As those 22 kids got out of their vans, my friend Annie and I were there to greet them. Every single one of them hugged us and loved all over us. It was one of the best and most sincere experiences of my life. Just pure joy and love pouring out of their little bodies. They called me "auntie" all afternoon. It makes me smile just thinking about it!
Then the playing began, and boy, did they play! They were so thrilled with everything. And grateful- I must have heard "thank you, auntie" at least a 1000 times. A little play-doh and some balloons and you would have thought that these kids had won the lottery.
While I loved them all, there were a few little boys that I absolutely fell in love with. One little boy's name was Gabriel. He is 9. His two best buddies are John and Phillip. Gabiel held onto my hand almost the entire day. He just smiled constantly. He seemed to be one of the most genuinely happy children I've ever seen. We would just look at each other and bust out in giggles. Gabriel laughs with his whole body. The kind of belly shaking laughter that lights up an entire room. His eyes are so sparkly and trusting. But Gabriel has been through a lot in his 9 years. Gabriel's parents both died when he was very young. He was sent to live with his grandmother. There was not enough room for him in the house, so every night he had to sleep outside on the grass. He didn't even have a blanket. Then, miraculously, he was chosen to participate in the choir. Now Gabriel wants to be a pilot. His buddies, John and Phillip both want to be pastors. At dinner I asked those three boys what was their favorite thing that they had done since they had been in the United States. All three of them said, "This day, auntie! This very day!" I almost cried. My kids paint and do puzzles and have balloons all the time. In no way does that constitute a special day for them. But for our new African friends, it was the best day they had ever had!
I really thought at the end of the night, I might try to smuggle Gabriel, John and Phillip in the back of my van and bring them home. Here are some shots of my best boys:
Aren't they adorable?! All of these kids were just beautiful, inside and out. The little girls worked so hard making beautiful necklaces for themselves. They just beamed with pride at their work and were all smiles as we told them over and over how pretty they were. They loved having their pictures made- especially in their new bling. They thought our cameras were so cool and always wanted to see themselves in the display after we took their pictures.
And when these kids sang and danced, heaven rejoiced! They sang with their whole hearts. Despite the horrors and hardships they have endured they sang to Jesus with pure gratitude and thanksgiving.
Everytime during the day, when I heard "Thank you, auntie," I really wanted to say, "No- thank YOU." Thank you for your endless smiles and laughter. Thank you for helping me feel close to my child out there in Africa that I've never met. Thank you for showing me pure worship, as God intended it to be. Thank you for sharing your lives and your faith with me. Thank you for giving me hope. Thank you for making my heart full.