns out I was wasn't. Our precious Mek has what is called an ASD/VSD with bi-directional shunting and pulmonic valve stenosis. Big words, I know. Basically, she has 2 holes in her heart and the valve that supplies oxygenated blood to her lungs is narrowing and it's also causing too much blood to leak back into the heart. What does this mean for Mek? The doctor in Ethiopia said she needs a medical visa because they can't do anything for her there. This is an open heart surgery on a 10 year old and it is too complex for them.

And this...this is where God allows me to see the beauty of His handiwork. How He has been writing this story for quite sometime,  putting people together in the right place at just the right time, and it's just incredible. Read what her sponsor Jessica wrote to me the other day:

my heart strings got pulled by a picture you posted of Ayhu and I felt called to sponsor her...then the sponsorship falls through and you tell me about Mek and how she has tugged on your heart strings, so I switch my sponsorship...we both happen to be nurses, so when you hear Mek can't run and play and it's because she's "sick", we know better than to accept that and you bring your stethoscope on your trip and immediately know she's got a serious cardiac condition...then Lauren enters in because she graduates college and moved to Ethiopia in June and is passionate about the Entoto Mountain children, so she's able to take Mek to her appointments and handle everything in ET....meanwhile your connections lead you to Gift of Life which happens to have an affiliation with the hospital where I work...and you're going back to ET in December and could bring her back with you... GOD IS GREAT!!!! Sorry to write all that out, but I just had to see it in print!!!

I would love to say that we have been accepted by Gift of Life at this time, but I just got the application sent in today. However, I fully believe that Mekedse will be coming to the USA with me (and hopefully her mother too!!!) in January on her medical Visa and she will be having her heart defects repaired.

I am praying that God will heal our little Mekedse's "broken heart", but if His will is otherwise, then we will choose to lean into Him to heal all of our broken hearts as we cling to the scripture that tells us that God is close to the brokenhearted. And truly, bigger things can still come out of it as we have seen her brother, who had walked away from God, be reinspired by watching his sister over the past two weeks endure testing and hospital visits. He has started attending a private Bible study on Entoto Mountain and has begun going back to church!

While walking through day to day life in a sinful and fallen world, it can be so hard to think with an eternal perspective. But seeing now how this story was woven together over the past year (even down to the past few days), restores me and encourages me in regards to Romans 8:28 - that in all things, God works for the good of those who love Him.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Entoto Mountain...What A Difference A Year Makes!

Let me take you back a year. It was the first week of July 2013 when I first met Endihnew, the founder of Endihnew's Hope. It was a chance meeting as he was interpreting for another friend of Ordinary Hero's. After he was finished, he told us a little about his ministry and asked us to come see his feeding program on Saturday. We gladly said "yes" and looked forward to seeing this program, serving the children, and learning more about their needs. We had no idea though what we would end up finding once we arrived!
We not only were introduced to the most beautiful children and a few of their mothers in Endihnew's Hope, but we were also about to witness the very literal definition and picture of "starving children in Africa". It was one of the worst things I have ever seen in my life! There were 160 children who showed up that Saturday to be fed by Endihnew, but only about 35 of them received food that day. There just wasn't enough to go around because, at that time, Endihnew had been funding this program by himself.
I was standing behind Endihnew holding an 18 month old child who ended up being one of the lucky ones. Before food was given to her though, she let out a shrill scream, tensed up, and started quivering when she saw the bags of food. She had a look of pure terror on her sweet little face. It was obvious that her innocence had already been stripped as she knew what it was like to starve. As soon as Endihnew heard her scream, she received her food bag and immediately her head rested on my shoulder and let out the biggest sigh of relief. Then came the grabbing, the screaming, the crying, and the sobbing. I saw some children sharing with their friends and some hiding their food in their coats or shirts, unsure of when their next meal would be.

what last summer's feeding program looked like

Right then I knew that I had to do something. This could not go on any longer. God had opened my eyes to the pain that He sees every single day and was asking me to do something. To be a voice for those who do not have one. And that is where I will bring you to present day Entoto Mountain...

It has been a year since that dreadful day on Entoto and many many things have happened for the good! God has been working in the hearts of lots of people on Entoto and in America and lots of forces have been joined all to make Entoto Mountain a better place for the women and children there.
For starters, as soon as I returned home, I emailed Kelly Putty, founder of Ordinary Hero begging (yes, I admit I probably begged) to start a child sponsorship program for the children in the feeding program. She instantly said "yes!" and I got to work getting the structure set up, photos, bios and information from Endihnew. A few weeks later we were ready to roll it out and within a few days our first child was sponsored! A few days later the second one was. Right now, as I type this, there are 35 children sponsored and that, my friends, is a God thing! He has called many of you to stand in the gap for these precious children and you have said yes in obedience to His call. Because of you, these children are no longer in the feeding program! They are now getting 3 meals/day, their school registration in paid for which allows them to go to school, and any medications they may take along with the house rent is paid. And all of this is done for just $50/month! You all are changing lives and I have seen the change personally. I just returned from making home visits of the sponsored children and the difference I see now versus a year ago is incredible. They are growing, they are confident,  they are smiling, and most importantly they know they are loved and have not been forgotten. If you are interested in sponsoring a child, you can email me at KBlevins@ordinaryhero.org for a list of children and their bios. We still need 125 sponsors.

sponsored kiddos meeting and/or receiving packages sent by their sponsor families

We know that sponsorship is not a long term answer though, so we wanted to encourage an income generating project for the women on Entoto Mountain that would get them out of their job of carrying the 180 pound firewood sticks down the mountain every day. This job is brutal for the women and generates about $1/day. This is not anywhere near enough to feed a family of even 2 people, much less a family of 4 or 6. Endihnew had started some of the women who carry the firewood in clay making but they had to stop because they weren't able to make a salary while they were being trained. Thanks to the generosity of some wonderful donors, we were able to take 8 women out of their jobs as firewood carriers and get them trained and set up as pottery makers - all while making a salary. Now, they are making beautiful pieces of pottery and selling them to tourists. The goal is to also begin selling them in guest homes, in a small shop at the base of the mountain which is a touristy area, and in the capitol city of Addis Ababa.

Another way that we are looking to help the women on Entoto Mountain become self-sufficient is through the weaving project. We have not been able to start any women in this though as we do not have any funds available...yet. We already have 3 looms though and a building so as soon as we raise $550 we will be able to train 4 women (3 on looms and 1 in dying the fabric) for 3 months and pay them a salary while they are being trained. After their training, the women will be able to make beautiful scarves, blankets, etc... Their items will be sold in the same manner that the clay products are.

And finally, because there are still children who are not sponsored yet, there still remains the feeding program. Endihnew works tirelessly, day in and day out, to serve the children and women of Entoto Mountain. The children swarm him the minute he arrives and the women want to know when their child will be sponsored. It is never ending. He answers them with grace and patience like I have never seen. It is only because of Christ that he can do what he does and do it so well. The kids still show up on Saturday mornings to be fed and he still is dedicated to feeding them with whatever resources he has or can find. If you would like to donate to the feeding program, please click on this link and follow the instructions. In the message section, just type in "Feeding Program". It costs approximately $175/week to feed all of the children a meal of injera and sauce.

this year's feeding program...drastic difference!!!

So, you see, very exciting things happening on Entoto Mountain and God has performed many miracles over the past year, but we STILL need your help and you can STILL be the vessels that God uses to change the life of a family on Entoto Mountain through sponsorship, donating to the feeding program, or to the weaving program.  If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me via email - KBlevins@ordinaryhero.org

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Ethiopia - day 5...part 2 - Entoto Mtn

I think I can carry on from where I left off yesterday with my journaling now. My heart is ready for the lightness of today's post as the rest of day 5 was filled with joy, laughter, and a sense of peace.

After finishing our home visits, we headed to the most beautiful, secluded place on the mountain for a picnic lunch that the ladies at the guesthouse had packed for my team. Mesfin accompanied us and as we turned the corner and parked, I literally gasped at the view. It was breath-taking.

Me and Mesfin (Endihnew) - he is the founder of Endihnew Hope and who 
I work closely with in getting the children sponsored. He is a faithful follower
 of Christ and I couldn't ask for a better partner to work with. He loves these
 families and works tirelessly for them all... and I do mean TIRESLESSLY!!!

We finished up lunch, bagged up the left-overs for the little lurkers (aka - kids peeking at us through the trees) and handed them off as we made our way back to the vans and back down the mountain to the income generation building. The little ones chased the vans like they always do yelling "caramella" - candy - and finally caught up with us at our stop. Ha! They patiently waited outside of the door while we went in to greet the women and see them working their trade so carefully. These women craft the most beautiful pieces of pottery in no time flat and act as though they have been doing it for years. It seems to be second nature for them although in reality it is a trade that they have just recently learned. 

Our official sign!

These women work so hard and the ones who have small children bring them
 to work with them and those kids sit there all day while their moms work! 

Pre-firing...because it is the rainy season, it will take a few months for 
these pieces to dry enough to get the color on them...however that process
 works. Clearly I am so inept at this! Ha!!!

One lady on our team, Connie got to try her hand at making a piece of pottery, while the rest of us took turns making our way to the tiny room where the pieces that are ready to be sold lie on the floor carefully arranged. David and I looked through every piece in awe and had a hard time deciding what we wanted to bring back as each piece was beautiful and personal to us. These women are family to us and we were both so proud of their accomplishments! We finally settled on a small lasagna dish, a jewelry dish, and an Ethiopian coffee cup. All were a black color or maybe a dark navy blue...I couldn't tell but they are perfect! We mainly chose simple and more plain pieces because we didn't want to risk something getting broken in our luggage on the way home. There were other pieces that were way more elegant and detailed! 
After the purchasing of pottery was completed, the ladies held a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony for us which was AH-MAZING!!! And this, my friends, is coming from a non-coffee drinker! It was such a honor to participate in this and I loved every second of it. Plus, the coffee and the company were perfect!

After this, it was time to head outside the door and play with all the kids who had been waiting SO patiently for us to finish up and come outside. We had an organized game of soccer going on with Mesfin, Hope and Andy playing against a ton of little ones. I played frisbee and some Ethiopian song games with a group of girls (including my sweet little Mekesde Girma). I was thrilled and had been waiting a WHOLE YEAR to play this game again! Aaaah!!!! Hahaha!!!!! Pure joy. Others on the team played bubbles, painted nails, learned from the kids how to do the giant whips, and other fun things. It was an afternoon of joy.

Matiyos Temesgen showed up to get his things from his sponsor, my friend 
Becky Morgan! Isn't he the cutest little boy?!? 

Look at them lined up just waiting in the rain for us to come out and play!!!

Christine played with "Milo" every single day on Entoto. He found her
 instantly and they were together non-stop after that!

Another sponsored child!!! They were newly sponsored - as in a few
 days before we came on this trip!

Marta Tesfaye - a sponsored child blowing bubbles for all the
 little children to try to jump up and catch

little game of Frisbee

"my" game!!! Oh pase, oh pase.... 

Yep, David got ANOTHER donkey hair hat this year.
 Because 1 is not enough...

As we were getting ready to leave, our 2 sweet teenage girls on the trip did something I totally had not expected. Cheyenne had bonded with a little boy, Kolmhue, who has HIV and lives a really hard life. He needs medicine but must have food to take it. Right now he doesn't get food everyday so he can't take his meds everyday...which makes him sicker. It's a vicious cycle. He and Cheyenne were buddies during this trip and as she heard his story and got to know his heart more, she felt God leading her to tell Kolmhue that she wanted to be his sponsor. So, through weeping and a shaky voice, our sweet little Cheyenne told Kolmhue that she wanted to help him. That she wanted to be his voice and help provide for him because she loves him and wants him to be well. That he had touched her heart in a big way and that she wanted to be part of his life in a big way. Tears welled in my eyes as I watched this moment unfold.

And Hope...where I left off yesterday. Amayelu found her on the first day and looking quite dapper in his little vest over his shirt, he escorted her through the muddy terrain and held her hand so that she would not fall. He wanted to know her story as much as she wanted to know his. A bond was forming in a major way! He spoke English as much as possible and it was clear to Hope that this child was special. There was something about him that she just couldn't shake. Instead of jumping into sponsorship though, she told herself that she would wait and if he was there again on the next day we were there, that she would consider it again if things were the same...if God was leading her in that direction. 
Sure enough, the next day that we were there he was waiting on Hope to arrive and he called her name the second she stepped off the van. She knew then, and it was just a matter of timing of when to tell him. 

As we left the mountain, we came upon 2 women who were carrying the 180 pound branches on their backs down the mountain to sell them for firewood at the base. Our vans came to a screeching halt and like a boss we all jumped out. It was mission "Carry Their Burden For Them". The men put the sticks on top of the vans - and it literally took 5 men to get the load that 1 lady was carrying. The women got to work "pampering" the ladies. These ladies walk up and down this 10 mile mountain 1-2 times every single day carrying these heavy branches for $1/load. Most do it in thin little jelly shoes, if not barefoot. And many are pregnant or older women. So, in my van, we had sweet Kobe (Koe-bay). She had on a thin pair of lavender jelly shoes that were laden with dried thick mud and had no traction on them. I shuddered at the thought of her slipping and falling with those sticks on her back as she made the trek down the mountain, but I put that thought out of my head. Hope and I gave her wipes for her face and we washed her hands for her. Then we told her to take her shoes off because we wanted to wash her feet for her and give her a foot massage. She resisted at first saying her feet were dirty and she couldn't let us. I told her that we really wanted to and that it would be an honor if we could. She grinned and said "okay." So we got to scrubbing and scrubbing and scrubbing. When we got to the bottom of her feet, she just giggled and giggled - she was ticklish!!! It was hilarious!!! We all laughed at this point. As we were finishing up and I was thinking about her shoes, I felt the Holy Spirit telling me to give her my shoes. Honestly, I tried to reason that I only had 2 pair of Toms with me and that one had holes in them that I was using for house shoes and the other were my new pair and I would ruin them in this muddy, rainy season. I tried to come up with an excuse but when the Spirit speaks, you better listen. So, we "happened" to have a new pair of socks in one of our backpacks that Connie threw up to the front of the van to me and I knew I had to give my shoes. As I was taking my shoes off and putting them on her, I experienced joy like none other. I was joyful, but her joy when it set in that I was giving her my bright pink nice tennis shoes... Well, let's just say she was giggling again, rejoicing, and when she got off the van, she skipped and kept looking down at them. It was so so worth it and I learned a valuable lesson. While the whole questioning in my mind literally lasted 30 seconds, it's not worth it. When God speaks, just do it! We also gave Kobe lots of protein bars, and 500 Birr to help her out. Maybe she can take some time off and not carry firewood for a while. Maybe it will pay for a doctor bill. I don't know but God does and it was no mistake that Kobe was where she was that day and we were where we were that day. I hope when I go back that I see those bright pink shoes so I can hug her neck again and check on her!

*several photos on this post are courtesy of Alison Weakley, an amazing photographer who was on my team! Check out her page and view her work...Alison's Photography Website